Plant the right grapes in the right vineyard and there is a good chance the fruit will make for an exceptional wine.
That’s the thinking of Dana Epperson, winemaker for the Migration line of Chardonnays from Duckhorn Wine Company in California’s Sonoma County.
Epperson knows each vineyard offers its own terroir, or growing conditions and personality.
When those characteristics are well managed, wines with unique and delightful characters subtly different from their neighbors can result.
Need more proof?
Five recent releases from the Migration Chardonnay family share endearing similarities while boasting individual characteristics that make all of them worth exploring.
Wisconsin Gazette recently spoke with Epperson about her wines.
Wisconsin Gazette: Before getting into each individual wine, please describe the characteristics that make them part of the same Migration family.
Dana Epperson: At Migration, we focus our harvest-picking decisions on achieving bright fruit and balanced acidity. Picking the fruit at its optimum ripeness allows the terroir of the wine to shine through, while staying true to the fruit-driven and balanced style of Migration.
From there, we select French oak barrels that complement and lift the fruit, without overpowering the nose or palate with too much toastiness. All of our wines are whole-cluster pressed, barrel fermented and barrel aged on their lees for nine months. Bâtonnage (the stirring of lees, or dead yeast and grape bits) occurs during the first three months, creating the supple palate weight that you see across all of our Chardonnays.
Your winemaking style is very terroir-driven. Are their distinct vineyard characteristics you look for before planting the grapes?
There are many important factors when considering a vineyard.
I look for an elevation that complements the appellation, which can determine the air quality, drainage and temperature.
Aspect and slope are also very important, allowing for the optimum sun exposure and airflow.
Two other key characteristics are rootstock and soil type. They should be thoughtfully planned to create a balanced and healthy vine, without being overly vigorous. Most important, we look for great sites, with growers who are masters of their craft, and then we partner with these people to grow the finest grapes possible.
What are the key vineyard aspects that you consider for each of the five Chardonnays, and how do they manifest themselves?
The Migration Russian River Chardonnay ($32) showcases a seamless blend of the varying regions within the Russian River Valley. It is composed of a few unique vineyard sites, ranging in topography, soil type and clones, which complement each other in the blend.
The Migration Running Creek Vineyard Chardonnay ($55) is a blend of multiple clones from our Running Creek Estate Vineyard in the Russian River Valley. The sandy loam soils, warm sunny days and cool nights create beautiful bright lemon, apple and pear flavors.
The Migration Charles Heintz Vineyard Chardonnay ($55) is from the cooler Green Valley sub-appellation of the Russian River Valley. It sits up at 900 feet with a gentle slope and well-drained soils. These characteristics give this wine a uniquely concentrated texture and palate weight, while maintaining vibrant cool-climate acidity.
The Migration Dierberg Vineyard Chardonnay ($55) is from a low-yielding site within the Santa Maria Valley. The valley’s sandy soils and cool afternoon breezes create very small berries, giving this wine its rich texture, acid-driven length and bright, pure citrus aromatics.
Our Migration Bien Nacido Vineyard Chardonnay ($55) is from this legendary site’s original 1973 plantings in the Santa Maria Valley. The soils here have an abundance of limestone, blended with sandy loam, giving this wine a unique minerality that is complemented by its enticing acidity and gorgeous texture.
Do any of the five wines stand out from the others in character or quality?
All of these wines come from remarkable vineyards — and each site was chosen because it has something unique, special and specific to offer, which is an important part of our philosophy at Migration. Great vineyards are like fascinating people — they each have a personality all their own.
Some consumers still subscribe to the ABC (anything but Chardonnay) theory of wine consumption, yet Migration has put a lot of emphasis on this particular wine grape. What do you say to these critics?
For us, Chardonnay is all about bright fruit aromas, impeccable balance and a lovely, supple texture. We also want our wines to be able to pair beautifully with food.
The broad spectrum of flavors of Chardonnay can make it an incredibly food-friendly and versatile complement to an array of dishes. It is hard to compare a cool-climate Chardonnay that is thoughtfully produced, balanced, true to its appellation and aged in a combination of neutral and new French oak to any other white varietal.
All that said, what other white wines stand close to Chardonnay in terms of quality and appeal?
Chardonnay is one of the world’s great grapes and for good reason — it can produce incredibly complex, dazzling, age-worthy wines. There will always be a place on shelves for great Chardonnays.
But most wine lovers also love exploring new things. For me, the wine that stands out as a close second to Chardonnay would be Viognier. It has a full-bodied texture and alluring, perfumed nose. However, it can be softer on acidity, which does make Chardonnay a more versatile complement for many foods.