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Which is more important for fine wine, terroir or technique?

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Is great wine the product of terroir, technique, or both?

Regular readers of my blog know that this question, or concept, intrigues me as do few others. I’ve frequently quoted the great Prof. Peynaud, who says terroir is Mother Nature; when man brings his or her own touch to the finished product, the combination of the two, he calls “cru.” As he expresses it, somewhat complexly, in The Taste of Wine: The Art and Science of Wine Appreciation, “The cru…is the wine-producing property, the chateau, different from its neighbors.” At the same time, this definition includes not just physical attributes such as climate, soils, slope, elevation and so on, but “the three activities of production, processing and marketing.” And P.R.? Yes, that too.

This definition of terroir is pretty broad; it’s one I accept, and if everyone else did, we could cease these eternal hand-wringings on what constitutes terroir. Still, the definition raises exciting and troubling implications: If I take the grapes from a single wine-producing property, divide them into three parts, and give three different winemakers one of those parts to vinify, will the resulting wines all show the terroir of the site? Or will they be so different that we can only explain their distinctions by the technique of their winemakers?

This is precisely what The Cube Project explores. The brainchild of Anne Amie’s winemaker, Thomas Houseman, it was formed “to evaluate the impact of winemaking vs. terroir.” Anne Amie is in the Willamette Valley; its two partner wineries are Bouchaine, in the Carneros, and Lincourt, down in the Sta. Rita Hills. Each of the winemakers took a single block of Pinot Noir from the estate vineyard in the 2010 vintage, divvied it into three shares and sent two of them (very carefully) to the other two winemakers. Then all three crafted the best wine he or she could.

Two nights ago, the three winemakers–Andrew Brooks from Bouchaine, Leslie Renaud from Lincourt, and Houseman–hosted a dinner at Roy’s San Francisco. This was an event not even I, who generally eschew these kinds of trade events, could pass up–and not only because I love Roy’s Hawiaiian-fusion food!

There were so many questions to be answered. Could we really detect commonalities between the three wines from each place? I mean, we knew what they were; but, if you didn’t, could you have? I personally found all the Anne Amie wines quite a bit higher in acidity than the others, across all three winemakers, so maybe I could have nailed them in a blind flight. The Carneros and Sta. Rita Hills bottlings were closer in personality, with softer textures and brighter fruit.

Did I detect winemaker styles? Not really. I thought that Andrew (Bouchaine) and Leslie (Lincourt) succeeded in making fine wines from all three sites. Thomas, on the other hand, seemed like he struggled with the two California selections. As I told Andrew afterward, it was as if he didn’t “get” California, and couldn’t quite figure out how to get a handle on the (relative) softness and fruitiness. His own Anne Amie wine was complex and lovely, but the others were puzzling.

Leslie had described her thinking process this way: When the grapes show up at her winery, she tastes them, and then starts thinking how she’ll vinify them. I asked Andrew for some of his decision points in the process. Here’s a partial list:

Destemming or not?

Crush pressure

Cold soaking

To inoculate or not? And with what?

To pump over or punch down, and how frequently?

What’s your maximum fermentation temperature?

When to drain off the juice?

Include press wine?

How long to let the wine settle before putting in barrel?

Cooperage and toast level

Natural malo or inoculate?

Stirring, if any?

Racking, if any?

Time in barrel

You can see how Peynaud’s “production and processing” play a huge role in determining the wine’s final qualities. Each one of these steps has multiple solutions, and each can dramatically impact the final product.

Thomas made an interesting statement: “It’s easier to tell the winemaker’s hand when the wines are young. As they age, the terroir shows through.” I think that’s probably true, although it’s also true that bottle variation becomes greater the older the wine is. Meanwhile, it’s only fair to say that the statement, made by many fine winemakers, that “the wine is made in the vineyard. I have little to do with it” is untrue, if romantic. The winemaker has everything to do with it; but it’s equally true that even the greatest winemaker cannot make fine wine from merde.

  1. Randy Caparoso says:

    Terroir or winemaking? It’s interesting, Steve, that a few years ago I conducted a blind tasting of 25 2006 Pinot Noirs made by Oregon’s Cellar Crawl group (Bethel Heights, Cristom, Ken Wright, Penner-Ash and Solena): each winemaker made a wine from the exact same pick from one block in each of their vineyards. I asked five of the Portland area’s top sommeliers to try to pick out either whose wines were whose, or whose vineyards were whose. Their findings:

    1. Winemaking influence was so strong, the sommeliers could not come to any conclusion as to what had the most sensory impact, winemaking or terroir (so the conclusion was “both”).

    2. A bigger surprise was the impact of vintage (2006 being a “hot” vintage for Willamette Valley) — this turned out to be an equally strong factor (conclusion: in marginal regions like Willamette Valley, Mother Nature has just as much say on resulting wines as any winemaker or vineyard).

    Our findings were skewed, of course, by the fact that that Oregon’s Cellar Crawl vintners happen to be five of the most individualistic in the state — each utilizing methods that tend to put strong personal stamps on wines (be it choice of inoculations, barrel selection, temperatures, filtration, etc.). With a group more inclined to more passive methodology (native yeast fermentation, strictly neutral oak, etc.), the results might have swung to terroir as the pervasive influence.

    I would say that, like that of The Cube Project, the Cellar Crawl results demonstrated specific circumstances rather than broad principles.

  2. Donn Rutkoff says:

    Julie Johnson in her Rutherford brand Tres Sabores did this for a while with 3 Zins by 3 different makers. See if you can get any input from her, with a historical component added in.

  3. Obviously, it’s quite easy to mask terroir with heavy-handed winemaking. So technique can (and in my experience, usually does) easily trump terroir. For example, terroir can never hold up against a relentless onslaught of oak. A much better test of terroir is to simply taste finished wines or barrel samples of the same vintage from different sites made by the same winemaker using exactly the same techniques. I’ve been fortunate to have this experience on several occasions, and the differences between the wines are usually obvious and in some cases profound. To answer the question posed by the title to your post… In my opinion truly FINE wines are derived from exceptional terroirs and need not be manipulated to achieve their superlative qualities. The “technique” for these wines is minimalist and allows vintage variation to shine through. Certainly there are numerous wines that have been judged to be “fine” (based on the scores of critics, etc.) that are excessively manipulated and have absolutely no sense of terroir. I guess the answer to your question hinges on one’s definition of “fine”. If wine need only be yummy to be “fine”, then technique is the most important. If you judge wines to be “fine” only if they have nuances of character that derive from the expression of their source, then terroir is more important.

  4. Here’s a great example – Take Schraders Double Diamond. Thomas Brown, one of the top Napa winemakers. Everything he touches turns to gold…except for the juice from Amber Knolls. What’s the deal with that? I’ve tried several vintages from that vineyard and they are all dull and boring. Where’s the structure, complexity, tannin, excitement? Might as well drink Welches grape juice. How does this happen with an all star winemaker? Blame it on the terroir?

  5. Amen Steve, Amen

  6. Randy Caparoso says:

    You hit the nail on the head, Mr. Pogue. That is why I brought up the obvious but usually overlooked factor of vintage: each year our most talented winemakers are given slightly to drastically different sets of circumstances, and the objective to most of them is to turn them into wines that, for all intents and purposes, conform to their pre-set perceptions of quality, or what they think of as “fine.”

    House style has a lot to do with it, and so does the basic, often compelling concept of “improving on what Mother Nature has given us.” Hence, the whole kit and kaboodle at winemakers’ fingertips: fermentation tanks, bags of yeast, oak barrels, and countless or untold additives.

    What’s also interesting, of course, are the constant numbers of consumers who prefer the opposite: wines that aren’t forced to conform to winemaker perceptions, house styles or commercial models. This is good, because it preserves nice little markets for vintners who feel the same. Importers like Kermit Lynch have made an entire living out of European wines that are far less predictable than, say, commercial American wines.

    But I also wanted to bring up the thought about vintages because quite often both consumers and journalists confuse yearly circumstances with deliberated styles. In recent years, for instance, there’s been a lot squawk about high alcohols and/or overripe fruit, when in a lot of cases these qualities have been beyond the control of even the most controlling producers. When Nature gives you a hot, generous year, for instance, wines get high in alcohol and fruitiness. When Nature gives you cool, lean years, wines get lighter, sharper, and often earthier and herbier. In many cases, wines aren’t exactly the way wineries may like it, but that’s the way it is.

    On the consumers’ part, I think the thing to do is to enjoy, and appreciate, the variables of vintages. Many of the finer wines from American vineyards, grown in marginal terroirs, are very “European” in that sense — they are prone to natural circumstances, and we should learn to love them that way, rather than keep demanding an unrealistic consistency out of our growers and winemakers. When you do that, you have only yourself to blame when you complain about wines being “over-manipulated.”

  7. The answer obviously is both and they are inseparable. Vitis vinifera is not native to the To Kalon Vineyard. Grape vines to not naturally train themselves to trellis nor prune themselves to 2-bud spurs nor graft themselves onto manipulated rootstock.

    To Bill’s point about Double Diamond, give me a ton of To Kalon fruit and I can make something you for which wouldn’t pay five dollars. Give TRB less than perfect fruit and he makes less than perfect wine.

    Neither is less or more important than the other. It takes the best of both to make the best wine (the best doesn’t imply only big names…).

  8. Andrea says:

    I remember the first time I learned that there is no word in French for ‘Winemaker’. There is the Vigneron, and then there is the Maitre d’Chais. Until recent history, these two crafts were frequently done by the same person. When Hublein bought BV, they called Andre T. into the office and told him that he no longer needed to trouble himself with any of the vineyard decisions because they had hired a Vineyard Manager. He was so unhappy with that directive, that he left his position as VP, a title he had held since he was hired by Geroges de Latour in 1938. So, as interesting as the question is, it is sorta like asking which is the most important feature of an automobile? The Wheels or the Engine? I appreciate the excercise…but the answer, in the end, is that both together are what makes it what it is. Whether we are talking about cars or Fine Wine.

  9. Andrea says:

    Oh, and in keeping w/ Randy Caparoso’s contention that Mother Nature has a say so as well…if there is a foot of snow in the road, the car isn’t going anywhere.

  10. Thank you, Steve. I really appreciate your thoughtfulness on this post, and find your response to the wine distinctions interesting.

  11. Donn, I sent Julie Johnson a link to this post, so there is a good chance she will respond….

  12. Steve

    Great article. To me it simply depends on the vintage. Take 2011 for example. Needless to say a challenging year for all of California. I like to call vintages like these a “winemaker’s vintage”. Clearly the winemaker has to intervene in every way to make a great wine. And fine winemakers did.

    On other vintages, and we are fortunate to have many great vintages in California, the wine is made in the vineyard for the most part and all we have to do as winemakers is not screw up what Mother Nature did beautiful well for us.

    With all that being said the personality of a winemaker is always reflected in the wine they make.

    Daniel

  13. This same type of taste off was conducted by some leading Santa Barbara vintners about a decade ago using fruit sourced from the same or adjacent lots from the mighty Bien Nacido Vineyard. They poured the vino (Chard I think)at the annual tasting held at Avila Beach. Distinctly different outcomes. Which goes to show that terroir tells you what grapes to plant in a particular location, technique, who can make the best wine with those grapes.

  14. Travis says:

    Great article.

    I think it actually has to do more with the consumer than with anyone else. Some people prefer terroir in their wines, while others prefer winemaking technique (lots of new oak, a little sweet–just an example). There are so many people still out there that love that 200% new oak, and there’s others who love the minerals found in burgundy –or even in some Rutherford dust…

    But still a great debate.

  15. In the past five years, i have grown from a harvest intern to cellar worker to assitant winemaker. While i never really believed that wine was 90% vineyard and 10% cellar, I did once believe, as a couple other people have mentioned, that you mostly only “tasted” the winemaker’s work through added flavors, like new oak or whole cluster fermentation or unique blends.
    My time in the cellar has taught me, more than anything, that to bring the fruit and terroir our of a wine takes a really gifted winemaker. I’ve seen things as simple as infrequent topping or uneven cellar temperatures turn unique wines into an ordinary wines. People don’t really understand, because winemaking is a lot of fun, that it is also a lot of work, and a tiny little decision can make a big difference.
    As of now, I think crafting a successful winery is 1/3 vineyard, 1/3 winemaking, and 1/3 sales & marketing

  16. Terroir – human genius coaxing poetry from inimitable earth.

  17. Has to be a bit of both…the position that the winemaker’s job is getting the fruit from the vine into the bottle without screwing it up is just part of the equation. Several projects have been started (as others here have noted) that give different winemakers exactly the same fruit from exactly the same vineyard, then analyze the differences in the final product. That’s why so many people look for specific producers when buying wine. Emeril doesn’t cook like Wolfgang, and Heidi doesn’t make wine like Helen.

  18. Jerry – some would insist that grapes from a vineyard with great terroir are like fine steaks. All a great piece of meat needs is to be seared on a grill for a few minutes on each side – no sauces, no marinade, no fancy twirled-up thingamabobs on top. The flavor of the meat speaks for itself and doesn’t take a trained chef to coax it out. Personally, as far as wine is concerned, I don’t want to taste the style of the chef, I want to taste the uniqueness of the terroir….

  19. Monello says:

    There is no understanding of viticulture here. Natural flavor in wine is completely dependent on nutrients in the soil which is now a rare phenomenon. No nutrients means manipulation and the inclusion of all kinds of chemicals, some toxic, now routinely employed in the vast majority of winemaking in order to fake flavor.

  20. @”Monello” There is obviously no understanding of viticulture there!
    Sweeping generalizations like the ones you assert, are laughable.

  21. we’re just lucky to have someone as knowledgeable as Monello to tell us all how ignorant we are

  22. I’ve had the privilege of tasting the Cube project throughout its progress and across vintages, and tasted them blind. (winemakers technical symposium at the World of Pinot Noir). I agree with Thomas in that they showcase terroir vs. technique differently as they mature (we taste the new vintage at the tech tasting at WOPN). Although this is a “cube”, there is a fourth dimension to this interesting experiment, and that is the perception of the taster. Eric Stern’s article after the Roy’s tasting hit the nail on the head – he preferred wines from Lincourt and his table mate (a European) preferred Anne Amie wines. It is interesting also to note that perception of the acidic and tannic profile of the wines noted is, in most cases, entirely different than the actual measurement of those components in each wine. Personally, I found all of these wines delicious and as a winemaker, geeked out on the nuances that an Oregon winemaker could extract with California fruit, what Andrew was able to find in Sta. Rita Hills grapes and how a Sta. Rita Hills winemaker dealt with even cooler-climate fruit. Thanks to all of them for sharing, too!

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