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Terroir, briefly

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We had another lovely and successful event yesterday, a first-class audience of about 60 wine-savvy people in the Vintage Hotel in downtown Portland. You never know with this kind of audience what topics will prove to be the most interesting, but in this case (and maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise) it was terroir, or more precisely, the role of the human and whether or not man (and woman) is part of terroir.

Now this isn’t just an academic question. As I said in some of my remarks, terroir is more than however you define it; it is often the beginning of communication (sometimes heated) between people in seminars or informal chats. Talking about wine, rather than “just” consuming it, is of course one of the most pleasurable parts of the wine-drinking experience, and not just talking, either, but talking about the wine’s qualities, and the vineyard, and how and why it is unique, and what part the winemaker plays in all of this, with all the consequent complexities that involves; and of course, as you can see, this is how people like myself and my friends spend a good part of our days and nights. And the notion of terroir can be, more often than not, the icebreaker that sets it all off; and, to judge by our audience, it set them off, too.

I explained my own idea, which I have borrowed and adapted from Emlle Peynaud, that man is not part of terroir, but that terroir + man = cru. I haven’t fully worked this out in my head, but the Platonic-Descartesian philosophy distinguishes between the natural world (terroir) and mind or spirit as within the natural world, but somehow and mysteriously apart from it (the natural world does not think; man thinks, and therefore “is”), and since man, aided by his thought processes, which are creative (which is not to imply that nature is not creative), can profoundly shape and impact nature, then “cru” becomes that interplay of man and nature that makes (among other things) wine. Or, to put it is a less blowhardy way, God makes vinegar; man makes wine. (Someone else said that.)

When we were batting this around, my friend Julia Jackson asked how man could not be considered a part of terroir, since man-made climate change and global warming are having such an obvious impact on climate (cf. wine in Great Britain). That was a good question. My two cents: For the first time in history man is having an impact on climate and weather, i.e., the ability to alter it. That never happened before, so it was not necessary to consider whether or not man was part of terroir. He was not, because climate happened independently of anything man did. Now, though, climate does not happen independently. Well, it still “happens” all by itself, but is radicalized or perturbed so much by carbon emissions and other things that it is changing the weather in historic wine regions. Bordeaux is getting warm—Oregon, too. Someone told me they heard an eminent climate scientist saying the Aleutians could be a good cool-climate growing region in twenty years. So maybe you do have to say that man is part of terroir. When the unprecedented is happening, you have to throw out your old paradigms because they no longer work.

It delighted me that the younger members of our audience loved this conversation. They, like their predecessors (my generation, and the generation before me) love thinking and talking about wine. They will be talking about terroir when they are old men and women, and so will their children (assuming they are wine geeks), and their children’s children, because for wine lovers, terroir is the gift that keeps on giving (and the wine writer’s full employment act!).

 


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.”


Another consideration of terroir: the wine’s reputation

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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.


Pinot Noir 4.0: An exploration of extreme terroir in California and Oregon

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This is my take on the situation. I hope to hear from you about yours. Agree, disagree, whatever you add will be appreciated. Thanks.

* * *

Pinot 1.0 extended from approximately the Repeal of Prohibition (1933) through the 1950s. Growers knew they wanted to plant Pinot Noir because it was the great grape of Burgundy. But they had little or no concept of where it grew best, so they installed it in places they had already cultivated for varieties like Zinfandel, Alicante Bouschet, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc: Napa Valley and the eastern Russian River Valley around Santa Rosa. The climate wasn’t always right, growers didn’t have access to good clonal material, and they didn’t understand that Pinot Noir isn’t vinified the same way as Zinfandel. The result was wines that were not outstanding. As late as 1986, Friends of Wine magazine—then the leading consumer wine magazine in America—stated categorically, “California Pinot Noir has yet to achieve an acclaim parallel to that of Cabernet.”

This began to change with the advent of Pinot 2.0. It was an extraordinarily creative time. Beginning with tentative efforts in the late 1940s (Tchelistcheff going to Carneros, for example), growers gradually understood with more precision that Pinot Noir needs to be planted in cooler coastal areas. By the late 1960s, the race was on, towards places like western Santa Ynez Valley, the western slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Anderson Valley, Carneros and the central and westerly stretches of the Russian River Valley. The quality of the Pinot Noirs improved, especially with the importation of Dijon clones in the late 1980s-early 1990s and a more thorough understanding of winemaking technique. Critics began to sit up and take notice.

Pinot 3.0 was simply an extension of this trend. Growers began to discover specific terroirs within the cooler regions, and to further adapt their plant materials and techniques to those particular micro-climates and soils. For example, the greater Russian River Valley began to be understood in terms of smaller sub-regions within it: Laguna Ridges, the Middle Reach, the Santa Rosa Plain, and so on. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, we saw a huge improvement in the quality of Pinot Noir: riper wines, more delicious and savory and balanced, that, in the view of many, gave Burgundy a run for its money. Then came Sideways, and the public eagerly hopped onboard.

But enough is never enough when it comes to fine wine. Pinot 4.0 began in the last several years, encouraged to some degree by the rise of organizations like In Pursuit of Balance, and spurred by a new generation of sommeliers. But this new phase of exploration seeks wines that go beyond mere hedonism and deliciousness to capture what the wine writer Richard Olney calls Pinot Noir’s “mysterious, sensuous, transcendental, ethereal” nature.

How does a winemaker capture such a will-of-the-wisp transcendence? Olney says it is only through “the genius of the terroir,” a concept the Burgundy expert, Allen Meadows, further elucidates in his analysis of La Romanée-Conti itself. Its terroir is such that it produces “subtle and reserved, even austere” wines that do not “shout or call attention to themselves, but require the connoisseur to come to it rather than it coming to the taster.”

This is a momentous step. It’s no longer enough for the greatest Pinot Noirs to appeal only to the senses. Pinot now must appeal to the intellect. It becomes a cerebral experience: more French New Wave film than Hollywood blockbuster. Wines, to paraphrase Meadows, that require us to sit back and think and talk about them.

Now that we have identified, in California as well as in Oregon, the cool-climate sites, we can take this journey to the next level: which is to explore individual vineyards of extreme interest and complexity. These generally are hilly. Their soils are austere, with no water-holding capacity. Weather conditions may be marginal, such that not every year will be a “vintage year.” The challenges to grapegrowing in such sites—from frosts to pests and steep slopes—are daunting: they require the most intensive viticulture. But the results, which will take winemakers many years to fine tune, are bound to be amazing. Pinot 4.0 represents, in California and Oregon, the most daring challenge to Burgundy that has ever been mounted.


On the road to Willamette Valley

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It was a pretty ride up to Oregon yesterday, bright sun and blue skies the whole way. Shasta looked like a Japanese painting,

Shasta

although when we got to the Siskiyous the fog descended. I think that this part of the land must be behind the rain shadow: the conifers suddenly disappear, so does the snow although you’re still at a good elevation, and instead everything is the barren beige dry blandness of high desert. These rain shadows have always fascinated me: Eastern Oregon is a good example, but so to some extent are the Vacas in Napa Valley, which have considerably less rainfall than the Mayacamas, which is why east Oakville is so different from west Oakville.

It was cold in northern California and southern Oregon, and considerable snow already had fallen. Poor Gus, who had never experienced snow before, didn’t know what to make of it. I think this picture of him is a WTF moment.

GusSnow

I stayed the night in Ashland, a cute little town, and across the street from my hotel was a wine bar, Liquid Assets. Quel coincidence: they had a Freemark Abbey 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon on the by-the-glass list.

FreemarkBar

Tomorrow—today, as you read this—I complete my journey to McMinnville. Jackson Family Wines has a vineyard up there, in the south-central part of the Willamette Valley, and we’re interested in seeing if we can get a sub-AVA going in the Monmouth area. It’s a terribly interesting project that involves going deep into the tall weeds of TTB policy, but it’s right up my alley. The first thing to do is determine a name, which TTB requires be anchored in historical documentation. So for the next several days, you’ll find me in local museums, historical societies and libraries, doing my research.

A big reason why I drove up to Oregon rather than flew was because I want to get a sense of the lay of the land. It’s one thing to study USGS maps and soil surveys, but important as those are, they provide only limited information about terroir, which after all involves all sorts of other elements. The human brain and especially our eyes are equally needed, to show the relationship of valley and bench to slope and hill, to see variations in soil color, to breathe the air and detect subtleties of wind, temperature, humidity and plants. I think the most important thing about the terroir of wine grapes is to learn to perceive everything from the point of view of the vine. Years ago I used to lie down in vineyards. Dissociating myself from my mind, I’d experience the wholeness of being a living thing at that place at that time. That’s what terroir means, isn’t it?


On geological faults in Burgundy and Sonoma County

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I’m reading Benjamin Lewin MW’s new book, Wines of France, and as usual with his books, there’s more thoughtful information packed into almost every paragraph than most other wine books contain in 100 pages.

I’ll have a more complete review in a few weeks, but for now I want to comment on the role of geological faults in Burgundy and in Northern California. As Lewin writes, “Burgundy is a land of faults that create intricate variations in terroir.” The major fault, the Saône, runs down the length of the Cote d’Or; the famous Route Nationale 74 more or less marks it.

The major terroir features that the fault contributes to the Cote d’Or are the hills themselves that are oriented towards the southeast, from where they pick up that beautiful morning sun. The fault also has brought, through uplifting I would imagine, limestone close enough to the surface for the vine roots to touch it, especially mid-slope, which is where the Premier and Grand Crus are.

Yet, to a Californian, to say that the Saône Fault has created “intricate variations in terroir” is almost laughable. Compared to, say, Sonoma County’s, the Cote d’Or’s terroir is as simple as a child’s toy. Where the Cote’s soils are (as Lewin writes) a mixture of various types of limestone and marl (clay and shale), the soils of Sonoma County are complex almost beyond understanding, encompassing everything from volcanic debris to ancient bedrock, sand, pebbles, dust and clay. And where the Cote is geometrically simple to visualize (close your eyes and try it), Sonoma County is a mass of jumbled hills, valleys, swales, cliffs, riverside flatlands and orientations. It defies visualization.

Our relevant fault system in California is the San Andreas. My friend, the well-known wine writer Bob Thompson, once described these soils as a “slagheap,” a word that only begins to describe the cluttered mess. It is often said that Sonoma County contains more soil types than all of France—I may be mis-remembering the specific reference, and I’m hoping someone will point me in the right direction. But you get the point. Walk ten feet from any given spot, and the soils (structure and chemistry) under your feet will change, sometimes drastically.

So if the Cote d’Or displays “intricate variations in terroir,” we’d have to search for a word for the terroir of Sonoma County that means “intricate on steroids.” This is the main reason why the Russian River Valley will never be classified according to vineyards in the orderly, logical way that the Cote d’Or has been. It cannot be done, because there is no pattern to the soils.

The climate is another matter. It is relatively easily explainable throughout Sonoma County. But climate alone cannot be the basis of terroir; indeed, climate plays a minor role in Burgundy, where soil is King (or Queen). There is something decidedly American about the disorderliness of Sonoma County. It’s untidy, a mélange. The French dislike untidiness; it goes against their grain for organization and classification. Lucky they were to have, in the Cote d’Or, a place that really can be organized and classified by soils. They would go crazy if they had to deal with Sonoma.

I doubt if the notion of terroir would have developed the way it has, if the wine world had been centered on California, instead of France. The French not only are obsessive organizers and classifiers, they also possess a sometimes exaggerated patriotism that can verge on chauvinistic. They feel that France is the supreme nation (I am not prepared to disagree in some respects), and, once they realized that the limestone and slopes of the Cote d’Or were responsible for the fabulousness of the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, they rightfully coined the concept of terroir to imply that no where else in the whole world—no country, no state, no region—could ever match the Cote d’Or in quality, because the Cote d’Or is, by definition, the place that it is, and no other place on earth can be identical to it. This is a redundant truth, and it is not entirely false. But it also is not entirely true. Great Pinot Noir and Chardonnay can be grown elsewhere. And it also is not entirely true that California cannot produce Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs that rival those of Burgundy, and can be very difficult to discern from Burgundy. What, then, does this do to the very notion of terroir? It suggests that all terroirs are equal (in a political sense, like the members of the United Nations all are equal), although, to torture George Orwell, “All terroirs are equal, but some terroirs are more equal than others.”


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