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Another consideration of terroir: the wine’s reputation



If I asked you which aspect of terroir–soil or climate–the French attach greater importance to, which would you pick?

I bet you’d say soil. And yet, twenty-six years ago, in Friends of Wine magazine, Emile Peynaud, undoubtedly one the greatest enologists of the 20th century, and the father of modern cult winemaking, said, “I think it is really climate that makes the difference [in wine quality], not the soil,” when he was asked why Bordeaux is such a great winemaking region.

Climate! How very Californian. Still, Peynaud himself seemed as puzzled by this complicated equation as the rest of us; and he returned repeatedly to the subject of soil in his writings. In the English translation of his masterwork, The Taste of Wine (1987), he writes of the importance of the “soil” of the vineyard to wine quality: and breaks soil down into “the surface soil, the subsoil and its water content, and exposure.” Barely a word in this section (p. 226) of climate or weather; instead, “Wines can be classified according to the topology of their vineyards”—river wines, coastal wines, mountain wines, plateau wines, foothill wines, valley wines and wines of the plain. Peynaud’s use of topology suggests he was well aware that the physical parameters of the site—and not just the climate—were co-influencers of the wine.

Of course, implicit in any conversation about wine is the assumption—not really an assumption, since, in the case of France, it’s backed up by a thousand years of evidence—that certain varieties are best suited to certain climates: Chardonnay in northerly Chablis, for instance, and Grenache in the warmer south. That this is patently true is beyond dispute, given France’s reign at or near the top of the wine world. It also is true that Cabernet Franc, say, or Sauvignon Blanc might perform splendidly in Chablis. Wouldn’t the latter love Chablis’s chalky soil? But we will never know, at least, not anytime soon, given France’s stringent appellation controllée laws. So this is at least indirect evidence that terroir is shaped by culture and law.

I am, as my readers know, a climate guy. I don’t dispute the importance of soil, but I’ve long held that any soil can be amenable to great wine, provided (a) that it’s well-drained and (b) that the variety is suitable to the climate. In Willamette Valley, you have marine-sedimentary soils, for instance, at Adelsheim’s Calkins Lane, and volcanic basalt at Penner-Ash. Both produce high-level Pinot Noir; Wine Advocate, to cite but one critical source, routinely rates both from the low- to the mid-nineties. What they have in common is the northern Willamette’s cool, maritime climate.

Peynaud, in his formal analysis of terroir and cru, adds a puzzling element to the list of their constituent parts: reputation. Readers might not be blamed for scratching their heads at this point. Reputation? What does that have to do with the fixed and immutable aspects of cru? Yet so important is its role that Peynaud insists, “If one of this roll call were missing there would be no cru.” No “reputation”, no cru, and therefore no wine quality. So we have to inquire what he means.

It’s not that reputation, per se, determines the qualities of any particular wine. That would be very odd. But from a “nature vs. nurture” argument, reputation is the nurturing aspect, terroir the nature aspect. Every winemaker producing wine in a recognized region is aware of the context of his activity; winemaking seldom occurs in a vacuum. If I am making Pinot Noir in the Russian River Valley, I know its long and historic reputation (and if I were making Pinot Noir in Vosnes, its reputation would be even more daunting). I therefore would craft my wine in such a way that it would be a worthy reflection of its appellation. I would try and let my site “speak” in its own voice, but as the winemaker I would be in ultimate charge of making sure that voice came across in a pure way, a Russian River Valley (or Vosnes) way. I would not want the critics to howl at my wine being “atypical,” a cuss word among that elite group. Winemakers, too, feel these pressures. Next time you hear one say he does nothing but “let the vineyard speak,” realize he’s saying something he thinks he’s supposed to say. He may even believe it. But he’s also working within a rather narrowly defined context, and that context is reputation.

Indeed, this is why, in Taste, Peynaud concludes his section on Cru with this quote: “The cru is the qualitative expression, more often than not based on taste, of the biogenic capability of the environment.” He means that “the biogenic capability”, which is the natural components of terroir, is a mere potentiality that can be realized only by the taste, i.e. the consciousness, preferences and will, of the winemaker, who is aware of the region in which he labors and seeks to make wine compatible with its reputation. “The wine is made in the vineyard,” therefore, is a misleading, if humble, statement. As with all human creative activity, wine is made, first and foremost, in the mind.

  1. Elegant discussion, Steve, and much appreciated.

    Obviously *everything* matters. But yeah, in general, I’m a “climate guy” like you. (Nothing shows this better IMHO than tasting Pinot Noir from Santa Barbara to Washington, with several stops along the way.)

    But when an elegant meal is prepared, you have at least three major factors: the raw food the chef begins with, the seasonings the chef chooses, and the chef.

    Climate is responsible for the quality of the produce – how amazing or distinctive the tomato is, for example. Soil, after you get past the physical details such as drainage, provides the subtle seasoning (but it won’t turn Zinfandel into Cabernet Sauvignon; wine isn’t tofu). Grosser seasonings are provided by barreling and wine-making choices. And all the way through, we have the hand of the chef (who *might* be trying to cover up a bad tomato with too much basil but, if true to his or her craft and tradition – true to the cru – is probably going to do something else.)

    I don’t see how anyone could deny the power of the soil to draw out highly diverse flavor distinctions in Finger Lakes or Piemonte, or the volcanic regions of southern Italy, or in Oregon or in Napa’s fudge-swirl of soil types. Or the pocket of limestone on the back side of a hill somewhere, or… you get the point. These things are sought out, coveted, used, and bragged about. They each make their distinctive demands on the wine maker.

    But climate still seems to trump IMHO (for reasons like the one you stated).

    And the winemaker is the chef and the artist. The great ones know what their grapes need, and give it.

  2. Jim, soil does have an impact but so does the winemaker’s individual decisions of harvest time, clones, barrel regimen and so forth. I am against simplistic explanations that such-and-such a soil equals such-and-such flavors in the wine.

  3. Bob Henry says:

    Here’s a thought experiment:

    Eliminate both climate and soil.

    Grow the wine grapes hydroponically:

  4. Bob has a point- its not the soil or the climate that make the difference. Its in the minerals that the plant absorbs and how quickly or slowly it absorbs them. Soil and climate play a role, but are not factors themselves. In hydroponic grapes we can control the climate and the minerals and the rate of absorption thus creating the optimum potential for any wine grape (or plant for that matter).

  5. Climate undoubtedly has the leading role in physical terroir; the influence of soil is much more subtle and generally has more to do with texture and hydrology than “mineral” content. Vines actually don’t absorb “minerals” (quartz, feldspar, etc.), they absorb ions of K, Na, Ca, Fe, Mg, etc. Climate is variable in both space and time. Distinct terroirs result from the spatial variation in climate, and distinct vintages result from temporal variations. No one denies that vintage variation has a distinguishable effect on the sensory components of wines – so obviously, a similar distinctive influence must be exerted by climate that varies spatially (terroir). The pressure to preserve a region’s reputation through the production of quality wines of a certain style is a component of cultural rather than physical terroir. Cultural terroir can only exert a strong influence on the distinctiveness of a region’s wines if that region has prescribed methods of growing grapes or making wines, which is generally not the case in the new world.

  6. Bob Henry says:

    Speaking of The Maestro, let’s revisit Tchelistcheff’s thoughts on Pinot Noir.

    The take-away Q & A:

    Benson: “Why is it so difficult to make [Pinot Noir] in California?”

    Tchelistcheff: “Because we have the variety, the climate, but not the SOIL.”

    Excerpts from Robert Benson’s interview book titled “Great Winemakers of California” (Capra Press, copyright 1977, pages 112-124):

    Benson [B]: … Do you believe there’s a great difference in quality between grapes grown on the [Napa] valley floor and grapes grown in the hill regions?

    Tchelistcheff [T]: … As I see it, I divide Napa Valley into three belts … The first [southern] region starts at Carneros near San Pablo Bay … and north to Yountville … And I assign this section for the varietals of early maturity [e.g., PINOT NOIR, Chardonnay, Gamay Beaujolais, “maybe” Gewurztraminer and Johannisberg Riesling], because the late maturing varieties [e.g., Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel] have always been a complete fiasco in this region. …

    B: You were one of the first to urge that PINOT NOIR be grown in the Carneros region.

    T: That’s right. Louis Martini and I.

    . . .

    B: Is most of the quality difference in this region [Carneros to Yountville] explained by the temperature? What about your SOIL factor?

    T: … It is very important in whites and PINOT NOIR to preserve the malic acid. We are interested in producing a maximum amount of lactic acid in the PINOT NOIR in the malo-lactic fermentation.

    B: And the middle region?

    T: … Yountville … almost touching Oakville … to Zinfandel Lane. … This is the greatest region for production of Cabernet Sauvignon in California. …

    [Other grape varieties that do well: Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, “decent” Chenin Blanc, Muscat Canelli. “Zinfandel is not suitable . . .” “But I definitively do not recommend planting any other varieties.”]

    B: What about in the hills just east of the Silverado Trail? Is that Zinfandel territory?

    T: Zinfandel, up, up, up we go! … Never put Zinfandel in the lower sections, except some very warm situations in the Calistoga region …

    B: What about the third [region] zone, up near Calistoga?

    T: Several people are sitting in that third belt with Cabernet and Merlot and PINOT NOIR and Chardonnay and Riesling and Gewurztraminer. It’s wrong but that’s their own decision. …

    B: I wanted to ask you next about PINOT NOIR. Why is it so difficult to make in California?

    T: BECAUSE WE HAVE THE VARIETY, THE CLIMATE, BUT NOT THE SOIL. Accidentally. we occasionally get good PINOT NOIRS as a result of the other ecological factors: tonnage, seasonal climate or submicro-climate, humidity, early maturity. These factors give us, with the gravel, accidentally, this great complexity. This happened to me 1946 in the PINOT NOIR of Beaulieu, and partially in the 1947 and in the 1968. But you see I spent 35 years working there [Beaulieu] and if I count three vintages of a high standard that’s all I accomplished with it in my life. So I am looking at new regions — to Paso Robles, and particularly to a subregion of Dry Creek of Sonoma, in gravelly, not productive SOIL. And particularly in the Forestville region of Sonoma, again in poor, gravelly slopes.

    In Paso Robles I have a very limey SOIL, to the extreme of gravelly lime. Thee I can make an individual Pinot Noir, different from Santa Ynez, which has another individuality. And the limey soil of Chalone Vineyards, where Dick Graff makes such a beautiful PINOT NOIR. . . .

    So I have these [three region] sections. And there is another section of Napa Valley for instance, the Schramsberg section with limey gravel, where Chardonnay and PINOT NOIR are planted for Champagne [i.e., sparkling wine] production. They can produce great still wines there too. But again, this PINOT NOIR will give far superior quality in Champagne than any other PINOT NOIR grown in the Napa Valley. You see how spotty it is. This appellation of origin!

  7. Bob Henry says:

    From Wine Spectator online
    (January 5, 2016):

    “Molecules of Minerality
    What in wine actually produces this desirable characteristic?”

    By Harvey Steiman

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