Further reflections on terroir: Does Pinot Noir show more of it than Cabernet Sauvignon? PLUS a reader survey
Before we get into terroir, I want to ask you to take a reader survey. You can click here to access it. My blog is 4-1/2 years old now, and it’s time for me to take it to the next level, whatever that is. The information this survey provides will help me enormously, and I’m grateful to you for taking a moment of your time. Rest assured, the information is completely anonymous. I’ll have no idea who you are. The survey software simply crunches the numbers I need. I’ll keep you posted on future developments. Thank you.
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So does Pinot show more terroir than Cabernet? This question popped up in the comments section last week when I was exploring these issues of terroir. Then I got my latest copy of Anthony Dias Blue’s trade magazine, The Tasting Panel, in which the one and only Fred Dame, M.S., a former president of the Court of Master Sommeliers, has a conversation with his fellow M.S., Emmanuel Kemiji, whom I first met when he was wine director at the San Francisco Ritz-Carlton.
Emmannual made this remark:
Cabernet Sauvignon is a grape variety driven more by its character than where it comes from, quite unlike Pinot Noir.
When I read that, I went, Wow. When I was coming up in my wine education [early 1980s], everything I read–and I read a lot–addressed the importance of terroir in Bordeaux. The Classified Growths along the Haut Médoc were in the Goldilocks porridge geography of just right with respect to the Atlantic. They were far enough away from the marshy palus along the Gironde. The best growths were those with the best drainage. Haut-Brion was great because it sat on piles of gravel. And so on. Even within the individual communes, terroir showed its hand: Margaux were lighter and more elegant, Pauillac firm, Saint-Estephe tannic. For centuries Bordeaux–the region–defined Bordeaux–the wine–with its own inimitable character.
So how could it be that Cabernet is defined more by character than terroir?
And yet, the more I thought about it, the more I decided that, yes, Emmanuel is onto something. I’m not sure how he defines the “character” of Cabernet Sauvignon, but I would define the best of them from California (which is to say Napa Valley) as full-bodied, dry and tannic, with intense, spicy flavors to which oak often brings a hint of chocolate.
Having said that, the above description could apply to hundreds of California Cabernets, most of which are perfectly nice for drinking, but not major league. To achieve major league status, you have to have something more than merely that generic oak-aged Cabernet-y quality.
It’s not until you get to Napa Valley that you find that “something more.” Which isn’t to say there aren’t great Cabernets elsewhere, but they tend to be outliers. Napa sits in the sweet spot: warm-hot enough to get the grapes nice and ripe, yet not so hot as the Central Valley. Cool-foggy enough at night to preserve acidity, yet not as chilly as, say, Carneros. Another just-right case of Goldilocks porridge.
Cabernet does have powerful “character,” but just what it brings to Napa’s terroir, and vice versa, is ultimately unanswerable. They work in tandem. Each distinct area within the valley boosts them in different ways: Yountville will accentuate tannins and earth, Howell Mountain power-packs everything, Rutherford brings that dustiness and herbs and often pushes the black fruit into the red direction. Atlas Peak brings minerality, west Oakville perhaps the most opulent peacock’s tail of everything, Pritchard Hill that high-alcohol delirious headiness. Yet these are subdivisions of a single entity, Napa Valley, that you have to concede offers sublime Cabernet Sauvignon.
And then we come to Pinot Noir. Does Pinot, in and of itself, have less “character” than Cabernet Sauvignon, making it more contingent on where it’s grown? I suppose in one sense, that’s true, because Pinot is lighter and more delicate, which would suggest that it is a site-specific grape and wine.
But great Pinot Noir now comes from an extraordinary range of places, stretching along 500 miles or more of California coast, while we still have that anomaly of great Cabernet Sauvignon isolated in one small region, Napa Valley. So I’m not sure it’s true that Pinot Noir is more terroir-driven than Cabernet, unless you’re prepared to say that 500 miles of coast constitutes a single terroir. Moreover, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to tell the difference between, say, a Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir from a Santa Lucia Highlands or a Russian River Valley. (You can do it when you know what you’re tasting, but it’s much harder in a blind set-up.)
Still, I think I know what Emmanuel means because it’s that very lightness and transparency that make great Pinot Noir so exciting. In the end, though, I don’t think we have to compare Pinot and Cabernet and wonder which is more or less terroir-driven, more or less transparent, more or less susceptible to winemaker interventions, or which has more or less inherent character. It’s when we get into these angels-dancing-on-pinheads theological debates that we lose sight of the simple things: Napa Valley is great Cabernet terroir, coastal California is great Pinot terroir.
Please do my survey!
I’ve maintained for a long time that I like equally California’s two greatest red wine–Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. You can’t say that one is better than the other because it’s not. Two different wines, often starkly different, for different purposes, meant to drink with different foods (mostly. A char-broiled filet mignon will happily adapt to either).
But then I had the occasion to look at my scores over the past year in the database, and found that at the very highest levels–97 and above–there’s considerably more Cabernet than Pinot. Then, in the mid-90 point range, that dominance actually increases. It’s not until you get to the low 90s (still very good scores) that the scales even out, with Pinot showing up in slightly greater numbers than Cabernet.
I find this fascinating, because in numbers are contained patterns, and patterns reveal underlying truths that sometimes escape our casual eyes.
One reason why Cabernet gets more very high scores than Pinot Noir is because it’s relatively easier to make great Cab than to make great Pinot. Cabernet is a more forgiving grape for the winemaker. It’s less susceptible to vintage variations, weather and local micro-terroir perturbations, probably because of its thicker skins. That is to say, it’s not as transparent a reflector of its terroir as Pinot Noir.
There are many fabulous California Cabernet Sauvignons (and Bordeaux blends) and if they open themselves to the accusation of similarity (they all tend to feel and taste the same due to their international style), that feeling and taste nonetheless rank them among the top wines of the world. If you have a liking for this style (and I do), it’s easy to taste as many Napa Valley Cabs as I do and find yourself routinely awarding them exceptionally high scores. At the level we’re talking about–95 points and above–the distinctions between them are really very minor. One wine might score 97 one day, 96 the next day, 98 the day after, due to natural vagaries. This style of Cabernet has been heavily influenced by a variety of factors (names like Michel Rolland, David Abreu and Philippe Melka keep popping up), more proof of the old adages, (1) imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and (2) if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.
Pinot Noir on the other hand, as I stated, is transparent. What that means to me is that the slightest discrepancy is instantly perceived. It may have a little too much acidity, or a tiny bit of veggie. The mouthfeel can be off in some subtle but noticeable way. It could be over-oaked. Pinot Noir loves oak, but since it does tend to be delicate, all that sweet toast and vanilla can swamp it. You remember that old tale of the Princess and the pea? She was so physically sensitive that she was disturbed in her sleep by a tiny little pea buried underneath 20 mattresses and featherbeds. That’s how it is with Pinot Noir.
I think that accounts for the skew in scoring. Pinot just reveals its flaws in a way that Cabernet, being bigger and more tannic, doesn’t. Cabernet is not better than Pinot Noir at the highest levels in California, but there are considerably more great Cabernets than there are great Pinot Noirs. That seems destined to remain the case. California has found the best places to grow Pinot Noir. I don’t think there are any dark horses waiting to be discovered along the coast. This means that acreage of the top sites is tapped out, or will be within a few years. Cabernet Sauvignon on the other hand has plenty of room to grow. There are so many hospitable places for it beyond Napa Valley: Lake County and Happy Canyon, to name but two. I expect in ten years the ratio of great Cabs to great Pinots will be even greater than it is today, but perhaps, in a funny way, that makes coming across a great Pinot Noir even more exciting, because you know how rare it is.
A reader griped the other day that I was writing too much about social media and not enough about wine. So here goes!
These are my 5 top-scoring wines from three popular varieties over the past several months. (All reviews and scores have been published, either in Wine Enthusiast’s print Buying Guide, online, or both. I’ve scored other wines higher, but they haven’t been published yet.) Within each variety, I consider the commonalities that made the wines so great, to me.
98 Goldschmidt 2006 PLUS Game Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon (Oakville); $150
97 Shafer 2007 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon (Stags Leap); $225
97 Cardinale 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $250
97 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 2008 Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $195
97 Yao Ming 2009 Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $625
2. from Napa Valley or its sub-appellations
3. relatively high in alcohol [minimum: 14.5%]
4. relatively low production
6. quality factors: richness, full-bodied, ripe, oaky, dense, appearance of sweetness, complexity
98 Merry Edwards 2009 Klopp Ranch Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $57
97 Donum Estate 2009 West Slope Estate Pinot Noir (Carneros); $100
96 Rochioli 2010 West Block Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $100
96 Marimar Estate 2008 La Masia Don Miguel Vinyard Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $39
96 De Loach 2009 Pennacchio Vineyard Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $45
1. All from Russian River Valley except Donum, which is on the Sonoma side of Carneros
2. alcohols within a narrow range [14.4-14.7]
3. production relatively low [maximum: Marimar Estate, 3,300 cases]
4. all show oak, but balanced
5. quality factors: juicy in acidity, medium-bodied [not too light or too heavy], rich in fruits [generally red stone and berry], dry, spicy, silky, elegant, approachable
99 Failla 2010 Estate Chardonnay (Sonoma Coast); $44
96 Lynmar 2010 Susanna’s Vineyard Chardonnay (Russian River Valley); $50
96 Roar 2010 Sierra Mar Vineyard (Snta Lucia Highlands); $45
94 Sandhi 2010 Rita’s Crown Chardonnay (Sta. Rita HIlls); $55
94 Matanzas Creek 2010 Journey Chardonnay (Sonoma County); $75
1. Geographically diverse, so no common origin
2. alcohol levels diverse, ranging from Sandhi (13.0%) to Matanzas Creek (14.6%)
3. all show well-integrated oak
4 quality factors: all made in the popular style: oaky, creamy, rich, flashy fruit, spicy, good balancing acidity
In Cabernet Sauvignon the address remains Napa Valley, most often the hills but not necessarily. And you get what you pay for. Also, great Cabernet can come from any vintage, regardless of its challenges.
In Pinot Noir, quality is considerably less tied to price: put another way, there are more bargains and also more overpriced ripoffs. Nor is geography as simple as with Cabernet: any of the coastal appellations can shine.
In Chardonnay, the same is true: great Chardonnay comes from the same areas as great Pinot Noir, with the single exception of Napa Valley, where very little reliably good Pinot Noir is produced. But then, I can remember a time when Napa Valley did produce interesting Pinot Noirs. The vines have all since been ripped out or budded over, victims of a critical mindset that determined Napa Valley cannot produce good Pinot Noir.
I will tell you that the easiest, laziest meme making the rounds of wine writing today is that California is in the throes of some massive “anti-high alcohol” revolution.
Lazy, biased or ill-informed journalists often resort to the conventional wisdom of the moment when, under the pressure of deadlines, they receive assignments from their editors, or are just looking for something controversial. Not just in wine, but anything: politics, entertainment, the cultural zeitgeist. Somebody begins by writing an article that causes a modest stir: then somebody else has to write about it. She or he knows little or nothing about the topic, so they turn to the magic of Google. And lo and behold, they come across the first person’s article, the one that purported to report on the “new” craze. And so reporter #2 writes a photocopy of article #1, sometimes even calling the same people as sources, who will, naturally, say the same thing. Now you have 2 articles coming up on Google searches both reporting on the same phenomenon, which of course makes it mandatory for reporters 3, 4 and out to infinity to repeat the “news.” And once you have a hundred or so articles on the phenomenon, it truly becomes–not reality–but the perception of it. Which, as they say, makes it reality.
That is the dark side result of our Internet-based “reporting.” Lemming-like me-too writing always has been an inherent virus in authentic journalism, but the Internet has caused it to go pandemic. So much easier to parrot what someone else said than to do real reporting based on the facts.
The latest periodical to report on the “anti-high alcohol revolution” which is not actually happening is Newsweek, a magazine that’s been faltering for years. Wherever the author got her inspiration, the article uses a standard, shopworn–and phony–device: it develops a thesis, then finds a few people who agree with it, and quotes them to “prove” that the thesis is correct. I’m a reporter; believe me, this tail-wagging-the-dog stuff goes on all the time. It isn’t journalism, it’s telling stories.
Another writer who’s been on the anti-alcohol bandwagon (and sometimes seems to think he’s leading it) is our own local Blake Gray. Here he is again, admitting he must “sound like a broken record on the lowering alcohol trend in California,” which indeed he does. Again, he uses the tail-wagging trick, by finding somebody who says he wants to make lower alcohol wines and then identifying it as part of “a trend.” The funny thing is that Blake can’t even get Gavin Chanin to come out and say anything bad about high alcohol. The furthest Gavin will go, in talking about the Pinots from Durell vineyards, is to say “Even though the [Durell] vineyard has that reputation for super ripeness, it’s interesting to see what it’s like when it’s not that.” Not exactly a stinging assault on high alcohol wines, nor a passionate defense of lower ones. Just “it’s interesting…”. The other weird thing is that Blake implies that Gavin left Au Bon Climat in order to make low alcohol wines (at least, that’s the spin I think he put on it). But ABC’s Pinots routinely are in the 13s.
Look, high alcohol California wine isn’t going anywhere. It’s baked into the souffle. Cabernet is going to stay high, 15ish or so, especially in Napa Valley, where it makes one of the most exciting wines in the world. Pinot will stay in the high-13s to the low 15s but mostly in the mid- to high 14s. There is no trend against high alcohol in California. There are people playing with lower levels, to see what they can do, like Gavin. There are always winemakers tinkering with technique; that’s the nature of winemaking. But please, can we fold up this “trend” nonsense and throw it away with yesterday’s papers? There are better things for wine writers to write about, like: Why our climate mitigates against low alcohol wines. You can’t just pick Pinot Noir at 21 degrees of brix and make a 12% wine because you want to, or because some writer told you to.
P.S. I’ve been experiencing hacking issues with this blog. The blog itself is safe; you can access it through a URL entry or bookmark and navigate safely. But searches for it, through Google and Yahoo and other engines, appear compromised. My web host is working on solving it.
Came across this blog post in the San Francisco edition of the Huffington Post on the wines of the Santa Cruz Mountains. It’s well written and makes some good points, but is a little incomplete, so I wanted to round out the picture.
The writer, Richard Jennings, correctly notes that “a few driven producers over the years have made some brilliant, minerally, complex, cool climate Pinot in these parts.” He refers particularly to Mount Eden and Rhys, whom he calls the “only two exceptional producers.” The others, he laments, “score from average to below average.”
I would add Thomas Fogarty (whom Jennings does not mention) and Clos LaChance (whom he does) to the list. Both produce very good Pinot Noirs, although they are vintage-driven. So does Bargetto, on occasion, and Cumbre of Vine Hill. I’ve also enjoyed good Pinots from Ghostwriter, Windy Oaks, Sonnet and Heart O’The Mountain.
The challenge of growing Pinot Noir in this sprawling appelllation (besides weather variation) is a lack of vineyard acreage. Although the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA covers 408,000 acres (making it the eight biggest in California), planted acreage, as Jennings points out, is only 1,500 acres, of which only 375 acres are planted to Pinot Noir. The reason for this paucity is mainly due to the fact that the region, which used to be a major wine-producing one, has sprouted suburban housing developments over the decades. There’s many a ranch house in Cupertino, Saratoga, Santa Cruz, Los Gatos and so on that sits on land that could produce incredible Pinot Noirs, but we’ll never know.
The other thing about the Santa Cruz Mountains is that it also produces some stellar Cabernet Sauvignons. A good example is Ridge’s Monte Bello vineyard. I’ve also been an admirer of Cabernets from Cinnabar, Cooper-Garrod, Martin Ray, Mount Eden [redux], Thomas Fogarty [again], La Honda and Black Ridge. Many of these wineries also produce good Chardonnay. And there’s always the interesting Syrah, from the likes of Beauregard and Kathryn Kennedy.
In general, Pinot Noir is grown on the western side of the ridges that are open to the maritime influence, while Cabernet thrives on the warmer, eastern flanks.
Lots of people don’t know that the Santa Cruz Mountains once was one of the best winegrowing regions in California. In fact, the most famous Cabernet Sauvignon of the late 19th and early 20th century, Rixford’s La Cuesta (variously Questa), was from Woodside. The vine cuttings had been taken from Chateau Margaux, and Martin Ray in turn used cuttings from those vines to start his own winery. The present day Woodside Vineyards is still on the old Rixford site.
I don’t know if anyone’s working on sub-appellating the Santa Cruz Mountains. It’s a good idea, given the Pinot Noir-Cabernet Sauvignon terroir split, but maybe not worth all the hassle, given the small acreage involved. In general, if you see a Santa Cruz Mountains origin on any wine, it’s more likely than not to be very good; and because the region doesn’t have the cachet of Napa Valley or some of the other Central Coast appellations, prices have remained moderate.
I finally finished Allen Meadows’s The Pearl of the Côte: The Great Wines of Vosnes-Romanée. I took my time, as I do with things of great pleasure I don’t want to end.
I highly recommend it. Even if you’re not a Burgundy lover, or able to afford these wines (who is?), you’ll learn a lot. It’s not every book that has so many things in it that make you think. This one is rich in provocative statements, such as this one, right near the end. Allen is recounting a tasting of 1945 Romanée-Conti, the only wine he’s ever given 100 points to. He wonders, “Had I been transported to another emotional dimension because of something in me, in the wine, or a combination of the two?”
What is striking about this isn’t that Allen was transported “to another emotional dimension.” Anyone who loves wine has probably had that experience. It doesn’t occur often in one’s life; it may never occur, but when it does, you remember it. No, what hit me was that Allen allowed as to how “something in me” might have been responsible, or equally responsible, for whatever the experience of that wine did to him.
To me, the question–which Allen doesn’t directly answer, but I think his conclusion was that it really was “a combination of the two”--implies something I think we all know, but tend to overlook. Our experience of wine isn’t limited only to its hedonistic qualities, “hedonistic” in this case meaning the way it presents itself to the five senses. There is a sixth sense–call it esthetic, spiritual or emotional–we don’t understand well, because it’s not measurable, or even explainable, in common physiological terms. It is, in fact, the thing that makes up happy, that lifts our spirits, that makes us simply thankful it exists. Now, wine may be a feeble vehicle in which to arrive at such peak experiences. Other human beings, a painting or a poem, the sight of a puppy or kitten napping, hearing the speech of Dr. King may send us there far more frequently than a sip of wine. But when wine does it, it remains seared into the memory.
Writing this makes me think about the 100-point system, about rating wines, about blind tasting. The critics of all these things point out, with some justification, that in order to truly appreciate a wine, you must drink it in the full knowledge of what it is. That is the way Allen tasted the ‘45 Romanée-Conti and is in fact the way he tastes most of the wines he reviews. My own inclination, at this point in my career, is to taste wines blind, but still, I do wonder. Question: If you read the transcript of Dr. King’s I have a dream speech, would it have the same impact as hearing it? Put another way, do you think that if Allen had tasted the ‘45 Romanée-Conti blind, in a flight of old Burgundies, he would have given it the only 100 point score in his career? I don’t think so.
Allen–an intellectually honest man–recognizes that his experience with the ‘45 Romanée-Conti raises the question of consistency, which he calls “the greatest of all attributes for a critic.” Readers want to be reassured that a wine review from a trusted critic hews closely to, if it is not identical with, a second review of the same wine, by the same critic, written within a similar time period. It would serve the consumer poorly if, on one occasion, the critic gave the wine 84 points, and then on another occasion scored it 94 points. Readers would rightfully question that critic’s credentials.
But here’s another reflection Allen makes on that ‘45 Romanée-Conti. “Peak experiences require a certain moment in time, under just the right circumstances, with a certain knowledge, experience, and emotional state. Rarely can those circumstances be replicated.”
Think about that. Allen is basically saying that the wine tasting experience is not replicable! Granted, his proviso is for “peak experiences,” such as the ‘45 Romanée-Cont. But it’s not clear to me why those parameters should not apply to one’s experience of every wine, whether it’s a Napa cult Cabernet or Two Buck Chuck.
This is a conundrum I think about all the time: Since “just the right circumstances…and emotional state” are so variable over time, then why should we expect any consistency from wine critics? I suppose the answer is at once simple and complex, like most things. It’s simple, because if a wine is, say, horribly flawed, we would expect the critic to pan it regardless of how his own personal circumstance varies over time. Similarly, if a wine is absolutely fabulous (to that critic), then we should expect him to praise it every time, although it would be unreasonable for us to demand that he score it precisely the same. (I personally think a range of 4 points is perfectly acceptable for repeat tastings, given bottle variation and things of that sort.)
But then there are all the wines in the middle: neither horrible nor fabulous. That’s the neighborhood where most wines live. The truth is, they’re the hardest to score consistently, precisely because, as Allen says, no “moment in time” is ever quite the same as another. It’s these middle wines that can score the most inconsistently in repeated blind tastings. They have positive and negative qualities: and depending on where the taster is at that moment, the positive qualities may outweigh the negatives, or vice versa. That’s the subjective side of wine reviewing.
Does this irresolution make the reviewer’s job irrelevant or, worse, useless? I don’t think so. The one conclusion the reader should take away from every review is that, while the review may not have been carved in stone and handed down from the Deity to the critic, still, the reliable critic has tasted lots and lots of wines over time, and is in a better position than most people to make a pronouncement. In other words, the “truth” of a review is never absolute, but only relative. And that’s better than no truth at all.