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Terroir and cru: an exploration

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I read this piece on J winery by Richard Paul Hinkle and it got me thinking about those vineyards in California I think show distinctive and consistent terroir. I’ll mention a few of them shortly, but first, a discussion.

We’ve talked about terroir on my blog before, but not for a while. It’s always a topic guaranteed to make you think! My definition of terroir is the totality of the physical things that impact the vineyard: climate or weather, soil and drainage, elevation, orientation, wind and light exposure, things like that. These are the “nature” part of the grape, as in “nature and nurture.”

The “nurture” part is what the winemaking team brings to the terroir. The viticulturalist does all kinds of things, from trellising to pruning. The enologist has the final stamp on the wine, all those intricate fermentation and aging decisions. Together, these two things–“nature” and “nurture”–comprise what Emile Peynaud, in The Taste of Wine, calls “cru”:

[Cru] is a complex notion because it combines a whole group of activities that are essentially different: agricultural, in part industrial, always involving processing, and even commerce…In Bordeaux…the cru…is the wine-producing property, the chateau…The Bordeaux cru…combines the three activities of production, processing and marketing.”

[Forgive the ellipses: Professor Peynaud’s style of writing demands concision or, at least, his English translation does.]

Because terroir is so intricately wrapped up in the notion of cru, it is possible for a great property to not live up to its potential, due to neglect by its proprietor, or perhaps the inability to properly finance it. It would be a mistake to judge a winery’s output inferior in substance: if it is not doing as well as its neighbors, it could be because the terroir is wanting, in some way, but it could also be because the human aspects of cru have been degraded. Over-production of the vines is a common form of degradation of the cru.

On the other hand, a poor terroir cannot be compensated by superior human factors. It is impossible for great wine to come from patches of earth that are simply incapable of producing it, for whatever reason (too hot, too cold, poor drainage, etc.).

Most of the wine I review is merely good, ordinary stuff. It’s impossible to know exactly why a $75 Napa Valley Cabernet earns only 87 points instead of 97. It could be that the terroir is not superior. It could be due to failures in the cru or human aspects. It could be a combination of both. A critic cannot know these things without undertaking a comprehensive survey of that property, which obviously is impossible in every case.

What is possible, however, and delightful as well, is to study that handful of vineyards that out-perform on a consistent basis. Vintage after vintage they offer the greatest wines. In these cases, we have to conclude that both the terroir and the cru are working in perfect harmony and at the highest levels. This is the happiest circumstance in winedom, because it represents the pinnacles toward which all other wines, from that region, should aspire. (“From that region” is in italics, because it would be absurd to say of a Burgundy Pinot Noir that it should aspire to be a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. And vice versa. Nor does this mean that every Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir should aspire to be, say, a Failla. But every Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir should aspire to be a great Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir.)

I’ll mention just a few of the vineyards that, in my opinion, bring together this fortunate union of terroir and cru. In the Russian River Valley is Williams Selyem’s Estate [formerly Litton Estate] Vineyard. We know from history that this stretch of Westside Road, in the so-called Middle Reach of the valley, is one of the great places to grow Pinot Noir in the New World. It seems to be a combination of the cool, foggy nights and mornings that preserve vital acidity, the days that are so reliably sunny and even warm after the fog burns off by mid-morning, and some quality of the soil, which is very stony. I think also that the vineyard’s location, on slightly sloping ground midway between the higher hills and the sands along the river’s bank, plays a key role. One has to assume, as well, that winemaker Bob Cabral understands his fruit intimately, and owner John Dyson is prepared to make the necessary investments. That is a true coming-together of terroir and cru.

Another great vineyard for Pinot Noir (as well as other varieties) is Bien Nacido, in the Santa Maria Valley. The overall conditions are of a cool climate, with the valley’s well-known transverse orientation bringing chill and overcast moisture in directly from the ocean every night. Here again we have a situation wherein the fog burns off by mid-morning with the reliability of a clock; nor do the daytime temperatures get as warm as, say, in the Middle Reach. Bien Nacido also is famous for the quality of its viticulture. Dozens of wineries buy grapes from the vineyard. Not all are entirely successful. Not all have access to the best blocks, for Bien Nacido is a very big vineyard. Not all bring the most creative cru to the wine’s production. But a Bien Nacido Pinot Noir always is a compelling wine and, more often than not, a great one. Here again, we have the fusion of “nature” and “nurture” it takes to make unforgettable wine.

The best wine book to write in California would be one exploring the state’s greatest wines through the lens of terroir and cru, including the person of the winemaker. Winemakers often say modestly that the wine is made in the vineyard and all they do is accompany it on its journey to the bottle. That’s true in one sense but false in another. Such a book also would explore Prof. Peynaud’s seemingly strange remark that “marketing” is part of the cru. What can this possibly mean? I may write that book someday.

  1. Steve – interesting argument. Nature and nurture is a very good way to view wine. Not that I necessarily disagree (or agree) with your argument, but by this definition one can never taste pure terroir. The nature of a site will always be affected by the human element. Yes, as you say, terroir is an intricate (actually inextricable) part of cru. But likewise, the human part is inextricable from wine. And to bring in an old Twitter argument of mine with James Molesworth, if terroir is solely the natural factors, then every square inch of Earth has terroir (some excellent, most poor and the rest everything in between). However by your definition, we can never know true terroir because even by just planting grapes on a site, we’ve altered the nature and introduced nurture. This is kind of like a Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle for wine. Perhaps it should be called the Heimoff Uncertainty Principle! Like I said, I don’t necessarily agree with this idea, but you’ve provoked an interesting idea and I am eager to hear what others think!

  2. Steve, you say that you’ll mention “just a few” of the places that you think succeed in marrying terroir and cru, but then mention only two. Two seems like less than a “few” to me, or at least unsatisfying, since both of the examples you identify are Pinot Noir vineyards. Any others you are willing to identify?

    It is interesting that both of your examples are Pinot Noir vineyards. Do you think it’s true that Pinot in general is more likely to express terroir? Even in California I do tend to think quality and/or distinctiveness is more frequently associated with the specific vineyard from which the wine is sourced than with Cabernet. Other examples that come to my mind are Hirch, Keefer Ranch, Clos Pepe, and Rosella’s. Despite a few Cabernet vineyard standouts–e.g., To Kalon–do you think Cabernet’s success is more frequently/importantly the result of success with non-terroir aspects of “cru” as you define it?

  3. Well, Mike, I guess we can quibble over whether “2” qualifies for “a few”! If you really want to. :>
    Anyhow, I picked 2 pinot vineyards because I have pinot on my mind. Could just have easily picked something for Cab, Zin, Chardonnay or any noble variety. Finally, yes I do think that Cab’s success is due more to “cru” aspects than is true of Pinot, although fans of lower alcohol Cabs such as Corison’s will argue that terroir plays at least as important a role there as intervention.

  4. The issue with “terroir”, outside of regions without an AOC equivalent, (making no mention of the issue of topics around terroir being presented as fact with no scientific basis behind them (e.g. Mosel rieslings taste of slate because of the slate in the soil -eesh) is that the whole concept is tied together with bodies of consensus; not only with respect to what is planted, but also with respect to stylistic footprint. This works both for and against, as we all know, the whole AOC (DOCG etc)/”terroir” framework
    + It sets a baseline, which manage expectations, to SOME extent
    – It kind of severely limits innovation as well as working within a changing climactic dynamic

    It seems to be that in the US (and other non-constrained -lacking a better term- countries) we can say little more of a plot of land than seems to impart characteristics that transcend vintage – those can be subjective (flavors, structure, aromas) or more objective – more even ripening, YoY, than its neighbors.
    And that’s just fine
    It is time we stop trying to fit ourselves into a European framework. I’m in NO WAY criticizing what goes on in Europe: Amazing wines, cultures and traditions.
    We just need to let go of this insecurity, and borderline apologetic stance, that we have and stop trying to fit into an inappropriate construct (anymore than a european wine culture should try to, awkwardly, change to a foreign framework)

    BTW, for my tastes, middle reach, on average, produces the least interesting RRV pinots of any sub-region – sure there are some winners, but on the whole more interesting wines come from the areas around Green Valley, Laguna Santa Rosa and that area around Sebastapol/Freestone that some people choose to label RRV and others Sonoma Coast

  5. I believe cépage is a major part of the terrior also, the AOP system in Europe recognizes this and the New World is catching up.

  6. Lee Newby, I think the New World already understands the importance of cepage!

  7. dr, you said a lot. Thanks. Re: Middle Reach, I think they’re different from the cooler areas of RRV but offer plenty of power and substance not to mention ageability.

  8. Patrick Frank says:

    Cru is not a complex notion. Steve, you nailed it: it’s nature plus nurture. Moreover, “cru” is not even a necessary term. Nature plus nurture equals wine. Why not just say wine.

  9. Steve, I think your example of Corison is interesting because, as it turns out, I am a particular fan of Corison Cabs. My impression has been the opposite of yours — although I admit I could be totally wrong. To me these wines express a classic cabernet fruit profile that one could get from a large number of Napa cabernets. The difference to me is in the weight, the structure, the precise nuances from the oak, that I have always attributed primarily to the human winemaking element and conscious choice to make wine in a particular style.

  10. If post-structuralism is still alive and any of you are practitioners, here’s a “paper” for you:

    “Terroir as Agro-Hermeneutics”
    ;-)

  11. Bill Haydon says:

    Steve, there are many problems with California ever establishing a reputation with any level of authenticity.

    First and foremost is one of genuine sincerity. Quite honestly this just reeks of Napa’s latest marketing gimmick. It’s hard to listen to anyone from Napa/Sonoma discuss terroir knowing full well that during their heady Parker fueled era of success, they stenuously discounted the notion of terroir. It was, after all, about what happened in the cellar when (fill in name), superstar-genius-rockstar winemaker made the magic happen.

    So, where does this newfound respect for terroir come from? Could it be borne of the desperation of market rejection, particularly in those sought after major metropolitan markets? In Chicago, you can’t give away expensive California wine, and I’ve heard that the situation is similar in New York, Washington, Boston and even San Franscisco. I can’t count how many restaurants have opened with all-euro winelists in the Chicago market over the last eighteen months. Conversely, I can’t think of one (outside of steakhouses) that’s opened that prominently featured high end Napa/Sonoma wine and none (even counting steakhouses) that focused on it exclusively.

    Beyond issues of sincerity and authenticity is the issue of establishing terroir in California where the notion of vineyard designates has been corrupted to utter irrelevancy. When an admittedly quality vineyard such as Truchard of Hudson encompossas hundreds of planted vines, how does one seriously maintain that it has any real sense of terroir. Lee Hudson’s vineyard would, by European standards, encompass hundreds of indivdual terroirs–some premier cru, some village level and maybe even a couple of grand cru. Is Lee going to allow an outside authority to determine that–and thus what he can charge for his grapes? I doubt it. Also, simply calling a particular piece of land a vineyard (a’la “my daughter/wife/great grandmother’s vineyard” or “dollarsaddlehidestick vineyard” and have it immediately mean something is not how the game works. That’s marketing not the estblishment of a true AOC/DOCG sytem.

    The notion of California terroir will go nowhere because their is no genuine belief in it by those who will tout it only for marketing reasons and there are powerful vested interests who will line up against it.

  12. Joe Jensen says:

    To Bill Haydon if that is your real name or a pseudonym!
    I love your commentary and points on the Chicago market.
    As a new and evolving wholesaler here I am struggling to find
    anything from Cali that I want to sell.
    We are currently selling Duxoup and about to bring on Handley and a
    few other Cali wines but are trending heavily towards Europe and some
    emerging countries like SA and Chile.
    Cali is too overpriced but they don’t want to believe it!
    Feel free to email me at joe@compasswinesandspirits.com, I’d love
    to hear more of your thoughts!
    Cheers,
    Joe

  13. Steve –

    If you write that book, I will buy it!

    I so enjoyed your earlier book, A Wine Journey Along the Russian River, for it’s implicit treatment of both the human and natural elements that have impacted the wines of the region — both equally compelling in your prose.

    -DK

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