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Further reflections on terroir: Does Pinot Noir show more of it than Cabernet Sauvignon? PLUS a reader survey

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Before we get into terroir, I want to ask you to take a reader survey. You can click here to access it. My blog is 4-1/2 years old now, and it’s time for me to take it to the next level, whatever that is. The information this survey provides will help me enormously, and I’m grateful to you for taking a moment of your time. Rest assured, the information is completely anonymous. I’ll have no idea who you are. The survey software simply crunches the numbers I need. I’ll keep you posted on future developments. Thank you.

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So does Pinot show more terroir than Cabernet? This question popped up in the comments section last week when I was exploring these issues of terroir. Then I got my latest copy of Anthony Dias Blue’s trade magazine, The Tasting Panel, in which the one and only Fred Dame, M.S., a former president of the Court of Master Sommeliers, has a conversation with his fellow M.S., Emmanuel Kemiji, whom I first met when he was wine director at the San Francisco Ritz-Carlton.

Emmannual made this remark:

Cabernet Sauvignon is a grape variety driven more by its character than where it comes from, quite unlike Pinot Noir.

When I read that, I went, Wow. When I was coming up in my wine education [early 1980s], everything I read–and I read a lot–addressed the importance of terroir in Bordeaux. The Classified Growths along the Haut Médoc were in the Goldilocks porridge geography of just right with respect to the Atlantic. They were far enough away from the marshy palus along the Gironde. The best growths were those with the best drainage. Haut-Brion was great because it sat on piles of gravel. And so on. Even within the individual communes, terroir showed its hand: Margaux were lighter and more elegant, Pauillac firm, Saint-Estephe tannic. For centuries Bordeaux–the region–defined Bordeaux–the wine–with its own inimitable character.

So how could it be that Cabernet is defined more by character than terroir?

And yet, the more I thought about it, the more I decided that, yes, Emmanuel is onto something. I’m not sure how he defines the “character” of Cabernet Sauvignon, but I would define the best of them from California (which is to say Napa Valley) as full-bodied, dry and tannic, with intense, spicy flavors to which oak often brings a hint of chocolate.

Having said that, the above description could apply to hundreds of California Cabernets, most of which are perfectly nice for drinking, but not major league. To achieve major league status, you have to have something more than merely that generic oak-aged Cabernet-y quality.

It’s not until you get to Napa Valley that you find that “something more.” Which isn’t to say there aren’t great Cabernets elsewhere, but they tend to be outliers. Napa sits in the sweet spot: warm-hot enough to get the grapes nice and ripe, yet not so hot as the Central Valley. Cool-foggy enough at night to preserve acidity, yet not as chilly as, say, Carneros. Another just-right case of Goldilocks porridge.

Cabernet does have powerful “character,” but just what it brings to Napa’s terroir, and vice versa, is ultimately unanswerable. They work in tandem. Each distinct area within the valley boosts them in different ways: Yountville will accentuate tannins and earth, Howell Mountain power-packs everything, Rutherford brings that dustiness and herbs and often pushes the black fruit into the red direction. Atlas Peak brings minerality, west Oakville perhaps the most opulent peacock’s tail of everything, Pritchard Hill that high-alcohol delirious headiness. Yet these are subdivisions of a single entity, Napa Valley, that you have to concede offers sublime Cabernet Sauvignon.

And then we come to Pinot Noir. Does Pinot, in and of itself, have less “character” than Cabernet Sauvignon, making it more contingent on where it’s grown? I suppose in one sense, that’s true, because Pinot is lighter and more delicate, which would suggest that it is a site-specific grape and wine.

But great Pinot Noir now comes from an extraordinary range of places, stretching along 500 miles or more of California coast, while we still have that anomaly of great Cabernet Sauvignon isolated in one small region, Napa Valley. So I’m not sure it’s true that Pinot Noir is more terroir-driven than Cabernet, unless you’re prepared to say that 500 miles of coast constitutes a single terroir. Moreover, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to tell the difference between, say, a Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir from a Santa Lucia Highlands or a Russian River Valley. (You can do it when you know what you’re tasting, but it’s much harder in a blind set-up.)

Still, I think I know what Emmanuel means because it’s that very lightness and transparency that make great Pinot Noir so exciting. In the end, though, I don’t think we have to compare Pinot and Cabernet and wonder which is more or less terroir-driven, more or less transparent, more or less susceptible to winemaker interventions, or which has more or less inherent character. It’s when we get into these angels-dancing-on-pinheads theological debates that we lose sight of the simple things: Napa Valley is great Cabernet terroir, coastal California is great Pinot terroir.

Please do my survey!

  1. It is odd that you mention Bordeaux as support for cabernet being a terroir-driven cultivar. The classifications of Bordeaux are defined by the character of the winery. Yes, terroir plays a role in that character, but if Lafite were to buy a Lynch-Moussas and incorporate it into the Grand Vin, the new vineyard would be considered Premier Grand Cru Classe. Likewise, when a portion of classified vineyard is sold, a la Chateau Gloria, it loses its status without the terroir changing in the least. I’m not saying I disagree with you, just that your example doesn’t fully support your thesis.

  2. I was going to answer the question you pose with a simple yes, but then I read your post (if you haven’t guessed, sometimes I like to comment without reading it). For me, it sparked a new question.

    You describe Cabernet in terms of “full-bodied, dry and tannic, with intense, spicy flavors to which oak often brings a hint of chocolate, tannins and earth, power-packs everything, dustiness and herbs, black fruit, minerality, opulent peacock’s tail, and high-alcohol delirious headiness.” You said less about Pinot and terroir, but you refer to Pinot as “lighter and more delicate, lightness and transparency.”

    I don’t disagree with these descriptions, but I wonder how many of our winemaking regimens, and our interpretation of terroir is by rather arbitrary standards and ideals? How much of what we value in terroir is actually what we have decided to look for. How would a light, delicate, silky and subtle Cabernet be recieved? Would its terroir be appreciated?

  3. Glad you actually read before commenting, Morton. I do believe there is an epistemology of wine tasting, including observing terroir. We do perceive (or not) what we look for. In the old, pre-Heisenberg days, it was presumed that what we perceived was “objectively” out there. Nowadays we know (or think we know) that the act of observation influences what we perceive. This is the duality of perception whereby light is both wave and particle, depending on how we measure it.

  4. I think it’s time that whole concept of “terroir” be put under the microscope. The amount of nonsense that is spread around in the name of terroir is astonishing; even more, it amazes me that otherwise intelligent wine drinkers accept most of it without question -much like how otherwise intelligent people accept the nonsense in the bible

  5. Jason Brandt Lewis says:

    I think many of us, myself included (back in my wholesale days), first met Emmanuel Kemiji at the Ritz. Indeed, that’s how I first met Fred Dame back atThe Sardine Factory in what seems a lifetime ago. But on to the topic at hand.

    The difference is, I think, New World vs. Old World. Terroir is such an important part of Bordeaux because a) every wine there is a blend, or more correctly, no château that I know of is producing a 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon wine; and b) historically, the terroir DID show through far more readily than (perhaps) it does today (now that the wines have been, to varying degrees, “Parkerized”).

    It is the modern, post-Parker, 15% abv Cabernets that run roughshod over terroir — very ripe, forward, black fruit, spice, full-bodied, cocoa, dry and tannic. When you get to the classics like “Rutherford dust,” I find it harder and harder to discern in the AVERAGE Cabernet from that sub-AVA. Even the “power packs everything” of Howell Mountain is not evident (to me) in every Cab from there. In the finest, yes.

    But the same can be said, IMHO, for some Pinots. What I have long called the “Pinot-as-Syrah” — fat, opulent, deep, dark, packed with spicy fruit . . . perhaps I should have been calling them “Pinot-as-Cabernet” all these years. I have a difficult time discerning a place of origin in many of these wines, as opposed to the Pinots which are lighter and more delicate. These seem to reflect a sense of place more readily.

    C’est la vie . . . just my 2¢, and no doubt worth far less.

  6. Dear Jason, thanks. But WHY should higher alcohol “run roughshod” over terroir? No one has ever explained that to me in a manner that makes sense. Indeed, you can look at it this way: a great terroir [such as Napa Valley] ENABLES the terroir to produce wines of extraordinary ripeness and opulence in their youth. These are the kinds of wines the Bordelais used to pray to be able to produce — except that in their chilly, damp Atlantic climate they couldn’t. In fact, when a year like 1947 came along, which was called “Californian,” the Bordelais exulted.

  7. george kaplan says:

    The times they are a changin’ On Saturday we drank a 2006 Beaucastel, which was wonderful but, had I not known, I would have sworn was burgundy. could it be that the CdPs, having shipped Grenache to the Burg negociants for so long, are now dosing their stuff with Pinot Noir? Or is the international style changing even Beaucastel?

  8. So Steve, you read my Heisenberg comment on your “Terroir and cru: an exploration” post and our trying to use it as your own idea now?

  9. Dear George Kaplan, thanks for pointing out how easy it can be to confuse varieties and even entire regions. Any honest taster, no matter how experienced, would have to admit the same.

  10. Thanks, Steve, for raising the question of terroir here. Interesting timing that it seems to be the subject of a few blogs this week. Fun coincidence.

    In relation to the questions you pose here both in the original blog post, and in the comment discussion as well:

    The claim that Pinot Noir “is the most terroir-transparent” of varieties is actually one that has been stated by a large number of people in the world of wine, most especially in relation to how it is handled and produced out of Burgundy. The idea is that in Burgundy there is a higher proportion of clonal variation and of the vines having fully acclimated to their environment because of how incredibly ancient the presence of Pinot Noir cultivation in that area of the world truly is. For this reason PN has a strong advantage for overall presentation in Burgundy compared to other areas of the world, even if there is also well made PN elsewhere.

    Jacques Lardiere, who just retired from Jadot, claims that Pinot Noir (and Chardonnay as well, a grape from the Pinot family) is uniquely able to reflect terroir in a way that extends beyond any other variety. He states that there are unique characteristics particular to that variety that allows it the potential for a greater range of flavors–he says it as 4000 potential flavors in PN versus 400 in other varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon. He also plainly states, however, that whether such potential is expressed depends both on where it is grown (it’s terroir), and on how the fruit is vinified. While Lardiere more recently talks extensively about biodynamics, I’ll remind us that he began his career in wine as a scientist and researcher, and now is one of the most extensively experienced wine makers of the region. So, his knowledge is arising from multi-tracks of insight.

    Allen Meadows, a Burgundy expert, also calls Pinot Noir “the most terroir transparent of varieties.”

    Some of the conversations I have heard in regards to what makes PN more terroir-transparent leave it as simply that it does–that is, how to explain WHY this is true is a question separate from asking if it is or not.

    Those that do go into the second question and attempt to tackle what about PN would make it more terroir transparent look at its particular makeup. That is, PN is universally known to be a delicate grape. The very fact that it is what we could call a fussy, or sensitive grape is precisely why it is more terroir transparent. To put it another way, with thinner skin, lower tannin, and overall greater sensitivity to conditions, the grape is also literally more responsive to the conditions (that is, terroir) it is growing within, and so simply because of how it grows fruit it is from budbreak showing greater influence of its terroir than other less sensitive varieties.

    Cabernet Sauvignon, on the other hand, we know to be one of the heartiest grapes, that can survive a far greater range of conditions without ill effect. Just that one point–thicker skin, less sensitive to temperature variation and weather change, high tannin–would seem to point to reasonable explanations for the differences.

    None of this is to claim other grapes don’t or can’t also show terroir. Paul Draper is a great example of someone profoundly terroir conscious while working with Bordeaux varieties or Zinfandel, as well as Chardonnay.

    Paul Draper is also someone that offers a way of considering the question of ‘too much alcohol’ in a wine, and why that ‘runs roughshod over terroir’ as Steve and Jason discuss.

    In Draper’s view, as I understand it, when one essential element–structural components like acidity, tannin, alcohol–is in excess compared to the other essential components of the wine, that wine is out of balance. Draper points this out in order to ask us to notice the effect something like high alcohol has on a wine’s ability to age–in his experience such wines consistently do not age as long as wines that are in better structural balance. The imbalance in structural elements ends up showing up as a disjointed character in the flavoral components over time.

    According to a Burgundian view, from someone like Lardiere, experiences of things like a wine’s terroir are more richly shown with time, so a wine’s ability to age is going to be tied to its ability to reflect its terroir. This is not to say a newly bottled wine does not show any sense of its place, but it will in this view show less than the same bottle could when it is older.

    The question Steve and Jason consider about alcohol-to-terroir can be considered in more detail too. The effect of a wine being out of balance in the sense that Draper describes is multi-fold. For one thing, it is commonly the case that a high alcohol wine is also a low (naturally occurring) acid wine. One of the results of this alcohol-acidity proportion is that the wines will not age as well, because the naturally preserving action of the acidity is absent–it has been shown that added acidity does not help wines age as effectively as naturally occurring acidity. (Many people also believe that adding acidity goes against the whole presentation of terroir, but I don’t think that matter is entirely settled.)

    Also, the acidity of a wine assists the mouth’s ability to process the flavors of the wine by generating oral response, like but not limited to salivation. A high alcohol wine lessens our ability to taste flavors, which can be seen in their impact on a meal as well as the impact in our ability to taste the individual flavoral components of the wine itself. This can be seen as illustrated in the general agreement that high alcohol wines tend not to go well with food.

    Further, those high alcohol wines that do also have lower acidity levels are further dumbed down in flavor by the lower salivation response generated by the lack of acidity in the wine. However, if you end up with a high alcohol, high acidity combination the heat created in the mouth by that wine can be almost painful, and will certainly cover the experience of any flavor. Overall, then, we end up with a situation where higher alcohol in wine covers over the experience of flavoral aspects of that wine, and thus a huge portion of the terroir presentation of the wine.

    Thanks again for providing a venue for interesting discussion! Cheers!

  11. Steve, thanks for keeping this alive. I think it is worth discussing in this open forum. Plenty of great comments, Lilly hit on many good points about alcohol versus acidity and their role in flavors, aging and that scary word terroir. There are comments in here about alcohol, Pinot as Cabernet and dosing of wines… fun & controversial.

    There are more and more interesting wine writers blogging and tweeting and all that, but let’s not forget that this has long been debated and discussed by great writers including one of my favorites for old world wines: Clive Coates. Clives rant on the role of the media in his Côte d’Or in 1997 is great and speaks to the concept of terroir being masked. At one point he mentions critics that look at Pinot through Cabernet-tinted spectacles. A classic line. And how that view has changed the way wine (especially Pinot Noir) has been produced in pursuit of high scores from the critics he was aiming his scorn towards. I have my own thoughts on the rating’s vs. terroir scenario, but certainly don’t blame critics for the influence and power in the industry. I actually think the various wine sales forces and tiers allowed the rating of wines to reach the current level of importance in the industry. But that “imbalance” maybe starting to change.

  12. Martin Slavin says:

    Steve, have you ever considered the terroir question in relation to Zinfandel. I believe that Zins show their terroirs on their sleeves. Consider the vast differences between zins from Dry Creek as opposed to Amador County to Russian River to Paso. All have distinct characteristics that come out from their terriors. Just food for thought.

  13. Dear Martin Slavin, I agree with you that Zinfandel shows its terroir on its sleeve. For an everyday Zin, I might prefer a blend. For an intellectual and culinary adventure, I’ll turn to a vineyard designate or pure example of its appellation.

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