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Making [non]sense of terroir

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One sign of a good wine book is when I find something on nearly every page to blog about. By that standard, Benjamin Lewin’s In Search of Pinot Noir is a very good wine book.

Besides being a handsome publication, physically speaking, and well graphicked with superb maps and charts, In Search is written with plenty of informed opinion. I like opinion and even attitude from a wine writer, but only when the writer actually possesses a vast well of knowledge. There are plenty of opinionated wine writers out there whose knowledge suffers from, shall we say, de paucité. When Mr. Lewin, who is an M.W., contends something, it has the ring of truth.

There is an irony at the heart of his book, or maybe an inherent contradiction is the better way to put it. This is not Mr. Lewin’s fault. Rather, it is due to his honesty and perceptiveness that it found its way into the book in the first place. One could suggest that the first duty of a wine book on Burgundy is to celebrate the terroirs of the Côte d’Or, and generations of writers have risen to the occasion, repeating truths they heard from others. This, Mr. Lewin reverentially does, in his discussions of Chambertin, La Tâche and the rest. But he does something else that is rare and refreshing: he raises the question (which he is candid enough to imply has no final answer), Are the historic variations between these wines due to actual terroir, or are they due to differences in the human approach to growing grapes and making wine (including, significantly, ripeness levels, stem inclusion in the fermentation and the amount of new oak)? For, make no mistake, if it is the latter, then not only is our historic understanding of the various vineyards of Grand and Premier Burgundy build on sand, but so is the entire notion of terroir, which as we all know has been appropriated from France to California, especially when it comes to Pinot Noir.

I love that Mr. Lewin testifies to the difficulty of cracking this issue. On the one hand, he can’t quite bring himself to say that “The concept of terroir is B.S.” That would be a bridge too far; besides, he evidently doesn’t believe it. But, having studied his subject matter long and hard, he knows that every theory of Burgundy is shattered by experiences of individual bottles that are the exception to the rule. Read this book, and the take home lesson is that the notion of terroir in Burgundy–specifically, of hard and firm vineyard characteristics–might be true from a bird’s eye view, 500 feet in the air. But get down into the tall grass, and it begins to fall apart, when the wines of two different proprietors, made from grapes grown right next to each other, are so different. Nor is Mr. Lewin enough of an apologist for terroir to claim to find a common thread running through these wines. He might say there seems to be one, but he might also say there doesn’t. Good for him.

What this means for the theory of Pinot Noir terroir we’ve created in California over the last 30 years is that it’s nowhere near as simple as it seems, or as producers of highly coveted wines want you to believe. One of the most frustrating and troubling experiences of my career has come when I’ve tasted with producers who claim that there are vast, solid and obvious differences between single-vineyard Pinot Noirs, when I myself cannot perceive them. Of course, when you’re with a highly regarded Pinot Noir winemaker who tells you how different (say) Cargasacchi Vineyard is from Mount Carmel, you tend to believe him, and you tend to look for the differences he is describing. It isn’t surprising when and if, therefore, you actually find those differences.

What’s scary is when you taste these wines objectively and do not find differences. Then you’re forced to come to one of only two possible conclusions: either you’re a bad taster–and who wants to admit that?–or the person who told you about those vast, obvious differences between vineyards was himself mistaken. Or, if “mistaken” is too prejudicial a word, then he was seeing things that don’t exist because he wanted to. I suppose there’s a third possibility, now that I think of it. It may be that a winemaker who consistently tastes the wines of various vineyards, year in and year out, blind and not blind, as part of his job really will learn to detect the subtle distinctions between them that the majority of us, no matter how gifted, cannot. This shouldn’t be surprising, any more than if your neighbor down the street had identical twins, and you were unable to tell Peter and Paul apart, at least during their childhoods. “What? You can’t see that Pete is totally different from Paul?” dad might ask. “Actually, no, I can’t,” you want to reply. “They both seem the same to me.” (But you don’t want to be rude).

Once again we bump up against the principle of uncertainty, by which what we perceive is relative to how we examine the data. This isn’t to say that there are not ironclad differences between, say, Wllliams Selyem’s Allen Vineyard Pinot Noir and their Estate Pinot Noir. There may well be, because although these two properties are quite close to one another on Westside Road, they are obviously different places. And Bob Cabral, who must live as intimately with these wines as he does with his own family, may well learn to be particularly sensitive to their differences. But that doesn’t mean he would be as sensitive to the differences between Cargasacchi and Mount Carmel, since he does not routinely taste their wines. So do the differences between them, as expressed by those who know them best, actually exist? Probably yes. But do they matter to the rest of us? Probably no.

What the critic looks for–even if he cannot consistently detect the characteristics that various vineyards are said to exhibit–is the quality of the individual wine in the bottle. There may well be an underlying, everlasting quality to any wine from the Cargasacchi Vineyard. Peter Cargasacchi, an eloquent man and superb grapegrower, no doubt could express it convincingly. But one would be hard pressed to taste Cargasacchi bottlings from Siduri, Dragonette, Cargassachi itself, Ken Brown, Brewer Clifton and Loring side by side and come up with a pronouncement that holds true across all of them and across all time, unless it’s something so bland–like “all the wines are deeply concentrated”–that it could apply to most good Pinot Noir vineyards. I could, I suppose, comb through years of notes for every Cargasacchi Vineyard Pinot Noir I’ve ever tasted and see if there are words or concepts that apply to all of  them. I should then, however, have to comb through reviews of all other Pinot Noirs I’ve tasted, to see if those same words or concepts popped up with the same frequency, before I could honestly write that the Cargassachi Vineyard alone is marked by those qualities. (For example, minerality, or crushed Indian spices, or firm tannins.) But I don’t know if we’ll ever have, in California, an example where one Pinot Noir is described as consistently feminine and another as consistently masculine. Too much depends on vintage variation, on age of vines, on clones and growing decisions, on ripeness, on maceration and fermentation techniques, on yeasts, on barrel type and length of aging and so on. In Burgundy, of course, they arrived at their famous conclusions centuries ago, and they may have been accurate then. The strength of Mr. Lewin’s book is that he shows how difficult it is now to hold onto those conclusions, much as even a diehard Burgundian may want to. And if it’s hard in Burgundy, it’s just about impossible in California.

  1. I think you hinted at the “out” for any terroir driven Burgophile: it takes a lot of expertise and experience to see the terroir. Only those who taste many GC Burgs are qualified to make distinctions, and conveniently the cost of the wine severely limits the number of possible “experts.” Add in the vagaries of aging (it’s often said the terroir emerges with age), and it’s impossible for anyone to claim victory ion the argument. Though those who can afford the wines hold the high ground. Even if it’s a case of suggestion leading to differentiation rather than consistent characteristics being found.

    Aside from that point, I am under the impression that ripeness was the most important factor in defining terroir and Cru status. The mid-slopes had the best soil, substrate and exposure for ripening wine grapes (best soil as in not fertile, well drained, etc.). But now that Burgundy is getting warmer, perhaps these other terroirs will achieve the best ripeness while the PC and GC sites verge on overripeness. I think because in CA ripeness is so easily achieved, terroir distinctions are not so important. The lack of marginality of many sites means that a great many wines share the same basic characteristics of fruit character and weight. Plus the winemaking approach generally favors moderate to heavy oak use.

  2. “Are the historic variations between these wines due to actual terroir, or are they due to differences in the human approach to growing grapes and making wine (including, significantly, ripeness levels, stem inclusion in the fermentation and the amount of new oak)?”
    As a matter of fact, cultural “differences in the human approach to growing grapes and making wine” are an integral part of the concept of terroir:
    “Les terroirs résultent de l’exploitation par une société humaine des potentialités d’un espace physique. Leur définition dépend étroitement des caractères de la civilisation qui occupe les terres. Ainsi, dans un même espace, avec des potentialités et des contraintes physiques identiques, des sociétés humaines différentes sont susceptibles de développer des terroirs distinct.
    “Le terroir est donc un espace concret, tangible et cartographiable à travers de multiple facteurs (géographiques : pédologie, géologie, géomorphologie, hydrologie, climatologie,
    micro climat, exposition, etc.). Mais il possède également une dimension culturelle qui reflète directement la société humaine qui l’exploite. Cet aspect se retrouve en abondance dans l’utilisation littéraire et identitaire du terroir. (French Wikipedia)

  3. Great read. I suppose I should try these wines!

  4. Steve, you are in a rarified zone with this post, a mighty post for someone who does this every day. However, I do have a comment on something you said: “Or, if “mistaken” is too prejudicial a word, then he was seeing things that don’t exist because he wanted to.”
    Seems to me this is the “human condition” concerning everything I can think of, from “String theory” to 2 + 2 = 4 under the microscope of the solipsists, to voters of whatever party, the TRUTH seems ever illusive. In the end we have, as the star in “Contact” learned, faith. But it is a good thing we can sit around the terroir of the “camp fire” a glass of Bordeaux in hand and ponder what you have written.

  5. Adam Wallstein says:

    To say that the influence of terroir is slight and subtle, and often overwhelmed by other factors (winemaking techniques, vintage variation, and so on), is far different from saying it doesn’t exist, or even that it is relatively unimportant. It may well be hard to pin down and express with a concrete phrase (the Melville vineyard Pinots taste of dark cherries imbued with zinc lozange), but it is certainly a fascinating contributor to the flavor profile.

  6. Steve,

    I am far too tired from harvest to put together a coherent theory as to what this all means….but did want to throw this out. It is fascinating that you picked Cargasacchi as an example of your thoughts. — I say that because, from the point of view of someone who spends a decent amount of time in the vineyard, and has made the wines since 2001….there are two things that I consistently notice in the grapes.

    First, the clusters and the grapes themselves are tiny. Peter calls them “hamster balls.” Is this the only place that we get tiny clusters and berries? No…but it is the most consistent in that regard, and for a relatively flat piece of land, it is unusual.

    Second, the wines, during ferment, tend to have a bit of reduction. In fact, the last time I spoke with Mike Bonaccorsi we chatted specifically about this reduction and how to deal with it. Again, this isn’t the only place that we see reduction…but it is consistent here, even though the YAN number (Yeast Available Nutrients) are high. And that is unusual.

    So, I would say that one of the things that could lead producers to pointing out differences in site are these types of differences — things apparent to them but not necessarily to others (the twin example you mentioned, but not even in the finished wine). The one question I would have is, given these differences in the Cargasacchi fruit from other fruit, and yet if the wines truly aren’t distinguishable from Mount Caramel (to use your example), what does that tell us all about how grape characteristics do or don’t translate into wine?

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  7. Maybe ask Sea Smoke, since the are the only “California Premier Cru” producer in existence. :)

    This is a very thought provoking post indeed. I never thought of it in terms of weighing terroir against many producers making wine from the same place but getting different results.

  8. Adam, it’s also true, isn’t it, that Cargasacchi Vineyard is all 115? I suppose that could give the wines a certain distinctiveness. But to tell you the truth, the Dijon clones taste more alike to me than not. Usually fresh-fruity and bright.

  9. Dennis, I’ve been reading lately about string theory, black holes, quantum theory and the like, and thinking of the relativity of knowledge. Perhaps that is sneaking into my writing: that “the truth seems ever elusive.”

  10. Peter, in the past I have cited Prof. Peynaud, who defined “terroir” as the physical aspects of the vineyard and “cru” as what happens when the human aspect is introduced into “terroir.” That is a very fine and useful distinction.

  11. Greg, I think that in Lewin’s book he says that terroir decreases with age, i.e., that great Burgundies become more similar to each other when they’re older. At any rate, you’re right in that “only those who taste many GC Burgs are qualified to make distinctions,” which rules me out!

  12. Adam Lee/Siduri Wines says:

    Steve,

    On the Dijon clones being more alike than not…you need to check out Clone 943…most distinctive Dijon clone I have yet come across. If I remember in the AM I will send you some information about it.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  13. Adam, printed info is one thing: a bottle is another.

  14. Adam Lee/Siduri Wines says:

    I have a bottle of 943, bottled singularly, as well.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  15. Jason Brumley says:

    Mr. Heimoff,
    I understand your argument; however, I heartily disagree with the notion that terroir is a concept driven by wine makers and/or vineyard owners. I live in Oregon and I can taste the difference between a wine produced in the Dundee Hills and others from the Eola-Amity AVA. I can even taste differences from wines produced from different sites, say Sokol Blosser and Domaine Drouhin, within the Dundee Hills. The fact that you have chosen California as an example for Pinot Noir and terroir nuance may have a bit to do with it. The subtlety with which Pinot Noir expresses its vineyard character is often masked in California because of the nature of its clime. The cool climate of the Willamette Valley was the reason that 3 of the 4 individuals who graduated from the UCD Dept. of Viticulture and Enology in 1964 chose Oregon for their destination to make Pinot Noir.

    It does injustice to the people who work the vineyards and taste the wines produced from their sites. For someone as influential and “skilled” at tasting as you to say that the difference is not there is offensive. Someone should take your away blogging license for creating the word, “graphicked.” Come to Oregon and… better yet, stay in California and make up words and write horribly pretentious blogs.

    Sincerely,
    a fan

  16. Jim Vandegriff says:

    I must disagree with Mr. Brumley and his characterization of this blog as “horribly pretentious”. I have struggled with the concept of terroir for years. I find differences in the pinots of the Dundee Hills from those in other Oregon AVA’s, but I haven’t really examined clonal differences, age of vines, etc to determine what causes this perceived difference.
    My most persuasive experience for terroir is with the great German riesling vineyards of Wehlener Sonnenuhr and Urziger Wurtzgarten. Wines from different producers in different years are identifiable to me as coming from those particular vineyards. Somehow, it just makes sense to me that grapes grown on different sites will taste subtly different. I don’t know the physical science of the grapevine so it could be “in my head” but I don’t think so.

  17. Jason Brumley says:

    Mr. Vandergriff,
    I don’t see anything in your statement that argues against terroir. Many people have struggled with the concept; in fact, a few years ago UCD had a conference to determine exactly what terroir was. Following three days of bickering (yes, Steve, that’s actually a word), the group was no more to a definition than whence they began. I’ve had arguments with several winemakers about the idea of a wine maker being a part of the terroir. I’ve had many say that there is no way that a winemaker could be a part of the terroir. What if the wine maker is the vineyard manager also? No? A vineyard manger can lime the soil to influence the pH content in the soil cant he? How does that not change the terroir? See, there is no absolute in something so stupid. It’s like trying to prove God.

  18. Jason Brumley says:

    To all who may be concerned,
    Steve Heimoff is an arrogant douche who has no reason or right to be posting the treacle that he does. He’s a pompous ass who has no writing skill. He uses words to fill in his lack of intelligence. He could say things in two sentences for which he uses four paragraphs. Simplicity is the best way.

    Sincerely,
    Jason Brumley

  19. Dear Jason Brumley, thank you so very much for your exceedingly trenchant and tantalizingly prescient remark, or should I say “remarks” because, actually, you made several statements, each of which can be considered a “remark” in and of itself (although I’m aware of the fact that “statements” and “remarks” may have phenomenological as well as causal differences!).

  20. When I lived in Maine, each autumn we’d head for the orchards to pick apples from the trees. They were juicy and tart and so delicious. Coming to California, we head to the orchards and find most apples to be, shall we say, de paucité. (I love this use of French, Steve. It’s a new concept for me, as I somehow missed it in all of my French classes.)

    After having spent my youth in Maine, picking a lot of fruit from a lot of different places (like blueberries both inland and by the sea), I’m a firm believer of terroir, on the scale of what nature delivers, regardless of any cultivation.

    I love reading all that you write.

    Now… I just looked up to see what the last person had commented to you, to my shock and disbelief. Obviously, the author needs lean verbiage in order to comprehend, and really shouldn’t be wasting his time reading your prose. (I’m still in disbelief… really.)

    Words, like oil or watercolors on a canvas, paint concepts. Some are linear, something like Picasso would have painted, just as Jason describes…lean and to the point. (Who hasn’t looked at a Picasso and thought, “I could have painted that one… Damn, I missed the gravy train on that fame.”)

    And others are stern, like Joseph Blackburn with his colonial portraits. Still others are like the impressionists, painting lovely images, for which the beholder has to find the hidden agenda. And then, there are those like Steve Heimoff, who paint like a John Singer Sargent… with warmth and beauty and great lines.

    Not everyone likes all things. I hate eating fish, for instance, and would rather watch them. Jason, you came to the wrong sandbox.

  21. Steve,
    I believe Dr. Peynaud is referring to “terroir” as a geographical area (with similar physical characteristics) where one cannot isolate the individual practices and techniques employed by dozens of different vignerons which share that same (macro) area. This is, in fact, one of Burgundy’s renowned features.
    Even when one looks specifically at the “crus” (vineyards), the vigneron’s footprint is not entirely clear, since most premier and grand crus are not “monopoles”. In whatever case, though, the “cru” concept conveys a more precise and (at the same time) all-encompassing description of terroir.
    Dr. Richard Smart, for example, holds that drip irrigation, perhaps the most common (human) intervention in New World vineyards, “is probably the single most important reason why terroir differences are not well appreciated. Soil differences, which affect vine water supply, are diminished in their effect when irrigation is used. However, when vines are grown without irrigation, as is the case in much of Europe, then soil properties which affect water supply to the vine are all the more obvious. So the concept of “terroir” is more emphasized”. (Terroir Unmasked; WBM; 2004)
    Frank Wittendal in his working paper “A Principal Components Analysis of the ‘Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune’ vineyards” (11th Œnometrics Conference May 21, 2004 – Dijon, France), also notes that “the mechanism by which the terroir characteristics are transmitted to the vine and the grape has been explained by various scientists, such as Carbonneau, Lebon or Morlat. In this mechanism, hydrification – i.e. the way water is brought to the roots and consumed by the vine – plays a fundamental role”.
    Wittendal argues that “it is easy to understand why irrigation is prohibited in Burgundy, and why, in regions where [it] is authorized, like in the Napa Valley, the nature of the vineyards [is] fundamentally different. It is likely that there will be more noticeable differences between a Chardonnay from Puligny-Montrachet and one from Meursault (albeit the vineyards are less than 5 km from each other), than between the Napa Valley Chardonnay and another from the Okanagan Valley (Canada); that have been grown with artificial irrigation, hiding most of the terroir incidence of the soil. This also explains why it will be out of question to obtain a Burgundy AOC labeling before the vine is 30 years of age, because it is considered, that it takes all that time for the vine to establish its entire network of roots”.

  22. Perhaps terroir used to show more than it does today. Maybe Benjamin’s problem is he was just born too late. Only a few decades ago there was little experimentation and common winemaking practices among most producers. Barrels were replaced when they could be used no longer, long after their contribution of oak flavor had been depleted. Everyone picked about the same time, fermented the wines the same, aged and bottled them to a standard formula. When winemakers use the same practices and don’t cover terroir with flavors they extract or create the differences between wines is the essence of terroir. I don’t know whether it is better to let it show or cover it up, but I know it exists.

  23. Anyone who has grown anything – walked the field, watched the weather season after season – knows there are always “sweet spots” and sour ones (whether it is grapes, oaks or apples). This is the case no matter what the latest techniques are, as Morton said.
    Not all areas are the right terroir. In fact, probably most aren’t.
    Walk the land and talk to John Anstey about Dollarhide, Joao d’Almeida about Ervamoira, Andre Dubosc about where native vinifera survive, Richard Smart about anyone whose vines are in the the cold climate edge of where good wine can be made or stop someone working his five rows of vines in Clos Vougeot and let him rant about why he got the bad rows thanks to Napoleon.
    Just don’t talk to a winemaker about terroir during a tasting.

  24. Morton,

    Are you being serious? Common winemaking practices “back then” included innoculation with yeast, fining and filtering, bottling barrel by barrel (so individual bottles could be very different — a standard practice at DRC until not that long ago), etc.

    While you can point to certain things now that might mask terroir, there were just as many things back then that might have the same effect.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  25. Jason Brumley says: “The cool climate of the Willamette Valley was the reason that 3 of the 4 individuals who graduated from the UCD Dept. of Viticulture and Enology in 1964 chose Oregon for their destination to make Pinot Noir.”

    Actually they were more likely trying to mimic Burgundy because that was all they knew, way back then. Which is what some of them actually said at the time, rather than because of “the cool climate of the Williamette Valley,” as you put it.

    In fact, if you looked at climate instead of simply repeating false conceptions blindly and making things up, you would understand the effect of latitude and daylength on climate, as well as the effect of a contintal climate vs marine climate influence.

    In the northern hemisphere, the further north you go, the longer the daylength is during the summer and the more heat is accumulated as result of daylength and latitude influence. Its called the Latitude Temperature Index. Also, the Continental climate, like Williamette valley which is more inland, tends to also be warmer, vs. say, the pinot regions of Santa Barbara County which are on the coast in “maritime throats” that are windy and cold.

    Santa Barbara County is the southernmost pinot growing region, but the coldest. Because of shorter summer days and onshore marine influence, heat accumulation is less here than in Williamette during the summer, the summer daytime temperatures are frequently in the 60’s during summer, and rarely exceed 75 F. That is common in many of the Califoria Pinot regions because they are located in coastal valleys with marine influence, unlike the more inland climate of Williamette valley.

    While Oregon may have a warmer/hotter summer, the total season length is actually shorter because of the effect of latitude and the days rapidly shortening in the fall. Meanwhile, because the California current brings warm summer waters from Alaska to the California coast, September and October are typically our warmest months, perfect ripening weather. In fact our warmest days of the year did not occur during the summer this year, but in the first and second weeks of October, during and after which we harvested our pinot noir.

    Meanwhile during this same fall period when California enjoys typically perfect ripening weather, the jet stream’s location usually begins launching rain storms into Oregon and dictates that harvest must occur often before physiological ripeness occurs, or the fruit will rot.

    Jason, you talk about cool climate, and sorry for the brevity, but you haven’t got a clue what you are talking about, you are just reciting marketing mantras that are not true. You should actually make the effort to learn and understand climate instead of simply insult and spew vitriol.

  26. Peter Casargacchi wrote:
    “In fact, if you looked at climate instead of simply repeating false conceptions blindly and making things up, you would understand the effect of latitude and daylength on climate, as well as the effect of a contintal climate vs marine climate influence.
    In the northern hemisphere, the further north you go, the longer the daylength is during the summer and the more heat is accumulated as result of daylength and latitude influence. Its called the Latitude Temperature Index. Also, the Continental climate, like Williamette valley which is more inland, tends to also be warmer, vs. say, the pinot regions of Santa Barbara County which are on the coast in “maritime throats” that are windy and cold”.

    In reality, the influence of latitude (in addition to being valid for both hemispheres) and its day length effect (with respect to the accumulation of heat) is usually neutralized by two factors called convexity and leptokurtosis (peaked distribution): i.e., the positive effect of the longer summer days is minimized by the shorter days at the edges of the growing season. At lower latitudes, on the other hand, the evolution of the day length is generally more linear and the distribution’s shape is flatter (platykurtic).
    In any case, the Willamette Valley’s climate cannot, by any means, be considered continental. As one moves south from the Eola Hills-Salem area, which has an Oceanic climate with a Mediterranean tendency (due to the rain distribution) and strong maritime influence with cool air entering the valley through the Van Duzer Corridor, the climate slowly turns to humid Mediterranean around Eugene.
    Both areas (Salem and Eugene) have a cool climate with average summer highs never exceeding 80-82°F, mild winters and growing seasons averaging more than 200 days: a fact that (unquestionably) falsifies the “continental climate” hypothesis.
    Incidentally, we have developed a proprietary “heat” indicator (which is displayed on the VCA section of our website) that utilizes latitude data to automatically calculate the number of hours of sunlight per month for each weather station. Based on our numbers, and according to three different methods (Winkler’s Index (WI); Wine-EV (PHI) Proprietary Indicator, that uses latitude data and precipitation volume; and Wine-EV (HTI) Solar Radiation Indicator), the Willamette Valley’s climate is significantly cooler than the Lompoc/Santa Rita Hills area:
    Salem: Winkler – Region I – 1,925; PHI – 2,806; HTI – 2,038. (°F)
    Eugene: Winkler – Region I – 1,991; PHI – 2,936; HTI – 2,255. (°F)
    Lompoc: Winkler – Region I – 2,423; PHI – 3,150; HTI – 2,943. (°F)
    I believe the reason why it is pretty much common knowledge that (based on climatological data) the Willamette Valley is a more suitable area for growing high-end Pinot Noir than the cool coastal areas of SBC (although there are in fact some very exciting wines coming from the latter) is precisely due to its high-latitude cool climate, lower solar radiation levels and shorter growing seasons which naturally fit Pinot’s needs to develop subtle flavors while maintaining an adequate acid structure.

  27. Peter (and Peter),

    As someone who produces Pinot Noir from both the Sta. Rita Hills and also from the Willamette Valley, I would compare them this way —

    We have a more difficult time achieving sugars in the Willamette Valley than in the Sta. Rita Hills (at fairly comparable yields) and, in fact, sugars can spike to levels requiring intervention in the SRH while in the WV, intervention may come in the form of a bag of sugar. We have comparable acids in the Sta. Rita Hills and in the Willamette Valley (starting pHs and TAs), but far higher malics in the Willamette, thus more difficulty naturally maintaing the adequate acid structure that you mention. Does that make one better or “more suitable for growing high-end Pinot Noir?” Not in my opinion…..each area is different and have the ability to grow great Pinot Noir….but each area has its challenges as well.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  28. Adam,
    An absolute ideal for Pinot Noir is, obviously, a utopia.
    My observations (and conclusions) are based on a comparative quantitative analysis (of several climatological variables) of the two areas with two benchmarks: 1) Côte des Nuits (Dijon, Ouges & Longvic) 2) Côte Chalonnaise (Chalon-sur-Saône & Fontaines).
    Please note that these “climatological factors” also have a strong influence (causality) on fruit weight, taste profile, body, texture…
    Although our models do not encompass soil types and/or irrigation, looking at Lompoc’s precipitation volume and solar radiation data I must say I’m surprised that grapes from that area (where the warmest months are September and October) consistently deliver the same TA as the WV.
    BTW, what typical percentage of malic acid (and TA in g/L) do you get from these areas? Cause malic acid levels in Burgundy (even in “normal” vintages) are usually pretty high as well.

  29. Looking at TAs over the last few years in SRH and the Chehalem Mountains AVA….we usually see TAs in Cargasacchi and Clos Pepe in the .62 to .8 range….and in Oregon in the .69 to .82 range. pHs run 3.4 to 3.6 in SRH and 3.3 to 3.6 in the Chehalem. The issues we run into in the Chehalem Mountains is that anywhere from 40-65% of our acid is malic in the Chehalems….thus leading to an acid add there, while the malic percentage in the SRH is between 25-40%.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  30. Peter, Where are you getting your data numbers for Lompoc? The ones you project for degree days look to be about 500 points to high from what I have seen projected for my area. Your data looks like Buellton, CA rather than Lompoc? We have ranged between 1800 and 2200 here depending on the year.

    Peter O’Connor says: “In reality, the influence of latitude (in addition to being valid for both hemispheres) and its day length effect (with respect to the accumulation of heat) is usually neutralized by two factors called convexity and leptokurtosis (peaked distribution): i.e., the positive effect of the longer summer days is minimized by the shorter days at the edges of the growing season.”

    I disagree with your assessment. That doesn’t neutralize it. That would mean that Alaska, with a shorter growing season, with longer summer days that are minimized by shorter days at the edge of the growing season, is even more ideal, following your logic?

    I’m not buying it. A long cool growing season is ideal. Not a short warm growing season that on average taking into account the short days at the edge of the growing season, accumulates the same amount of heat as a cooler longers season that has cooler average days through the growing season.

    The difference is flavor development and ripeness with acid retention.

  31. You will only find words like “leptokurtosis” on steveheimoff.com, folks!

  32. Peter Casargacchi wrote: “Peter, Where are you getting your data numbers for Lompoc?”
    My sources are: WRCC, Cimis, NCDC and Calclim.
    “The ones you project for degree days look to be about 500 points to high from what I have seen projected for my area”.
    Please make sure you’re using the long term (30y) averages, since the official climatological normals for Lompoc are: 1) 1981-2010: 2.506; 2) 1971-2000: 2.740; 3) 1961-1990: 2.436. Source: WRCC
    In the last ten years, which were abnormally cold, some vintages showed numbers that were fairly similar to yours: 2005 – 2.073; 2007 – 2.002; 2009 – 2.407; 2010 – 2.161
    You wrote: “I disagree with your assessment. That doesn’t neutralize it. That would mean that Alaska, with a shorter growing season, with longer summer days that are minimized by shorter days at the edge of the growing season, is even more ideal, following your logic?”
    But you seem to forget that in your previous comment you wrote that “the longer the daylength is during the summer and the more heat is accumulated as result of daylength and latitude influence. Its called the Latitude Temperature Index. Also, the Continental climate, like Williamette valley which is more inland, tends to also be warmer, vs. say, the pinot regions of Santa Barbara County which are on the coast in “maritime throats” that are windy and cold”.
    I only noted that the accumulation of heat is independent from the shape of the distribution. And it is not my opinion (or assessment): it is mathematics.
    Regarding your affirmation that “[a] long cool growing season is ideal”; I don’t think I understand your point: ideal for what? Mourvèdre? Tannat? Merlot? Cab Franc? Possibly.
    It is certainly not ideal for a short-cycle variety like Pinot Noir.
    Incidentally, the Burgundy region has a mild continental climate with a short growing season (160-180 days), a warm, almost hot, short summer, and precipitation is evenly distributed throughout the year. The days are also long during the summer and pretty short in April and October.
    Exactly the type of climate you said is not suitable for Pinot Noir: “Not a short warm growing season that on average taking into account the short days at the edge of the growing season”.
    BTW, do you have any doubt whether the Burgundy region is suitable for Pinot Noir?

  33. Pete,

    Help me understand….why is a long cool growing season not ideal for Pinot Noir? What spcifically makes Pinot Noir better in a short, warm growing season?

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  34. Adam,
    First of all, Burgundy’s growing season is not warm. The summer months are warm, but the overall season is cooler than the SRH’s. In fact, Burgundy’s climate (during the growing season) is somewhat similar to some parts of the Willamette Valley.
    European wine literature tend to agree on the fact that most great wines are grown in marginal climates, with just enough heat to ripen the grapes. And this fact refers specifically to the ability of the terroir (climate, soil & agric. practices) to synchronize the development of the grape’s enological components and to obtain adequate (and balanced) levels of acids, sugars and tannins simultaneously.
    Wines from varieties that are adapted and fine-tuned to the environment, and its natural cycle, have, as a rule, more equilibrium and demand a lot less intervention, manipulation and adjustments from winemakers.
    Perhaps in California these factors, that I call the “economic rationale”, do not exert the same (financial) pressure as in the rest of the world, but in the end of the day it is still a business that is supposed to make money, and maximize financial returns: i.e., it doesn’t make economic sense to occupy (very expensive) land where the growing season lasts 300 plus days with a culture that the cycle demands only 100-120 days.
    Perhaps current grape prices (and wine prices) justify this biased business decision, but it leads me to the conclusion that perhaps prices are overly high (due to an excess of liquidity and artificially low interest rates) and will not be able to sustain current levels in the medium to long run.
    In Pinot’s case, and from a technical point of view, long growing seasons associated with high solar radiation levels (SRH’s case) tend to cook thin-skinned grapes and eliminate the subtle and delicate fruit flavors that are typical to Burgundy and other marginal climates (e.g., WV, OR; Northern Mendocino…), and are innate to the variety.
    Late season warm and sunny weather tend to dehydrate/shrivel thin-skinned grapes, burn acids (malic and tartaric), and increase (excessively) Brix levels.
    Long growing seasons are suitable for varieties with a “long-cycle” and lots of phenolic compounds, that (as you know better than I) demand a much longer period (and mild temperatures) to ripen, compared to acids and sugars.
    Most people will say it is also a matter of preference.
    If the grower’s intention is to emulate Pinot Noir’s subtle flavors, fine texture, moderate to low alcohol, and everything that made Pinot the great wine it is as we know it; I don’t think so.
    On the other hand, if the grower’s, or the winemaker’s, intention is to create a totally different beast, with high ABV, no tannins, watered, distilled, filtered, pasteurized, acidified, centrifuged (and/or whatever is necessary to fit a pre-conceived design); that might still taste good, but more like an austere Châteauneuf du Pape, a Southern Spain or Sardinian Grenache, or even a high-alcohol “cool climate” Syrah deprived of tannins…
    In this case the Gobi desert will serve the same purpose.

  35. Pete,

    Hmmm….only a few things here that don’t compute:

    1) For example, you say that, “European wine literature tend to agree on the fact that most great wines are grown in marginal climates, with just enough heat to ripen the grapes. And this fact refers specifically to the ability of the terroir (climate, soil & agric. practices) to synchronize the development of the grape’s enological components and to obtain adequate (and balanced) levels of acids, sugars and tannins simultaneously.
    Wines from varieties that are adapted and fine-tuned to the environment, and its natural cycle, have, as a rule, more equilibrium and demand a lot less intervention, manipulation and adjustments from winemakers.” —
    Well, Chinon is certainly (historically) less valued than Saint-Emillion. And the Sauvingon Blancs from the Loire less valued that White Graves. And Spatburgunder less valued than Burgundy. And no region was, for quite some time, more valued than Champagne and yet it required the most manipulation. Moreover, historically, Burgundy certainly hasn’t been without manipulation. In his seminal work, “Making Sense of Burgundy” Matt Kramer posits that chaptalization is a virtual necessity and a positive thing, even when not necessary. Harry Karris, in discussing the history of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, says that up until a few decades ago, the majority of Grenache grown in CdP was sold to wineries in Burgundy. In 1892, Danguy et Aubertin wrote about adding eau du vie to the must, innoculating the wine, and heating the must. More recently, Andre Procheret found himself in trouble for revealing some the techniques used in Burgundy (http://www.winespectator.com/webfeature/show/id/The-Confessions-of-Andre-Porcheret-_127) and Jon Rimmerman recently reported that at least one Burgundian winemaker is saying that 2011 saw more Alicante coming into Burgundy than any year in his memory.— On a personal level, the first enzyme additions I ever saw in my life were at an Oregon winery, “special enzymes” from Burgundy acquired at a renowned winery there. And the first concentrator I ever saw was in Oregon. — None of which is meant to cast aspersions on any area, as I am not one to argue against human involvement in the winemaking process. Rather, it is simply to caution against buying into the illusions that you seem to perpetuate. The climate in Burgundy (in conjunction with the soils are the viticultural choices made) are great for producing Burgundy. That, of course, is a wonderful thing….but to say they are great for producing a Platonic “theory of forms” type Pinot Noir simply isn’t true.

    2) You also assert, “If the grower’s intention is to emulate Pinot Noir’s subtle flavors, fine texture, moderate to low alcohol, and everything that made Pinot the great wine it is as we know it; I don’t think so.” — That, of course, demonstrates better the human inability to look past their own experience than it does anything about Burgundy. In Richard Olney’s book on “Romanee Conti” he quotes the owner of that famed vineyard in the mid-1800s this way, “”‘At 11.5 (degrees alcohol) one makes barely passable wines, at 12 one makes decent marketable wines, at 12.5 above average, at 12.3/4 they are lively, firm and ruby; at 13 and 13.5 one makes great wines; at 14, 14.5, 15 and 15.5, one makes altogether exceptional, incomparable wines.” — The reason for this? Short pruning. Pruning short limited yields to levels so low that they are unheard of even today, and this changed the wines. Likewise, the removal of gamay from the region changed Burgundy (on a larger scale) tremendously, as did the removal of a majority of vines after phyloxera (which have never been replanted). Not to mention the embracing of the methods of Accad in the 1980s by a number in Burgundy, and the decision by others to make different cuvees for the American market….The perception what Pinot Noir in Burgundy is and should be has changed over the decades and will continue to do so.

    3) I would also suggest you try your hand at producing some wine from the SRH, from Oregon, and from other locals…as your knowledge of the actual grape chemistry is fine from a theoretical point of view, but doesn’t match up with the realities of producing wine….(excessively high malics, for instance, lead to acid additions…thus some “burning” of them, give me a break with your terminology btw, isn’t a bad thing). The same goes for your mis-characterization of what a winemaker and/or grape grower’s goal is, if they try to produce something other than Burgundy in a region other than Burgundy.

    I could go on and on (and have already)….but the greater point is this. The goal of great grape growers and winemakers in Burgundy is to produce great Burgundy (or great, insert specific vineyard here). That is what they can do, and what they should do. The same goal, and same passion, exists within great grapegrowers and winemakers in Oregon, in the Russian River, the SLH, and the SRH. Each deals with different positives, and different challenges, and each produces different wines. Some of these wines are great, some are not…but the differences are not negatives.

    Now, I have to go and make some of those same decisions on some Oregon Pinot Noirs from 2011.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  36. Adam,
    So, I lack the stature to debate the discipline of “vineyard site selection”, which is, IMHO, one of my areas of expertise, with you?
    This is a despotic, obnoxious way to respond to criticism… As I posted on another blog the other day, it is ludicrous to use someone’s lack of practical knowledge as an excuse to avoid the debate of ideas. Theoretical physicists are way more valued, and better paid, than experimental physicists; market strategists and risk managers are hierarchically superior to traders in financial institutions…
    What else can I say? You also seem to live in a world of exceptions. At least every single example you gave in your comment belongs to that realm. Alas, I have to live and make decisions in the normal, average world.
    But then, it is not up to you, or to me, to judge what is good and what is not. And this is not the job of any pre-defined aesthetic framework either. The “efficient markets hypothesis”, one of the most controversial economic theories (but one that works incredibly well under “normality”), postulates that all information available is in the price. For this reason, the market will always have the final word.
    And the only region producing IGW (investment grade wines) with the Pinot Noir grape is the Burgundy region. As soon as California starts to produce Pinots that (according to global – not regional – opinion makers, merchants and consumers) belong to that rarified level, I’ll be the first to recognize these areas as benchmarks, and as examples to be followed.
    In the meantime all I can tell you is to keep up the good work.
    Cheers,
    PS1: I am not convinced yet that some residual malic acid in the wine is such a bad thing.
    PS2: The “terminology” that freaked you out (?!) is continuously used by Dr. Emile Peynaud in his books: e.g., “it is generally admitted that acids are “burnt up” by the respiration of the grape”. (Knowing and Making Wine; pg.64)

  37. Peter,

    My suggestion on getting practical experience wasn’t an attempt to say that you lack the stature to debate with me….obviously you are doing just that. It was real…come help out here with harvest some time, ask for some real numbers from our lab results so you can see what the numbers truly are and how you would make wine from them. It is doable. Drop me an email at adam@siduri.com if you want some juice panels.

    And while, in the world of idea and money, theory is valued more highly, theory in craft-oriented occupations is not.

    Adam Lee

    BTW, some residual malic may be fine, but you can’t then criticize wines for being filtered (one of the things you listed as antithetical to Burgundy) as that would be the only way to prevent ml in the bottle.

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