Making [non]sense of terroir
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.