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The End of Terroir

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One of the most enduring memes in wine is that of terroir. (A meme, by the way, is a cultural idea that spreads virally from human to human. Memes have been compared to genes in that they may mutate in response to environmental pressures, a concept I’ll return to in a minute.)

We all know the origin of the concept of terroir: France. That it was borrowed by American wine growers and vintners, primarily here in California, is perfectly understandable, especially after the boutique winery boom pushed prices high enough that vintners had to come up with some rationale to convince consumers to dig deep. Their rationale: Mass-produced wines have no terroir. The word “terroir” went beyond its original French meaning of referring to a given set of growing conditions, to acquire qualitative and even esthetic dimensions. One might say that the terroir meme mutated.

In the 1980s and 1990s, as I was learning about wine and becoming a wine writer, the concept of terroir was all-pervasive at the higher levels of California. Napa Valley was said to make the best Cabernets because of its terroir. When Pinot Noir started to become popular, there were fierce intellectual discussions of the difference between the terroirs of, say, the western part of the Santa Ynez Valley (now called the Sta. Rita Hills) and the Russian River Valley. One might say that being able to describe his region’s unique terroir was as integral a part of the winemaker’s job as producing good wine. Certainly, it became a necessary part of the job description with the rise of the wine media.

Personally, I always had my doubts. While I could certainly tell that Napa Valley Cabernet was better than Cabs from elsewhere (as a general rule; not always in every instance), I always felt some skepticism when someone told me about how radically different Rutherford and Oakville were, or Howell Mountain and Mount Veeder. I didn’t see it quite that way. But one learns to keep one’s mouth shut in such cases: I feared that perhaps it was my lack of ability that prevented me from detecting what seemed so obvious to others. The guilty fear of many writers, maybe all of us for all I know, is that nagging feeling that you know less about wine than people think you do. So when I wrote about terroir, I dutifully quoted winemakers, while myself seldom if ever proclaiming terroir distinctions in my own voice. There’s a big difference between quoting others and making your own declarations, and I have never been confident making the kind of ultra-fine statements that would be needed in distinguishing Rutherford from Oakville.

Or Sta. Rita Hills from Russian River Valley. Or Santa Lucia Highlands from Sonoma Coast. Or even Carneros from Russian River Valley. Which is a problem for a wine writer expected to know these things. I can describe the differences, intellectually, based on my knowledge of climate and soils, and from things I’ve been told by winemakers over the years. But I would hate to be put to the acid test of having to identify these wines in a blind tasting in a public format, for a simple reason I’ve been hesitant to express, before now: The truth is, Pinot Noirs from all California’s top regions taste more alike than not, and so do Cabernets from Napa’s appellations; and now we are seeing the emergence of Cabernets from other parts of the state (not just Sonoma County, but Paso Robles and Santa Barbara County) that one might easily confuse with the real thing from Napa Valley.

Wine writers aren’t supposed to admit such things, and few do, at least in public. Which is why I have been so enjoying Benjamin Lewin’s new book, Claret & Cabs. He does such a superb job of demolishing the terroir meme, not because he doesn’t believe in terroir–he does– but because external factors are minimizing its impact, to the point where traditional terroir concepts in Bordeaux–the mothership of terroir–have become so blurred as to be largely unintelligible. (My words, not his.)

Lewin, who’s an M.W., compiles a list of reasons why terroir distinctions in the Médoc have gotten so fuzzy. Vintners pick riper. Some varieties, like Malbec and Carmenere, are being eliminated, in favor of more Cabernet Sauvignon–which may be making all Bordeaux wines taste more alike than they used to. Cabernet is being planted in areas where it didn’t used to, even at the top chateaux. Wines from lesser parts of Bordeaux are fast becoming as good as classified growths. Most importantly, perhaps, global warming is doing away with climate patterns that dominated when the communal distinctions were first established–patterns that made for perceptual differences between cooler and warmer micro-terroirs. As he writes, “I suspect…that [terroir] differences were brought out in the past by marginal conditions”–conditions that less frequently apply in today’s Bordeaux, so that “it would be a fine taster who could always tell the difference between St. Julien and Pauillac.”

Such a statement would have been heresy in Michael Broadbent’s, Hugh Johnson’s or Alexis Lichine’s heyday. Today, as established a figure as Lewin (who may be the most prolific and best wine writer in the English language) can come out and say the unsayable, the truth about terroir that dare not speak its name. He blew my mind when he called terroir “a point of faith in Bordeaux.” Faith is something you believe in despite evidence to the contrary. But for how long, and at what price?

TOMORROW: Part 2.

 

  1. I’ve always felt that barrel fermentation and/or ageing would inevitably overshadow or otherwise eliminate and discernible terroir nuances.

    Wouldn’t the ideal be unfined, unfiltered and unoaked . . . . literally untouched?

  2. tom barrass, yes a case can be made that an unoaked wine would show terroir more purely than an oaked one. But a good oaked chardonnay is more pleasing than an unoaked one. This is why I use the term “Cru”. It is the sum of terroir + the human factor.

  3. george kaplan says:

    I like your distinction between Cru, which emphasizes the hand of man, and terroir, which in some usage tends to emphasize other factors. I see no reason to eliminate one in favor of the other. Meme is a synonym for idea, invented by Dawkins so he could claim he made a contribution to evolutionary theory. It doesn’t act as anything. It’s like lede: unnecessary and deceptive.

  4. All the consumers I encounter don’t arrive with preconceived notions of what a wine should taste like. Only that it should taste good. Many consumers are, however, have been coerced into thinking that any given area may be too warm for Pinot Noir. For them no region is ever too cold for anything.
    A good California example of the lack of the influence of terroir is how various cunsumers feel about Zinfandel. Virtually any winery in any part of California can produce a good Zin some years.
    I think that wine writers are not in touch with reality. They live in a “wine world” of their own creation. Of course enough interest and money always seems to be there for their ongoing musings.
    Wine is that way. But now there are so many wineries that it is no longer the social one-ups-man-ship game it used to be. No one cares.

  5. Dr. Lewin also pointed out several Grand Cru red Burgundies that were vinified from grapes mere meters apart by different houses as being very different “Hand of God” indeed, that was from his excellent ‘In Search of Pinot Noir’. I am looking forward to his Cabs book, but alas we mortals have to wait for it to arrive at the book stores or mail order warehouses on May 1st. He does cover some terrior questions in ‘What Price Bordeaux?’ I always assumed the Bordelais considered thier wines produced by the “Hand of Man”!!!!

  6. David Rossi says:

    I just went to a tasting of 125 Burgundies. They are also much more similar than they are different. Doesn’t mean there weren’t differences, but not as pronounced as you are often led to believe. Also many of the differences were winemaking related and not associated with which side of which stone wall the grapes came from.

    Don’t get me wrong, I really believe that the site makes a huge difference. It’s just reporting and marketing in this day and age takes it too far. Hyperbole abounds.

  7. Dear Steve,
    Terroir was defined to me by Merilark Padgett-Johnson, instructor at SRJC as “Taste of Place,” and nothing further. Despite modern winemaking techniques that in some ways work to homogenize the taste of wine, I do believe the terroir is alive and well in California, and for more reasons than just marketing. It’s real! I absolutely agree that it’s possible for a Pinot Noir from Sta. Rita Hills and one from Sebastopol Hills to taste similar, but the flip side of that coin is two vineyards only a few miles away from each other that taste completely different.
    Moreover, the most compelling argument for Terroir is when a vineyard shows through whoever is crafting the wine. Keefer Ranch is a great example. Despite the difference in style and strategy of various winemakers (from Michael Browne to Adam Lee, Ehren Jordan to Akiko Freeman, and Marcy Keefer herself), after tasting a number of these wines throughout the years there exists a unique and consistent “Keeferness” across the board. That’s just really cool and a strong testament to the idea of “taste of place”.
    I think the difficulty that people have with terroir is that it cannot be quantified… there is no scale for it, no measurement, no 100 point system, it’s definitively esoteric and always will be. Terroir is unequivocally anecdotal, like the Keefer story from above. Believe what you taste, or taste what you believe, either way terroir will forever be on our minds as winemakers, and in the lexicon for wine critics and writers.

  8. If you want a side by side comparison just go by the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars tasting room and taste Fay next to the SLV cabernets. The vineyards are 16 ft apart. The wines are completly different. A Hillside vineyard vs a vineyard on an alluvial fan. Small grapes with thick skins vs larger grapes with thinner skins. Only difference is the soil.

  9. Robert Conard says:

    My argument for terroir in California would be that it is not as apparent today as it should be not because of lack of a “taste of place” or a winemakers ability to capture that taste and profile but because of manipulated AVA’s that are more capital driven than truth in wine and “terroir” driven. The Russian River Valley is HUGE. There is no denying that wines from the north east edge of the RRV have different flavor profiles and characteristics than wines in the Green Valley sub AVA of the RRV. However… can you taste the difference between Pinot Noir from Green Valley and Pinot Noir from just outside the AVA in the Sonoma Coast? Hmmm….??? Maybe. But I would wager that in a blind tasting if the vineyard was close enough to Green Valley the answer would be, probably not. In my opinion it is not that “terroir” is lost but rather that it is muddled in a sea of “wine marketing” that wants to get top dollar for whatever is popular. In my opinion the Russian River should be broken down into 5 or 6 unique sub AVA’s inside the RRV appellation to better focus on the specifics of the unique terroir that is very present in this growing area. But… that is not popular with the wine marketing departments and that vast majority of wine buying consumers. The truth is that these days the buyers and the sellers of wine would rather not be bogged down with the specifics and the details of the truth of terroir because eh, what the point? Sure the vast majority of people who take the time to read this blog will disagree but the masses of consumers and the producers who are chasing them wouldn’t even take the time to answer the question. That’s my .02

  10. The debate reflects the relationship and distiction about Philosophy and Science. I really do and glad to believe the existence of terroir, cause we can deny or ignore them just cause we can not recognize now.And marketing is another issue.

  11. Louise Hurren says:

    In a similar vein, you might like to read Andrew Jefford’s blog post published yesterday on Decanter.com where he talks about the challenge of Languedoc AOCs to establish a clear identity, given that they are to be found in the same climate zone. https://www.decanter.com/news/blogs/expert/583717/jefford-on-monday-birth-of-a-landmark

  12. Dear John S, I taste Fay and SLV every year and would say that they are not completely different. “Completely” is a strong word. Chardonnay and Riesling are completely different. Both Stag’s Leap Cabs show similar structure, density, power, sweet tannins and a deceptive softness that makes them drinkable now, although both will age well. The SLV always tends toward black currants and cassis, while Fay is more about cherries and raspberries. Oak treatment differents in the two wines, with SLV generally staying in barrel longer. The two wines, then, are not twins, but they are sisters from the same parents.

  13. Based on my experiences at the last three International Terroir Congresses, I’ve learned that to have a meaningful discussion of terroir, everyone must first be on the same page regarding the definition of that slippery term. The OIV (Organisation Internationale de la Vigne et du Vin) recently adopted the definition below after about 5 years of debate.

    “Vitivinicultural “terroir” is a concept which refers to an area in which collective knowledge of the interactions between the identifiable physical and biological environment and applied vitivinicultural practices develops, providing distinctive characteristics for the products originating from this area. ”

    Note that this definition of terroir incorporates “vitivinicultural practices” that have evolved over time in response to the physical and biological environment. Using this definition, for example, one could argue that removal of excess alcohol from wines produced from overripe California grapes is now a traditional vinicultural technique in some areas, or that the classic oaky Napa Chardonnay is part of that region’s cultural terroir. As an Earth scientist, I’d prefer that the use of the term terroir was restricted to effects produced by variations in the physical environment of the vine – but many folks, and from my experiences, most Europeans, don’t see it that way.

  14. Steve,

    All the best but so far I do not agree.
    I fully believe that you can taste terroir in wine, in beer, in spirits and even in WATER. And even more recently have seen the amazing feat that a few of us somm types who were taking a class on coffee (out of our element and completely learning a new lexicon) had a relatively easy time (once we were told the mail flavor profiles of certain countries i.e. Ethiopia = aromatic and floral) deciphering espresso coffees in a blind tasting to the point of origin very accurately.

    That does not happen just our of pure guessing, it was clear that climate, parent material, soil, aspect, varietal match to the site, and of course a little of the guidance of a human hand and many other factors help to distinguish a product from its peers. My concern is that if we are so quick to disregard the idea of terroir then we will see wine (and other beverages) go the way of clothing, or other commodities. Named for an imaginary or re-evolutioned place (Hollister clothing comes to mind…) but mass-produced in the cheapest way possible without regard for origin and what that brings to the table.

  15. Steve, I also must add that I agree with Tom Barras re the fact that the purest expression of terroir is with minimal winemaker intervention. Some of the best examples I have used in my classes were unoaked. Especially a comparison of Austrian Riesling and Gruner Veltliner, same producer same site trumping the variety but showing the site’s minerality… or Different producer same site Austrian and German Rieslings… Or of course Chablis, either unoaked or lightly oaked, a perfect foil to show terroir, often (to some people’s surprise) confused with Sancerre, but look at the soil and climate characteristics and somewhat restrained use of oak on Chardonnay in Chablis and all of a sudden you see why the flavors can mimic each other… because of where they are grown… And in the converse… Sancerre and Pouilly Fume (to me at least) being much less similar than Sancerre and Chablis. Fascinating stuff.

  16. my .02 on terroir is that I think it’s a meeting point (or battle-ground!) between two sides: the scientific analyzers, because terroir does have certain components that are measurable, eg soil, climate, geography, geology, etc, and the mystic philosophers, because terroir also contains components that are abstract and cultural an can be only said to exist because many people have been talking about it for many years and so a corpus of knowledge has come into existence! I think that every spot on Earth has a potential terroir, it’s just that some spots are still missing their abstract, cultural components.

  17. Mickey Knox says:

    Calling Bordeaux “the mothership of terroir” strikes me as wishful thinking. This is a region that has traditionally considered communal borders fungible, where the brand (chateau) name trumps vineyard location, where much of the production has been driven by foreigners aiming to conquer foreign markets.
    Outside of Champagne, Bordeaux is arguably the most commoditized wine in the world. The Bordelaise can’t be bothered with quaint concepts like “terroir”.

  18. Steve,
    Great topic.

    Aaahh..
    Terroir. As a namesake, I do enjoy the viewpoints and endless debate that the term conveys. I would agree with Mr. Yuan in that there are ‘degrees’ when discussing and grasping the concept of terroir. Like religion, it can be many things to many people. And to Mr. Pogue, I certainly believe that dirt matters. However, I am reminded of days past, where the neighbors would be suspicious of the new family on the block….

    “I don’t know about the Schmidts; those Lutherans are an odd sort..wish they were Methodists…”

    Irony is its’ own joke when identifying typicite; Steve, I wholeheartedly agree that ‘radical’ differences between AVA’s in Napa is nothing more than a sales pitch. The dogmatic approach is for the birds. Ever sat in on a meeting of ‘natural wine’ winemakers? Worse yet, how about the domaines and chateaux that took the ‘terroir is an excuse for bad winemaking’ mantra, like an evangelical dust-bowl preacher who ‘heals the sick and maimed’? The wines taste like crap, and the sick still can’t walk. Problem is, the consumers of both are made to feel like it is their lack of faith causing the problem.

    I hope we travel the path of change; that we are more tolerant of the nuances, not as much in the soil, the climate, rootstock, or clone, but in how we interpret those on the palate; that fermented grape juice moves us. After all, when it comes to wine, even agnostics and atheists will shake the ‘Hand of God’…

    Cheers,
    William

  19. I second Mr. Davis, great great topic Steve!

    I find myself engaged (embroiled) in discussions of terroir now more than ever, probably because I find myself having changed positions: I once believed in its importance, and pervasiveness, I now feel it’s more of an emperor’s new clothes kinda thing . . . according to the conventional definition, which I think was part of what Kevin stated above as “identifiable physical and biological environment.”

    If we were to begin a discussion on say, beef, and talk about its sense of place, we’d probably assume the beef for our taste-testing for this sense of place would all be one breed (varietal) and that this sense of place would stem from WHERE it was raised: from its pasture or range (vineyards.) We’d also probably agree that to be able to most discern that sense of place, we’d control the preparation (time, temp, final temp etc.) I think we’d be on a pretty solid track to find that sense of place.

    But questions would pop up: Is it the same stock (clone?) Did it have the same diet or corn or grass (pesticides, fertilizers, irrigated vs dry-farmed etc) Those would all be really solid questions, right? And again, would factor into the results.

    But then what if I said each farmer could dry-age his beef (maceration or time in barrel) as long as he wanted and could submit it to the tasting use his own marinade (yeast, type of oak, degree of char.) I think at this point, any idea of truly tasting the beef’s sense of place goes right out the window. I’ve stretched everyone’s credulity to the point of laughter: sense of place, after dry hung for 72 days and put in a soy marinade for 3 weeks?

    And yet we are supposed to believe with wine, that sense of place shines through in every single glass?

    Steve thanks for being willing to put your point of view on the table. And whether I agree with the final destination they arrived at Kevin, as it pertains to the original intent of the word, adding “applied vitivinicultural practices” to the current definition of terroir makes a lot of sense.

    I now look at terroir as more of “group think.” Three Hundred years ago, everyone bought the same barrels, picked at the same time, for the same fear of rain, succumbed to the same indigenous yeast, and so yeah, maybe the variation was vineyard to vineyard, and terroir was the x-factor. Almost like an old village eating cows from the same stock, same weather conditions . . . 300 years ago. Now, too many variables to be that evident in my book. That, or I’m a terrible taster.

    And regarding the coffee analogy posted above (I’m a home roaster,) yes you can taste the difference, but you get into cultivars, wet vs dry processed, post-auction storage, quakers, and all sorts. I chalk a lot of that to group think as well.

    Love this topic, please poke holes in my thinking, like every cynic, I really want to believe!

  20. Dear James G, thanks for taking the time to send in a thoughtful comment. I’m pretty much in agreement with everything you said. I once went to a blind tasting of wagyu beef from Australia, Texas and Japan. The best one was as soft as butter. It melted in the mouth. It was the Japanese. Inthe discussion afterward, I asked our host chef why the Japanese was so good. Was it the terroir? Did they feed beer to the animals? His answer was that the Japanese animals are kept in confining little cages so they can’t move and develop muscle, which toughens the meat. You couldn’t do that in the U.S. I don’t know if it’s illegal but the PETA people would be all over it. So is confining the animal in a small cage part of terroir?

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