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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.


Are vineyard designates better than blended wines? Not necessarily. So why do they cost more?

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I was reading Peg Melnik’s article on Chateau St. Jean’s 2010 Belle Terre Vineyard Chardonnay, in yesterday’s Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, which reminded me that Chateau St. Jean pretty much single-handedly created the vineyard-designated Chardonnay market in the 1970s, with a brilliant series of wines crafted by their then-winemaker, Richard Arrowood. Belle Terre, Les Pierres and Robert Young were perhaps the best known, but one year, Arrowood produced 9 individual Chardonnays. (He also made vineyard-designated Fume Blancs and Rieslings.)

It got me thinking of how obsessed we are today with single-vineyard wines in California, not just Chardonnay, obviously, but everything, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir.

The first vineyard-designated Cabernet I ever heard of was Joe Heitz’s Martha’s Vineyard. It was, back in the day, the most famous Cab in Napa Valley, and if it’s lost a little of its luster in the glare of so many newer brands, it’s still well-regarded. I don’t recall the first single-vineyard Pinot Noir I ever had. The first one I ever reviewed in my wine diary was a 1982 from Louis K. Mihaly, with a Napa Valley appellation. The label said “Produced and bottled by the estate of Louis K. Mihaly,” so I suppose that, technically, it was a single-vineyard wine; but I’m talking about vineyard designations on the label. Ditto for the Dehlinger 1985 Lot #2 Pinot I tasted (in 1990, by which time it had gone downhill).

Today, of course, many producers make single vineyard wines. They fetch a higher price, on average, than blended wines. (Even the word “blended” sounds pejorative. We need to come up with a better one.) When you think about it, though, there’s no reason per se why a single vineyard wine should be better than a blended one. The reason the Bordelais grew so many different grape varieties was because they knew that blending could fill in the divots that a single variety wine might otherwise have (unripe, too acidic, too tannic, not enough color, etc.).

It was in the 1990s that vintners opted to go bigtime with vineyard-designated bottles. They said they were spurred by the extra complexity that certain sites exhibited, but that’s only half the story. The other half was that, by then, it was apparent the public would pay more for single vineyard wines. (We can thank Heitz and Chateau St. Jean for that!) I myself have never quite bought into the theory that the wine from a particular place is necessarily better than a blend. Some critics make much of “wines of place” and, of course, to question the concept of terroir is to hold oneself up for ridicule. However, I don’t see how you get around the “divot” theory: in a perfect vintage, a particular site might yield a complete wine. But not all vintages are perfect, and it’s only logical to expect that, in other vintages, the grapes from a particular site will be lacking something and could benefit from being blended with the grapes from another place.

Today we have brands that specialize in single vineyard wines: Siduri, Loring, Testarossa and Williams Selyem (among many others) in Pinot Noir, and practically everyone making high-end Chardonnay. (Williams Selyem, Lynmar, Rochioli, Paul Hobbs, Marimar Torres, Martinelli, Talley and Thomas Fogarty in particular come to mind.) There also are an increasing number of wineries that bottle vineyard-designated Cabs. Sometimes they buy grapes from other growers, and sometimes they simply make block bottlings from their own vineyard or from separate vineyards in their own portfolio. (Sometimes it’s hard to say what the difference is between blocks from the same estate, and separate vineyards. Witness Diamond Creek.)

As I said, I’m not sure that the best, most wholesome and complete, not to mention satisfying, wines come from individual vineyards. But wine isn’t just about hedonism, it’s about intellectual fun. For me, as a wine lover and critic, I love these single vineyard or block designation wines because they’re so interesting in themselves, even if they’re sometimes a little lacking something essential. Just like some people.


The multiple-vineyard Pinot Noir game: gaining ground

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Testarossa, Siduri, Williams Selyem, Merry Edwards, Failla, Bonaccorsi, La Follette, De Loach, Bjornstad, MacPhail–what do they (and many other California wineries) have in common?

Yes, they’re all Pinot Noir houses (in addition to whatever else they make), but they also play the interesting game of buying Pinot Noir fruit from multiple vineyards and bottling them with vineyard designations. For the wine taster, this presents unique opportunities, as well as challenges.

I suppose the allure of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti was such that it was only to be expected serious Pinot winemakers would want to try their hands at expressing the terroir of different vineyards. (I don’t mean wineries who own estate vineyards and produce different designations, like Lynmar, Donum, Rochioli or Talley, I mean wineries that buy their fruit. And yes, I know that some of them, like Williams Selyem, own their own vineyards.)

I don’t know who was first to play the multiple vineyard game in California. Williams Selyem certainly was an early adapter. Testarossa seems to have followed their model in the 1990s. The entrepreneurial aspect of the template is perhaps most perfectly expressed by Siduri. But over the last 2-3 years, more and more wineries are getting into the act.

The opportunity for the taster in these cases is twofold: (1) to see if you can detect the winemaker’s signature across multiple terroirs, and (2) to see if you can detect the vineyard’s terroir across multiple winemakers. This latter opportunity is true only of those vineyards large enough to sell fruit to multiple winemakers; among them would be Bien Nacido (among the largest) and smaller ones like Rosella’s, Precious Mountain, Olivet Lane and Fiddlestix. This isn’t as easy as it seems, though, because winemaker techniques can differ widely (some pick earlier than others) and because of micro-terroir differences in vineyard rows and blocks.

There also is the challenge of precisely how best to taste the Pinot Noirs of these multiple producers when they all arrive in one box. There is no one best way of tasting; each approach has its pros and cons. When Bob Cabral sends me 15 vineyard-designated Pinots, should I taste them in a single flight, or should I segregate them out by appellation and taste them against other Pinot Noirs from those appellations? I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule for this. My own preference is to taste them all together–to take a long, leisurely swim in the essence of Williams Selyem, as it were–but I can see where an argument could be made to taste Russian River against Russian River, Sonoma Coast against Sonoma Coast, and so on. It also would be instructive to do flights from the same vineyard from multiple producers, although tactically, this is more difficult for me to set up, as wines from the same vintage may arrive at widely different times across a calendar year or even two, depending on the winery’s release schedule.

I will say that tasting these multiple Pinots from the same producer is one of my most enjoyable tasks. Not every wine in the world is bursting with joy. Some, maybe most, are made grindingly, to pay the bills and fill the bellies of the masses. But when a California producer makes a range of Pinots from different vineyards, it’s because he wants to and loves to and can. This is the Happy Hunting Ground for the intrepid Pinot producer, and with each pop of the cork, I get to share in his joy.

Incidentally, it’s worth noting that few wineries play the multiple Cabernet game. Duckhorn and Nickel & Nickel do, Paul Hobbs a little, Chimney Rock’s getting into it as is a new player, PerryMoore, and there are others I could mention. But the multiple Cabernet thing is nowhere near as advanced as the multiple Pinot thing. I’m not sure why that is, but I don’t think it’s because “Pinot shows terroir more transparently than Cabernet Sauvignon,” which is the usual trope (and one moreover I’m not convinced of, not to end a sentence with a preposition). I think it has more to do with the availability of good Pinot fruit versus good Cabernet fruit. While there’s more than twice as much Cab planted than Pinot, there’s more Pinot going in by a long shot, which increases the availability of fruit. Great Cabernet for sale is restricted pretty much to some well-known Napa Valley vineyards, like Beckstoffer To Kalon and Stagecoach.


Retrospective: World of Pinot Noir

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Last Saturday morning’s seminar on “Terroir: The Soul of La Côte d’Or” was an absolute delight. It’s no easy thing to rouse an audience of several hundred at 9 a.m. in the morning of the second day of a major wine and food event, after a night in which most of them partied hard and went to bed late. But Don Kinnan did it.

John Haeger, who wrote North American Pinot Noir, used to have this time slot for his “Pinot Noir 101” seminar, which we always enjoyed (“we” meaning myself and all the other attendees; I haven’t adapted use of the Papal “We,” yet). But Mr. Kinnan, who appears to be of a certain age, was new to most of us, and we didn’t know quite what to expect.

Turns out he’s an ex-Kobrand guy, where he was director of education, and also holds the Certified Wine Educator certificate from the Society of Wine Educators. Don not only “knows his stuff” when it comes to Burgundy, but also made one of the greatest presentations (complete with Power Point) I’ve ever seen. He had everybody captivated with his graceful, informed and easy approach.

We tasted 9 wines, from 9 villages, 8 producers and 4 vintages, in order to penetrate more deeply into the mysteries of terroir. Don explained how Burgundy is comprised of 3,800 estates, not to mention 250 negociants, spread over 101 appellations, which makes it a terribly complicated place. “It takes faith to believe in [the reality of] terroir, which cannot be proven by the scientific method,” Don told us. Of course, I’ve grown up with conventional notions of Burgundian terroir: Volnay delicate, Vosne powerful, Beaune elegant, Chambolle feminine, but unless you really drink a lot of these wines, you don’t know these things first-hand. Don wanted to show us how the old notions of regional differences are true, and he largely succeeded.

First, he tackled an issue I’ve written much about on this blog: “terroir” is the soil and climate, but the human element has to be considered, in the form of vineyard management and the winemaking process. The combination of the two is what I have called “cru,” after Emile Peynaud, but of course, as Don said, in Burgundy the idea is for the human to stand back and let terroir star. (His most controversial statement may have been, “In the New World there’s more human influence than in the Old World,” which, if true, would minimize terroir.)

I won’t go through all nine of my tasting notes, except to say that Don had us taste blind, and, based on his superb and clear definitions of what to expect in the wines, I got all of them right. This surely is the highest performance a wine educator is capable of: To describe wines in such chiseled detail, in a way that makes so much sense, that you’re able to identify them blind. For me, the stars of the show were a Clos de Vougeot, Domaine Hudelot-Noellat 2004, and a spectacular Volnay, 2006 Taillepieds from Domaine de Montille, that was so good, it made my seatmate to the left, Dick Doré, from Foxen, smile ear to ear. I can only say that wine gave me a permanent Platonic idea of Volnay.

After that peak experience, it was hard to go back to California Pinot Noir. But I made a valiant effort, and have to say our state has no reason to hang its head. To fall ever so short of a world class masterpiece like that Volnay is not embarrassing. I tasted a lot of wine that Saturday, under the white tents on the bluffs above the Pacific beach as the fog rolled relentlessly in, but I took no notes. I never take notes at crowded venues like World of Pinot Noir. They’re not conducive to thoughtful tasting, and even logistically, you can’t hold your glass, your spit cup and your pad and pen in two hands! Not to mention a lack of level surfaces upon which to write.

But I do enjoy visiting the various wineries, trying new things, connecting with old friends, making new ones, and deepening my understanding of things in general. I will add only that, late Saturday afternoon, the WOPN people arranged for a final pair of seminars, including a Talley one to which I went, Talley being an old favorite and Brian Talley an old acquaintance. Brian brought along his winemaker, Eric Johnson, and together they made a formidable presentation, and the wines, of course, were great. However, by 5 p.m., several of the attendees were obviously drunk, and while some of us tried to get them to shut up by polite requests and tapping silverware on our crystal glasses, alas, it was to no avail. The silent, respectful majority of us were irritated, and I think Brian was, too (although he’s too much the gentlemen to reveal such things). It is really awful how thoughtless and rude some people can be. The WOPN organizers may want to rethink these 5 p.m. Saturday seminars.

But that was a minor cloud on an otherwise fabulous World of Pinot Noir. Check it out next year.


WOPN Day 1, Part 2

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We had our first two seminars at WOPN, and two more different sessions couldn’t be imagined–although both were based, of course, on Pinot Noir.

The first was called Not Pinot Blanc, Not Pinot Gris, it’s White Pinot Noir!? It was moderated by the inimitable Fred Dame, M.S., who reminded us that white Pinot has no real historical record in either California or Burgundy. He remembered Caymus’s Oeil de Perdrix from the old daze; I remembered Edmeades’ Opal, but these were outlier wines. The three wines we tasted, all called White Pinot Noir on the label, were Domaine Carneros 2011 (Carneros, $50), Erath 2011 Le Jour Magique (Dundee Hills, $55) and J.K. Carriere 2012 “Glass” (Willamette Valley, $22).

All were bone dry and fine in acidity, and made the case for white Pinot Noir. All are produced in small quantities, so even though the first two are expensive, their winemakers (Zack Miller and Gary Horner, respectively) argued that they had no trouble selling the wines–and they reminded us that, as they’re using their best grapes and the winemaking technique on these wines is elaborate, they actually lose money on them.

For me, the J.K. Carriere stole the show. Actually a rosé, its dry, crisp complexity (the wine did not undergo the malolactic fermentation, and was aged on Chardonnay lees), highlighted by subtle flavors of strawberries, white pepper, cream and tobacco, made it delightful. Winemaker Jim Prosser calls this a “back patio, sophisticated” wine, which means that it’s easy to drink on a summer evening, yet elegant and supple. I would gladly drink this wine all the time if I had any.

Fred Dame said, concerning the white Pinots, “These wines stretch the envelope.” Each was excellent in its own way, and if you couldn’t describe them collectively with any particular profile, each was savory and great in its way. Yet I doubt if White Pinot Noir will become a cult wine anytime soon. Consumers don’t understand what it is. As several people at the tasting remarked, people will think that a winemaker used her less successful grapes in a white Pinot Noir–even when, in the cases of these three wines, that is not true. They are true labors of love.

The second seminar, also moderated by Dame, could have been called the Fred-Dennis-Gary-Michael Show. That would be Fred Dame, Dennis Koplen, Gary Pisoni and Michael Brown. Dennis is proprietor of the Koplen Vineyard, in the Olivet Lane section of the Russian River Valley. Gary Pisoni is the well-known founder of his Pisoni Vineyard & Winery, in the southeastern part of the Santa Lucia Highlands. And Michael Browne is the co-owner of Kosta Brown Winery, which produced the six wines in the flight. It was a loud, boisterous session, filed with anecdotes and laughter, but also plenty of thoughtful information.

These Kosta Browne Pinots are, of course, cult favorites, very difficult to obtain–even for me. There were six: three appellation blends (Russian River Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands and Sonoma Coast) and three single vineyards (Pisoni, Gap’s Crown, Koplen). They all bear the same signature: big, rich, wines, dark in color, highish to overtly high in alcohol, and stuffed with ripe fruit. They typify a certain style, not to everyone’s liking, but vastly popular among a segment of the collector crowd. I do not regularly review the Kosta Browne wines, but if I’d done these six, I’d have scored them form the high 80s to the low 90s. The basic Russian River Valley blend showed especially well on this occasion.

At the end of the flight, Fred Dame posed a great question: “Are we coming to a cru system in California?” He meant that, 10 or 15 years ago, we would speak of a Russian River Valley or a Green Valley Pinot Noir. Now, we can zero in on a Sebastopol character, or a Petaluma Gap character, or a Fort Ross-Seaview character. And more: We can specifically reference a Gap’s Crown, or a Marimar Torres, or an Allen Vineyard, wines now with enough history to be able to credibly build a case for consistency of terroir and style.

An interesting concept, one worth developing at length in future posts.


World of Pinot Noir 1: Live from Shell Beach

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I made it down to Shell Beach on the 101 in an easy 4 hours, including a nice walk with Gus at the rest stop just north of Paso Robles. Beautiful drive: blue skies, warm temps, no traffic. The Salinas Valley was all green in row crops, but the Santa Lucias were ominously brown: the winter grass is already dying. It’s barely rained for two months and people are starting to worry. There’s some rain forecast for midweek, but I don’t know if it’s a big storm or just the kind of piddling ones that marked January and February.

I love it when the 101 makes that little grade and twist at Avila Beach and suddenlyl, Boing, the Pacific leaps into view. That’s my exit, Shell Beach, where World of Pinot Noir has been held for 13 years now. Gus and I checked into The Cliffs (76 degrees on my dashboard thermometer),  relaxed in the room  for a while, then I took him for a walk after dark, on a sultry, quiet evening. The tents were all set up on the bluff above the beach, looking white and fluffy and eerily empty in the darkness. Today and tomorrow, they’ll be rocking and rolling with Pinotphiles.

It’s still before 7 a.m. here, time to take the beast for a walk and then take the other beast (me) out to find some breakfast. I’ll be updating my blog frequently throughout the day, reporting on what’s happening at WOPN, sort of like a tweet, but longer. So check in from time to time.


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