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More on Pinot Noir and terroir: the concept of Cru

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I went to a most interesting tasting yesterday, quite unlike anything I’ve been to before. We selected a clone of Pinot Noir (in this case, 777). We tasted it made from four different vineyards, in entirely different West Coast regions (Oregon and California), made more or less identically, but by different winemakers. Theoretically, then, the main difference between the wines would be the impact of the terroir. Then we tasted four completed Pinots from those wineries, of which the clone was an integral part of the blend, to see if we could discern the taste and qualities of the clone in the finished wines.

Cool, yes? You have to put on your sleuth’s hat.

This sort of tasting is really so interesting because you get to see, in an undeniable way, the influence of terroir, but not only that, you get to see how, or whether, a single clone Pinot Noir can make a complete wine, or whether a blend of various clones/selections is superior.

Before I go any further, let me say that there are no obvious answers. In my years of tasting, interviewing winemakers and drawing my own conclusions, I’ve decided that the minute somebody gives you a simplistic, black-and-white declaration about this or that terroir or clone, you should ask some serious questions.

For instance, let’s say that we identify the terroir of the Pisoni Vineyard, in the southeastern part of the Santa Lucia Highlands and thus warmer, but a high elevation, where you lose temperature with altitude. The soils are decomposed granite and gravelly. So far, so good. But Pisoni sells to a lot of different wineries. Some pick quite a bit earlier than others; the wines are totally different from the late pickers, and as I told our group at the tasting, I’d hate to have to blind-taste wines picked two weeks apart and claim that I could find something Pisoni-esque about them. I could say the same about any vineyard, such as Beckstoffer-Tokalon, that sells grapes to multiple buyers. Of course, any well-made wine from a great vineyard will show its structure, but the particulars—what fruits? What minerals? What spices?—will be irretrievably obscured with all those winemaker decisions, everything from picking time to barrel regimen and even the choice of yeast.

This is why I’ve come around to adopting Emile Peynaud’s view. Terroir, by itself, explains only part of the wine. To understand it completely, you have to know all about the winemaker, her techniques, and not only that, but the appellation in general, its reputation, and even the way the wines are and have been marketed. Peynaud calls this combination of terroir + everything else Cru.

Sure, terroir is important. Tremendously so: but as soon as you consider wines made by different winemakers, with entirely different house styles, that come from the same vineyard, you realize that terroir can never fully explain everything. We long for some Unified Field Theory, as it were, that would sum everything up in a single neat, tidy package. It’s only human to want simplistic explanations, but Reality abhors such reductionism.

On the other hand, I also call discussions about terroir “The wine writers’ full employment act.” As long as we talk about such unsolvable ambiguities (“how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”), wine writers will feel free to write about them (and, hopefully, get paid). And that’s good: If you’re a true wine geek (and I assume if you’re reading this, you are), then you love talking about such esoterica.

Ultimately, your view of terroir and such things depends on your mindset. Some winemakers take a very romantic, mystical attitude towards it. Others are a little more pragmatic. Reporters—and that is my background—are fact-based, and hard-nosed. We know the influence of terroir is real. It has to be: all growing things, from tomatoes to Redwood trees, are the products of their immediate environment. But no growing thing, no agricultural product, is as intensely intertwined with its farmer, and the person who takes the fruit and then interprets it according to his vision, as the wine grape. That is why the concept of terroir, however interesting and important, has to be viewed through the larger lens of Cru. Terroir is nature: human intervention is nurture.The concept of Cru, it seems to me, comes as close to anything we’ve devised to explain the totality of the wine. As my personal DNA is not enough to explain me, but you have to add my experiences since birth especially in the early years, so it is with wine.

Can a single clone Pinot Noir be a complete wine? In theory, no, because it will always have divots that other clones (or vineyards) can fill in. In reality? Absolutely. Like I said, Reality abhors such reductionism.”

  1. Terroir is the sensory distinctiveness of agricultural products acquired from a specific environment. Terroir can be divided into physical (climate, soil, etc.), biological (native yeasts, soil biota, etc.), and cultural (grape growing and winemaking) components. A region only possesses cultural terroir if it has prescribed (enforced) or strictly adhered to traditional methods of grape growing and winemaking that contribute to the distinctiveness of the wines. In areas without rules or traditions regarding winemaking and grape growing, the distinctiveness of place imparted by the area’s physical and biological terroir is obscured by the range of techniques employed by the people involved in the process.

  2. Bob Henry says:

    Back in 1991, Richard Sanford and his (then) winemaker Bruno d’Alfonso conducted an experiment: let other friendly Central Coast wineries purchase Sanford & Benedict Vineyard fruit to make a Pinot Noir.

    The others could choose how the grapes were grown during the season, and select the harvest date.

    Each winery was given free reign to craft its own “house style” of Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Pinot Noir.

    Those six wineries were Sanford, Au Bon Climat, Babcock, Gainey, Foxen, and Lane Tanner.

    Each winery committed to contributing one bottle of its finished wine towards a sampler pack representing the 1991 vintage. Each winery also committed to contributing extra wine towards a cuvée (blended by Bruno) comprising one-sixth of each discrete wine.

    The sampler pack comprised six discrete branded wines and three bottles of the cuvée — sold to the public for (as I recall) around $200.

    Members of my winetasting group bought the nine-packs. (As well as the 1992 version, after which the experimental program ended.)

    In 1995 (?) I invited Bruno (Sanford), Jim Adelman (ABC), Dick Doré (Foxen), Rick Longoria (Gainey), and Lane Tanner (eponymous) to join my wine group for a single blind tasting of the seven 1991 vintage wines.

    They all accepted, and joined us at a friend’s restaurant in Pasadena.

    We started the tasting with a “baseline” wine to calibrate our palate: the six-parts cuvée.

    Then in succession we sampled single blind the six branded wines.

    Talk about splitting hairs!

    The same fruit. From the same vintage. With negligible differences in growing practices and picking dates and cooperage affecting the respective “house styles.”

    Four of the five winemakers in attendance were stumped: they couldn’t identify blind their own wine. Only Bruno could (given his greater familiarity with Sanford & Benedict Vineyard fruit.)

    This was a wonderful experiment showcasing terroir and the winemaker’s art.

    To see the group’s preference voting results, go to:

    http://www.kirktech.com/bob_henry/

    Click on the spreadsheet labeled “California Pinots – 1991 Tasting.xls”

    One year later, my winetasting group reassembled to taste the 1992 vintage Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Pinot Noir sampler pack. Our guest presenter was Richard Sanford.

    Click on the spreadsheet labeled “California Pinots – 1992 to 1993 Tasting.xls” for the preference voting results.

    It’s lamentable that other vineyard owners don’t organize their clients to collaborate on similar ventures.

    Imagine the fun collectors could have hosting terroir tastings with their friends . . .

  3. Bob Henry says:

    Let me quote André Tchelistcheff from Robert Benson’s “Great Winemakers of California” interview book:

    “Ecology is very up-to-date in the California wine industry today, as it was forty years ago, regarding two basic factors: micro-climate and grape variety. I grant these are two factors of great importance, but I’ve always fought for my own philosophical principles in winemaking.

    “I believe there are third and fourth factors which correlate to the general ecology.

    “The third factor is soil — physical and chemical structure, profile of exposure, depth, humidity and richness of the soil.

    “The fourth factor is the HUMAN BEING as ecological manager. We divide the ecology into the ecology which is given us by Mother Nature or the Great Lord, and we can’t change that ecology; and then managerial ecology, which is full of the possibilities of man. Man uses the raw material given by the Great Lord — soil, varieties and climate — and manages them in the best way, according to his own dream, image or ideals.”

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