The French idea of terroir, a familiar (indeed, downright overexposed) term to serious wine lovers, is the underpinning for single-vineyard winemaking. For terroir-ists, origin is everything. A winemaker’s job is to tease the wine’s unique fingerprint out of the grapes from a particular place, a process that will then reveal the full range of conditions there, from soil to weather. Imposing an outside style on a wine would be like painting a realistic portrait into an abstract expressionist masterpiece.
Most vineyards aren’t necessarily suited to standing alone, however, and that’s why clever blending is the rule for many outstanding wines of the world (the great names of red Bordeaux, to give just one example.) Blending allows a winemaker to balance the strengths and weaknesses of different sites to create a harmonious whole.
When it comes to serious single vineyards, Burgundy is the promised land. The region’s Le Montrachet, the most famous and sought-after white wine vineyard in the world, is treated like holy ground, with 17 different producers divvying up 20-some acres of Chardonnay vines. Le Montrachet is a grand cru site, meaning it’s one of the plots that everyone agrees is the very best, and the wines cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars per bottle. You don’t blend your Montrachet grapes with those from anywhere else: In the right hands they produce an intense, elegant, and age-worthy white.
A few towns away is Clos des Mouches, an excellent vineyard that ranks as a premier cru (a small notch down from grand cru but still important). It is largely farmed by the Drouhin family, one of the region’s most important clans. Clos des Mouches is unusual in that both of the region’s signature grapes — Pinot Noir and Chardonnay — are grown there, although I prefer the red wine. Joseph Drouhin Beaune Clos des Mouches 2006 ($89) (made from 100 percent Pinot Noir, as is the rule in Burgundy) is still quite young, a bright wine with a pure cherry character and vibrant acidity. It’s graceful in a way that too few wines are, with a suppleness that’s characteristic of the vineyard’s fruit as well as the Drouhin house style.
Naturally, Americans (and winemakers everywhere) have been trying their hand at single-vineyard winemaking for quite some time. But it’s possible they’re trying too hard. For some, geographical limitations seem to be an artificial way to signal a wine’s high-end pedigree (and charge a lot of money for the bottle). The Napa-based Nickel & Nickel, the sister winery of the better-known Far Niente, is one California winery that’s doing it right — its team makes only single-vineyard wines, but they have the touch for this tricky endeavor. “It’s not just an address,” says Dirk Hampson, the outfit’s director of winemaking, trying to explain how some Americans have misunderstood the terroir idea. “The French concept is more about personality.”
Nickel & Nickel Merlot Napa Valley Suscol Ranch 2005 ($55) has a sophisticated personality indeed, with a nose of raspberries and a sexy, voluptuous-but-firm texture — “velvety but with power,” as Hampson puts it, as opposed to the limp Merlots that are often presented as by-the-glass options in restaurants. (Firm Merlot is not necessarily good Merlot, but in this case it’s distinctive and part of an appealing overall effect.) For even more intensity, try the Nickel & Nickel Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Vogt Vineyard 2005 ($90), a dense, powerful wine with chewy tannins and classic “black fruit” flavors like plum and cherry, with a dusting of herbal notes — it needs a little cellar time to settle down and smooth out before it’s ready to drink.
To be sure, these three wines I’ve singled out (as it were) are not inexpensive, but think about them as you would a plane ticket or other travel purchase — buying a bottle is a way to experience a very specific, and very special, part of France or California.
Ted Loos, executive editor of Art+Auction magazine, is the former features editor of Wine Spectator and has written on wine for Bon Appétit, Town & Country, and many other publications. He's the author of Town & Country Wine Companion: A Tasting Guide and Journal (Hearst Books; $12.95), published in fall 2007. "In the Cellar" appears on ARTINFO every other Wednesday.