May 5, 2020
by Bruce Neyers
As we approach the year’s most important day of celebration, Lori suggested that we give thought to recognizing those whose value becomes even more important in difficult times, our mothers. I’ve been without my mother for over 30 years, while Barbara lost hers only 3 years ago. I’m fortunate, though, to still live with one mother and next door to another – my oldest daughter Liz. Recognizing Mother’s Day with a wine may seem whimsical, but I look at it as just a start. Let’s lift a glass to all mothers, past and present, and all they add to our lives.
True Chardonnay lovers, I’ve found, are most interested in the way this fascinating grape reflects its growing conditions. Rarely does the French term terroir take on greater meaning than with properly made Chardonnay. My years working with Kermit Lynch, and his select group of Burgundian wine makers, provided a series of amazing tasting opportunities, chances to experience wines made from Chardonnay that displayed vastly different characteristics – wines, say, that were grown in pebbly marl at the base of the hill next to those grown on limestone scree, slightly higher up.
The vineyards of Perrières and Charmes in Meursault, for example, are adjacent to one another, and have an elevation difference of barely 10 feet. Still, many Burgundian winemakers consider the wines that come from them almost as if they were from different planets. The range of styles available to a Chardonnay winemaker are limited only by one’s imagination, and the dry-farmed, rock-strewn acreage we know of as Chuy’s Vineyard has made our winemaker’s imagination extremely fertile.
Tadeo Borchardt introduced me to Chuy Ordaz about 10 years ago, and I was immediately struck by the man’s combination of dignified grace and weathered ruggedness. When we first visited the vineyard that bears his name, these contradictions made sense to me, for the vineyard itself is a complicated mix. It’s a high elevation parcel, laced with rocky soil, steep terraces, and spectacular views. Sitting at almost 1200 feet elevation on the west-facing slope of Mt. Veeder, it’s uncanny that someone would have chosen the parcel to plant Chardonnay. It seems far too inhospitable.
Quite the opposite is true, though, for while grapes struggle to ripen here, the result is Chardonnay fruit that resembles little else grown in northern California. Here are grapes that have high natural acidity, broad ripe flavors, and a textural character that’s rarely encountered in the variety. Here is a Chardonnay that luxuriates in its individuality. When I think of terroir, I first get my mind around Chuy’s Vineyard Chardonnay. The best description for this wine is balance. Chuy told me once that he likes the Neyers version of wine so much better than earlier bottlings because Tadeo’s style has no single trait that stands out. He controls the texture so it’s soft; he obtains maximum flavor without extremes; and he lets the finish bring the other components together as one. This is extraordinary wine-making, but it couldn’t happen without extraordinary grapes.