The End of Terroir
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.