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I have to explain to Europeans that California wine does have terroir

31 comments

There’s a Dutch-based website, QLI [pronounced “coolie”], that asked me to respond to the following question: Why do California wines show so little sign, or no sign at all, of terroir?

I suppose one hears this complaint a lot in Europe. Hell, one even hears it here in the States, and not just in New York; my own colleague at Wine Enthusiast, Paul Gregutt, has been known to lodge similar criticism of California wines.

I’m going to write someting up for the QLI people (who seem nice enough; they explain that they, personally, like California wines, it’s their friends who don’t). But I thought I’d take my answer out for a test run here on the old blog.

What I’ll begin with, I suppose, is to answer a question with another question: What is terroir? I mean, if terroir is the sum total of dirt and weather, then California wine has terroir because, obviously, every grape vine grows somewhere, in dirt that has weather. You may not like a 17.2% El Dorado County Zinfandel with 1.2% residual sugar–I don’t–but isn’t it true that such a wine possesses terroir? So right away I find the question a little incoherent.

However, obviously I don’t want to tell my new European friends they’re incoherent, so I have to frame the argument in a different way. Instead of answering the question literally, I need to deconstruct it and figure out what it really means.

What I think it means is that California wines don’t show certain nuances that, say, Bordeaux and Burgundy show, because we’re at too southerly a latitude and therefore the grapes get too ripe and therefore the alcohol levels get too high and the higher the alcohol, the more terroir is masked, and the problem is compound by winemakers giving a heavy-handed vinification, mainly oak that’s too strong. (Maybe the anti-California crowd also thinks we don’t have suitable soils anywhere in our gigantic state.) Anyway this is what I think the anti-Californians mean. There’s a variant of this argument that says it’s not that California is too southerly, it’s that the wrong (i.e. meridional) varieties are planted here, rather than the Mediterranean varieties that would do better. This was being pushed quite a while ago by Randall Grahm, but I don’t think he says that anymore.

If the anti-California crowd is saying something other than what I’ve described above, I don’t know what it is. So I’ll assume that’s what they mean: in short, California wines are too big, powerful, ripe and alcoholic.

Well, there are certain French and Italian wines that are also big, powerful, ripe and alcoholic, and they include some famous names sold at high prices; but maybe the anti-California crowd would say they, too, lack terroir. Then, too, there are some terrific California wines that clock in under 14%, or nearly so, which is lower than a good many classified growths. Another question I’d like to ask the anti-California crowd is, Are you saying that all Bordeaux and Burgundies have terroir? Mouton-Cadet has terroir? Possibly the problem is that, over there in Europe where they live, they’ve tasted only big-brand California wines exported to Europe by the mega-corporations that own them. (No names need be mentioned, but they would be the California equivalents of yellow tail.) I will grant that a mass-produced, California-appellated varietal wine probably doesn’t possess terroir, but surely it’s not fair to judge all California wines by the standard of a million-case production Chardonnay, is it?

I submit that California wines, at their highest, do show terroir, and in some cases, spectacularly. I blogged yesterday on my 20-year vertical of Williams Selyem Allen Vineyard Pinot Noir, a wine of such expressive terroir that it blows my mind anyone would ever say no California wine has terroir. There are many other wines I could name that possess fabulous terroir. Look up my highest scoring wines and you’ll see many, many with plenty of terroir. They tend to come from individual vineyards, as you’d expect; but I’ve always thought there was a bit of snobbiness to the position that only a single-vineyard wine can have terroir. I gave 100 points to the 2006 Cardinale last year, a wine comprised of grapes from Mt. Veeder, Howell Mountain, Stags Leap and Oakville. I suppose you could argue, purely intellectually, that that wine cannot have terroir because the grapes were grown in such disparate places, but really, who cares, when we’re talking about a wine that is, quite frankly, perfect? (Or maybe you could say that Cardinale has Napa Valley terroir.)

Besides, I’m sure that when the anti-California crowd is looking straight at the label of their garrigiste Bordeaux, grower Champagne or few rows of Vosne, they’re able to detect terroir because their eyes tell their brains, which then tell their ears, that it must be there. Strange, though, that in so many blind tastings, California wines outshine French wines. I’m not just talking about the Paris Tasting. Schramsberg has been doing blind tastings against the top Champagnes for years, and coming out pretty well.

I’d like to invite the anti-California crowd out here. We’ll drive up to Williams Selyem and do another vertical, maybe of Hirsch or Ferrington or Rochioli Riverblock. I think even the most jaded European palate will find the experience eye-opening.

  1. Ah, Steve… many times it seems you and I have had to enter into this discussion with people.

    If a wine is balanced, then it can show terroir. That’s my view and I’m probably never gonna be convinced otherwise. Big can be balanced and therefore can, indeed show a sense of place. I’ve tasted too much Rutherford dust already – I *know* it’s true at this point! No one who has spent any appreciable time tasting CA wines would say there isn’t a sense of place – it’s just not the *same* sense of place as in Bord’x, Burgundy, the Mosel, etc.

    Which, I’d further argue, is entirely the point.

    Here’s a Q for the anti-CA crowd: does Brett = terroir? Because that’s what a good many producers in Europe for example might have you believe. And that, I think, is bullsh*t – or exactly what some Brett smells like!

    Cheers!

  2. Bingo, Joe.

    Steve wrote ” I need to deconstruct it and figure out what it really means.

    What I think it means is that California wines don’t show certain nuances that, say, Bordeaux and Burgundy show ”

    My response to that–It is not that we do not have nunace or terroir but that our wines simply do not always IMITATE Burgundy or Bordeaux

    I would suggest, however, that good RRV Pinot Noir has many characteristics of good Burgundy. The fact that Francophiles have for years picked out wines like Dehlinger, Gary Farrell, Chalone as being from France is clear evidence that there are similarities enough borne first of varietal adherence, but then also of balance and nuance.

    The question of terroir in Bordeaux is a wholly different question. The variations in character in neighboring properties in Bordeaux are often less a product of terroir than of choices in viticulural practice and vinification. And, as anyone who has ever put Left Bank (Cab-based) Bordeaux and Napa Valley (or Ridge) Cabs in the same blind tasting will certainly know, aside from high-alcohol wines (which are not the majority of good CA Cabs), everyone who has ever done this from before the Paris Tasting of 1976 to today, cannot pick them all out correctly.

    Bottom line: A kindly interpretation of the QLI comments is that they have a lot to learn. An unkind interpretation is that they do not have the slightest idea what they are talking about.

  3. ” [CA] wines simply do not always IMITATE Burgundy or Bordeaux”

    EXACTLY, Charlie! Just as CA producers need to take the CA goggles of, so do Europeans need to take their local goggles off for deciding what does or does not constitute terroir-driven wines.

  4. Steve,
    I believe a more reasonable way to pose this question would be: what grape-growing and/or winemaking (cultural) practices are keeping California wines from fully expressing their terroir?
    Several answers come to mind: inadequate variety vs. vineyard coupling; excessive irrigation (i.e. superficial root systems); overcropping (?); inappropriate canopy management (?); invasive winemaking techniques; excessive manipulation…
    There is still, though, plenty of room for producers/growers to take advantage of the non-regulated environment; taking (& managing) sensible risks and avoiding an exclusive focus on profitability (i.e. hyped styles & varieties) to the detriment of typicity and geographic/indigenous expression.

  5. Peter, you could ask the same question about France. Let’s face it, 98% of the wines from anyplace are always going to be average. We’re talking about a thin tier of wines that are truly vins de terroir, regardless of if it’s Bordeaux, Tuscany, Napa Valley or Clare Valley. I think the problem with the Europhiles who bash California is simply that they never get to try the top wines. If all I had to judge France by was routine wine, I wouldn’t think the French had terroir either.

  6. When people try to define terroir its a little like defining a car as a thing with generally 4 rubber wheels, an engine, an enclosure of some kind, some seats, a steering wheel – oh, and a bunch of other stuff. There is no description of function.

    I submit that a perfectly adequate functional definition of terroir is “that which allows experienced tasters to know where a wine originates using nothing but sensory markers.”

    So when some a$$hat swirls, sniffs and sips, and pronounces “pah, this wine is from California – it shows no terroir!” – I am inclined to fart in their general direction.

  7. Let me preface this by saying I’m no wine expert; I likely fall into the category of “a little knowledge can be dangerous”.

    However, as an outsider to both the European and Californian wine industries, I might be able to add a bit of perspective.

    First, I think that the concept of terroir was developed to describe exclusively European (and probably French in particular) wine regions and vineyards. Given that, terroir by definition can’t exist outside of Europe — at least in the minds of those who coined the term — just as Champagne can’t exist outside of Champagne, if you see what I mean. Similar concepts can exist, like sparkling wine, but not *Champagne*. It’s a type of snobbery.

    Second, I don’t think terroir is culturally part of the California wine-making industry (correct me if I’m wrong — I’m wandering at the edges of my knowledge here). California, as with most new-world wine industries, started by making approachable wines designed to be drunk by as many people as possible. That meant (means…) manipulating the wine by some degree, e.g. with oak as you mentioned, to get the most appealing flavour. Manipulation, by definition, will destroy some of (if not all) facets of the wine’s terroir.

    There are other things at play here as well. Age of the industry and therefore the history may play a part. In Bordeaux, for example, they’ve been making wine the same way for hundreds of years. In California, much less (if at all for some winemakers, since experimentation is another general feature of new-world wine). Doing the same thing the same way all the time is bound to infuse some elements of the terroir, whereas constant change won’t.

    Similarly, it also seems to me that new-world wineries tend to have a higher turnover of vintners and are less likely to be groomed from within (again, correct me if I’m wrong). If so, this would certainly also have an impact on the wine.

    And that leads to my last point. I think ultimately the underlying concept of terroir is consistency, no? A tomato is a tomato because it tastes the same (relatively speaking) all the time. But if a tomato tasted like an apple one time and then a carrot and then a steak, it wouldn’t be identified consistently as a tomato.

    In other words, the lack of consistency (generally speaking and relative to their European cousins) between vineyards in a region and within labels themselves will tend to eliminate terroir.

    There are certainly exceptions to all of this, but as you pointed out, those exceptions are less likely to make it to Europe.

    I also want to point out too that lack of terroir isn’t necessarily a bad thing either. As you pointed out in a recent post, North Americans tend to like change in their wines. And isn’t that what is most important? How people enjoy it?

    IMHO,

    ~Graham

  8. Steve – nice post. And I agree with you and Onewinedude, our CA terroir doesn’t taste like EU terroir so it mustn’t be terroir, right? But isn’t that itself almost an argument that we do have terroir? We don’t have their climate/soils/culture, why would our wines taste like theirs?

    I tasted a few Cabernets yesterday (for the first time in a while), and for a couple of them I remarked: “I’d be very surprised if these weren’t from Napa.” Were they big, rich, powerful wines? Of course, and they were also definitely Napa. What else is that but terroir? Not all terroir has to be from some single vineyard.

    I’m also often intrigued by the cultural element to defining terroir that is frequently omitted in such discussions. Omitted except when someone wants to defend some plonk produced in some obscure area of Europe offloading spoiled wine as “hey, that’s just the way we always do it.” That Napa wines – to continue to use them as an example – taste the way they do is also in part due to its representation of the American palate in general, to the freedom allowed in our viticulture and winemaking, i.e. to our culture.

    Two cents…be well all!

  9. It’s impossible to prove or even discuss something with someone who doesn’t want to believe it. That is, people will hold on for dear life to their misconceptions, whether true or not. So, I think, regardless of how you explain California terroir, you will persuade few of the European readers of QLI that there is terroir in California (it’s like trying to explain to a right wing conservative that most of the current deficit belongs squarely in the lap of W).

  10. I think that “terroir” is indefinable by design. It’s a word like “soul” maybe, or “infinity,” or “Laube.” We kind of know what they mean, we use them in sentences, but, when pressed, we find them inexplicable. It seems that terroir was a convenient way to explain why Margaux always smells and tastes like Margaux, and Krug “Le Mesnil” is always so Krugish. It then becomes applied to every wine as though it’s necessary to wine, or necessary to great wine, which is foolish on the face of it. It’s the least important thing there is about wine.

    I’ve come to a place where I believe terroir exists in many of the greatest wines in the world, and that the word expresses the singularity of those wines which would otherwise be inexplicable. So, in my view, terroir is only used specifically and not generally. Sorry, Joe, Rutherford dust is mostly illusory. Easy way to find out, try to find it blind (by which I mean, poke your eyes out). Sure, some Cabs from Rutherford exhibit it, but not all. So what good is that? Is it better wine if it has “dust” and is from Rutherford? Of course not.

    So what has terroir? The list is long, but let’s look at Chave Hermitage, Chateau Latour, Spottswoode Cabernet, Ridge Monte Bello, and so on and so on… These wines, and hundreds of others, are always powerfully and distinctly themselves and a knowledgeable taster can reliably pick them out by their unique quality nearly every time. As STEVE! would attest to with the Williams Selyem “Allen Vineyard” pinot noirs–and I couldn’t agree more. They display a “theyness” that endures vintage after vintage and identifies them. We call it “terroir.”

    When we talk about terroir generally, it has no meaning. If we speak of it specific to a great wine, it’s shorthand for that wine’s uniqueness and greatness. Doesn’t matter where terroir comes from–soil, climate, winemaker, clone, yield, exposure…those are all scientific explanations for a soulful ideal. Harlan Estate has terroir–Napa Valley, not so much.

    We can spend hours and hours trying to define Beauty (OK, Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty might work for you Keatsians out there), but when Halle Berry walks in the room we know what it means. She got terroir!

  11. Hosemaster, I too never believed in Rutherford dust except as a promotional gimmick.

  12. Rutherford Dust.

    In our tastings, we often pick out wines blind that are from the West Rutherford Bench and often differntiate them from wines grown in central Rutherford and East Rutherford near the Silverado Trail.

    Mount Veeder Cabs are different from Howell Mountain Cabs.

    So, my sense is that Ron and Steve have overstated the case. There are commonalities of character that are identifiable blind and reflective of specific regions within Rutherford.

  13. HAlle Berry, does, indeed have terroir. LOTS of terroir.

    As for Rutherford dust and other examples – what Charlie said!

    Cheers!

  14. I’d like to see somebody do a blind tasting of Rutherford east and west, Mt. Veeder, Atlas Peak, Oakville, St. Helena, Yountville etc.
    and come anywhere close to getting em right.

  15. The Arabian Desert has terroir. Just because someone can’t identify it in a wine doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

  16. Ah, Tom, you’ve rendered terroir in wine totally meaningless! Congrats. I suppose I could argue I have terroir in my pants and because no one can identify it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

    Charlie, we’re talking about Rutherford “Dust” not differences in cabs from different places in Rutherford. Do Rutherford cabs have a lot in common? Sure. Do they all have “terroir?” Sigh. Who cares? I only care if they get Three Stars.

    And I’m with Steve about that blind tasting. For one of God’s creatures with the poorest senses of smell, we humans certainly inflate our abilities to discern “place” in a fermented and manipulated beverage.

  17. To recognize terroir in a wine you need to look, year after year, at wines that are made each time the same way. By that, I mean that the wines come year after year from the same climat; they come from the same grapes which are grown and harvested the same way, and are made into wine in the same manner.

    To see the terroir of a wine due to a given climat you have to see it in contrast to other climats (all of which are grown and made the same). And you have to compare the different climats over many vintages to sort out what is weather and what is climat. If this is done with rigor, terroir can be seen in the vineyards of California just as they are in Burgundy.

    The problem is that few Europeans have the opportunity to taste single climat or single vineyard wines in California made to a common formula as they exist in Europe. (Not many Californians do either.) Even if they do, they would rarely taste and evaluate them year after year. And we Californians tend to change things up from year to year and we don’t grow and make wine identically to our neighbor. We have fewer single vineyard or single climat wines. It makes it harder for anyone to see and understand terroir in California in the same manner as in Europe.

  18. Great points Morton.

  19. Steve,

    Maybe you can help me understand something that I’m missing. When I lived in the Bay Area in the 1980′s I made the effort to explore California wines. It was certainly easy to do, and Napa was nowhere near as commercialized at it is today. However, I kept gravitating back to French and Italian wines because, at least to my palate, they offered a greater range of styles. Some were big and bold and some were subtle and elegant. Sort of like the difference between a line backer and tennis player. By comparison, California wines were mostly the line backer style, which I feel is still true today. At least that’s my perception, and as we well know, when it comes to wine there are about as many perceptions as there are wine drinkers!

    I agree that terroir is very subjective because it cannot be measured in any quantitative way. Also vinification methods play a major role in determining a wine’s taste characteristics. Could it be that since most California wines are more extracted than European wines, the resulting big and bold flavor profiles make it hard to detect the more subtle differences that stem from terroir? There’s a huge range of stylistic differences among wines from France or Italy that just doesn’t exist in California wines. Some of this difference is due to the fact that in France and Italy, different grape varieties are planted in each region, whereas in California, almost anything is planted anywhere. Over centuries, French and Italian wine makers have learned which varieties work best with the soils and climate of their region. As a result, there is a much greater difference between a Burgundy and Bordeaux than between a Napa Valley Cabernet and a Russian River Pinot Noir. I’m suggesting that that there’s plenty of good terroir in California, but wine growers don’t pay as much attention to it as the Europeans. If they did, growers in each AVA would limit grape varieties to those that produce the best wines. You will never see Cabernet grown in Burgundy or Pinot Noir grown in Bordeaux. However, if your goal is product big bruiser line backer wines, then the subtle contributions of terroir don’t matter. And that’s OK. That’s why the world of wine is so diverse – there are so many different people in the world. It’s our job as wine professional to help people explore that world of wine to find the ones they like best.

  20. Geez, cut to the chase:

    1) With few exceptions, California wines don’t represent terroir because California wines are manipulated to appeal to the prevailing tastes of consumers, who beyond price and producer base their purchasing decisions on varietal.

    2) By and large, California vintners interested in representing terroir still are searching for the best pairing of site and variety whereby terroir can be expressed.

  21. Mike – re: your point 1) take out “California.” The majority of wines don’t represent terroir – period. It’s a global marketplace, and the numbers of consumers who care about these angels dancing on heads of pins are minuscule in the grand scheme. Wasn’t it the Aussies who really raised to an art manipulating their wines “…to appeal to the prevailing tastes of consumers…”?

  22. John makes a great point – the concept of terroir really applies to a tiny, tiny percentage of fine wine. Doesn’t mean some in CA don’t have it, but does mean the VAST majority of wines for sale from ANYWHERE don’t have it.

  23. Dear Jack Korpi, I guess there’s just something about your tastes that doesn’t like California wine. Or maybe it’s that you haven’t had good California wine. You’re certainly not alone in saying that California wines are linebackers. Like they say, chacun a son gout!

  24. I have gout–and it is no fun.

    No, wait, you were talking about French gout. Of course, that is the problem in the first place. The Dutch, who spoke so uninformedly, obviously have French gout. Instead of giving them a pain in the big toe, it is giving us all a pain in the neck.

    Mike Dunne is probably about 90% right about the way that CA wines are made, but that makes him 100% wrong about the existence of wines that are expressive of place. The happy combination of the West Rutherford Bench and Cabernet Sauvignon has been known for a century. Mr. Korpi’s comments notwithstanding, the existence of commonality of character attributable to place within the RRV extends so far that we now recognize the diffences amongst Westside Road Pinot Noir, Sebastopol Pinot Noir, Forestville Pinot Noir and Freestone Pinot Noir

  25. Steve,
    The concept of terroir is usually associated with soil and geology, but this simplistic idea can be quite misleading. Writers and tasters often assume that the strong tasting minerals and chemical elements, that are naturally found in the local irrigation water and water table, constitute the so called “goût de terroir”.
    Some distinctive cases are: the high-content of copper in the streams and soils of Chile’s Maipo and Cachapoal Valleys; salt, in most Argentinian wine growing areas (Mendoza, Salta, etc.); and iron, in Australia’s (Coonawarra) “terra rossa” and in CA, at the lower elevations of Amador County (Shenandoah Valley & Fiddletown) in the Sierra Foothills. Whether one likes it or not these places lend a unique character to its wines.
    On the other hand, take the example of Chablis, Sancerre and Pouilly-sur-Loire (Pouilly Fumé), that are barely 200 miles apart and in the same band of chalky marl, the Kimmeridgian Chain. Even weighing the fact that these wines are produced from different varieties the three still display authentically distinct flavor profiles: Chablis is crisp and steel-dry; Sancerres are pungent; and Pouilly Fumés are flinty, smoky.
    The more comprehensive – and more objective – French version of “terroir” [1], states that it encompasses all five elements involved in the production of wine: grape-growing and winemaking cultural practices; climate (macro, meso & micro); sunlight; and soil (geology, pedology & hidrology). Granted that “vinification should not make the wine significantly different than the ‘natural’ wine that would be produced from a particular tract” [2].

    [1] “A geographical area that can be considered homogeneous based on its physical resources and the production it can yield, particularly, but not exclusively, via its agricultural skills”.
    [2] Terroir; Wilson, J.O.; UCP.

  26. Great piece Steve, as always. There are a lot of people out there that think about wine a lot. I am one of them for sure. I have been wrestling with the concept of terroir for some time now. It one factor, but to me it has to really deal with the soil, micro climate etc. This has a effect on wine for sure. But there really is so much more to what gives wine character. Natural vineyard parctices? Yes. Native yeasts? Yes. The wine makers hand? Yes. Etc… I think beyond simply leaning on terrior as the badge we need to look at the philosophy and process behind the growing and making of wine to really get at the crux of what makes wine authentic. I think what it should ultimately be about is, is there character and authenticity to the wine? For sure. You site your recently Pinot tasting, I have have had similar experiences tasting wines, for example, from producers like Ridge and Mt. Eden. They were all singular and exceptional wines with great character, ability to age etc. But what about a blend. I have been drinking a lot of wines from traditional Rioja producers lately. Tradition there finds many Riojas have been blends, but to me the wines have such character and sense of place. This certainly seems to transcend the interpretation of terrior. I am not sure what I am getting at makes sense. Its a bit of a nebulous concept in my mind, a gray area? Anyway, whether there is terrior present in California wines will continue to be debated I guess, but there certainly are many fine wines which display authentic character in my book. Ditto for the rest of the wine regions throughout the world. Cheers!

  27. Dear the (z)infandel, as usual it comes down to taste and personal preference. We’ll never make all the Europeans happy, just as their wines will never make all Americans happy. I’m glad that the wine world is democratizing, so that we no longer believe there’s only a handful of French wines worth appreciating.

  28. Ron Saikowski says:

    Terroir is very reflective in California wine. Can you tell the difference between a Lodi Zin and a Dry Creek Zin? YES. There is TERROIR in CA, but the alcohol levels burn out the nuances. Get the alcohol down and the differences are obvious!

  29. It’s utterly ridiculous to say that any place or wine dosn’t have a terroir; they all do (though it may be good/bad, interesting/boring, etc). I suspect that QLI have only ever tasted mass-market, industrially produced California wine, where any expression of the terroir has been eliminated or masked by too much intervention in the winery (eg, enzymes, coloring, industrial yeasts, reverse osmosis, micro-ox, tannins, etc, etc).

  30. You’ve got to love the French for claiming that the concept of terroir can’t be appreciated without being French! Akin to claiming you have to be American to appreciate Abstract Expressionism.

    What’s bothering me at the moment is how the term in the new world seems to be used as a marketing term. Everyone’s wine expresses their terroir these days! The feel of the term seems to be the cultural chutzpah that makes their wine creation unique to their little plot of land. A laudable concept considering the sheer weight of time the French have had to hone it.

    If we relate our “terroir” to theirs they’re never gonna get it. Yes, it should be single vineyard, Yes, it should be backed not only by the geographical idiosyncrasies of the site but by the cultural practices that go into the wine making process and Yes, it should be consistent – the tradition we lack and can not emulate.

    Our brashness in claiming what’s theirs and bending to our will to describe what’s ours in vulgar marketese is our ultimate downfall. I would posit that until we have unified agreement to how the term may be related to our circumstance and applying it in a consistent, sympathetic manner we will have difficulty in being taken seriously when we bandy the term about.

  31. Renoir: “You’ve got to love the French for claiming that the concept of terroir can’t be appreciated without being French!” Love it!

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