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