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Meet the new meme: terroir as marketing

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What I wrote yesterday isn’t to say that all Bordeaux tastes alike. Lewin doesn’t go there and, in fact, goes out of his way to point out distinctions between chateaux (e.g. Haut Brion and La Mission Haut Brion) that must be due to something–although he cautions the reader that “the only difference [between them] is that Haut Brion is planted at 10,000 vines per hectare, while La Mission is planted at 8,000 vines per hectare.” Last time I checked, terroir does not include the way a vintner plants his vines, so what vine density has to do with terroir is a mystery to me.

In California, when you think of all the things that can mitigate or mask terroir (in addition to Lewin’s catalog, there’s clonal/selection, a tendency to use more oak, a general standardization of winemaking techniques, and considerably more career mobility than in Bordeaux), it becomes easier to understand why all coastal Pinots taste more alike than not. What the wine critic’s task then becomes is to look for differences of elegance, finesse, beauty, balance, texture, ageability and so on–qualities that are not merely expressions of local growing conditions, but of human influence, of proper vineyard management and superior winemaking skills. In other words, the writer’s task becomes the telling of stories, not repeating the conventional wisdom of the terroir meme, which is of very little use to consumers.

And so we come to yet another iteration or mutation of the concept of terroir: it now becomes a marketing tool, a word to use on back labels and sales brochures. How many wines have I seen described as coming from superior terroir that actually are purchased on the bulk market and blended into county-wide or even Central Coast and North Coast appellations? I wish we could put the toothpaste back into the tube and limit our use of the word “terroir” to the only place where it could conceivably apply: to small, individual vineyards that have produced particular wines (varietal or blend) over a longish period of time, where those wines have shown a consistent style and profile. (We might for example look at the Allen Vineyard on Westside Road for its Pinot Noirs from Williams Selyem.) But I think it’s no longer valid (if it ever was) to talk about “Santa Rita Hills terroir” or “Russian River Valley terroir” or “Oakville terroir,” except in the most generalized way, and even then to warn our readers (those of us who have readers, anyway) to take these terroir distinctions with a generous pinch of salt.

  1. “a general standardization of winemaking techniques” doesn’t mask terroir, it is exactly the opposite. My first trip to Bordeaux in the early 70′s I was struck by by the almost identical winemaking practice between all the properties. There was a narrow period of harvest dates, barrels were only replaced when they became defective, everyone racked barrel to barrel quarterly, chaptalization was infrequent, wines were bottled virtually the same month. Not the same today. New barrels, RO, late harvest, and individualized aging regimen, unique winemaking techniques mask the characteristics of soil and microclimate. The trade off was better tasting wine at the expense of terroir.

  2. Roger King says:

    Some very interesting research release from Davis takes a different look.

    Davis, Calif.—Could the best indicator of a wine’s terroir be its microbial load?

    Dr. David Mills is raising the possibility. The professor with the Department of Viticulture & Enology at the University of California, Davis, presented an early peek at research regarding the possible differences in the microbiota of wines from four of California’s wine regions during UC Davis’ annual Recent Advances in Viticulture and Enology (RAVE) conference on March 14.

    Mills said there appear to be distinct differences in the microbiota found in wines from different regions as well regional differences in the same varietal wine. Even wines from different locations in Napa County exhibited marked differences in which microbial organisms were present.

    Mills said rapid advances in the technology used with PCR (or polymerase chain reaction) analysis make it possible to quickly identify hundreds of specific DNA from a sample. “The technology is completely changing,” he said. “It really gives you a picture of the whole diversity.…It’s a huge amount of information you can generate.” (Editor’s note: See the Inquiring Winemaker column from July 2011 for more information about PCR analysis.)

    Study specifics
    For his study, Mills collected 240 must samples from wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties, northern San Joaquin County near Lodi, Calif., and the Central Coast.

    The results showed differences in the microbiota for each region, and Mills said differences appeared between Napa Valley regions such as St. Helena and Oakville. “I would say in this case the microbes are a reflection of the terroir,” he said.

    Mills said there is quite a bit more research to be done, but the early results offer an interesting possibility that wine could be further identified not just by where it’s from but what microbes inhabit it. Speculating on the future, Mills also wondered if the microbiota information could be used to predict wine quality by offering an insight into vineyard health.

    Read more at: http://www.winesandvines.com/template.cfm?section=news&content=113428&htitle=Wine+%3Cem%3ETerroir%3C%2Fem%3E+by+Microbe
    Copyright © Wines & Vines

  3. If you restrict the concept of terroir to the physical influences of the vineyard site, then the term should probably not be utilized with regard to anything but single vineyard (or single block) wines. I recently authored the petition for a new AVA that is on one landform, with one soil type, and encompasses only 3800 acres. I believe that it is perhaps the most terroir-driven AVA in the US, but even in this small area there are variations in terroir between vineyards (e.g. the Cayuse vineyard designates). To speak of Napa Valley terroir, or worse, Columbia Valley (17,800 square miles) terroir is ludicrous.

  4. Kevin Pogue, thanks for your comment.

  5. Ron McFarland says:

    Steve

    Have you read Jamie Goode’s April 2012 article in Sommelier Journal about the microbiology of terroir?

    Interesting research suggesting there are differences in the yeasts found in vineyards.

    Fun to read and add to the wonder and magic of what makes it all happen

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