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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.”


Gems vs. rhinestones

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I was chatting the other day with the great Richard Arrowood when he said something that really caught my mind. “I want to focus on gems, not rhinestones.”

What is a “gem” of a wine? It’s an unofficial term, of course, and therefore subject to interpretation; but I think Richard meant wines that are made in small quantities and come from a single vineyard (historically, Richard is one of the important pioneers of vineyard-designated bottlings in California). And moreover, the vineyards must have proven themselves over time to possess unique characteristics that make the wines particularly interesting. So much the better if and when the winemaker has long familiarity with those vineyards, and knows how to apply his art gently enough to allow the terroir to shine through, and yet indelibly enough to stamp the wines with his own style and personality.

This balance of natural terroir and winemaker style fascinates me. It’s not easy sorting the two out. Like tangled hair, they interweave with and cross over and under one another; separating out which strand is which is an impossible task. After all, why do we separate human activity from natural activity? Are we humans not part of the natural world? (Plato may be to blame for this conundrum.) And yet, he who would understand wine must attempt to analyze what nature, for her part, and man, for his, contributes to wine.

It used to be easier to distinguish between the two for the simple reason that, in times past, all winemakers in a given region tended to use more or less the same techniques. Because they all imposed a similar signature upon the wines, any differences between the wines had to be due to terroir, right? And so we got the Bordeaux communes, each of which had its own personality.

How much more complicated things now are! Winemakers have a plethora of clones and rootstocks for any varieties they want. Their canopy regimens and pruning practices are more sophisticated than 18th century viticulturalists could have imagined. Winemakers also can choose barrels from just about anyplace, toasting them in any way they want. They can select from among a vast array of yeasts, or depend on indigenous yeasts. Their choices of destemming, crushing and fermentation vessels are limited only by their budgets. They can take out alcohol and tinker with their wines in the most amazing ways. In America, unlike most of Europe, they have an entirely free hand, without an overweaning government telling them when to pick or how to blend. And with every touch of the hand, they replace, or add to, what the natural terroir gives the wine with what they themselves want it to have.

But the final definition of a gem, as I think Richard meant, has to come from the winemaker’s mind. With all our emphasis on terroir and winemaking technique, we sometimes forget that the formative character of a wine—call it its Platonic nature—begins in the winemaker’s imagination. He or she first creates the wine mentally, as an idea or image, and then transmigrates it, godlike, into physical manifestation. Some winemakers do this formulaically. Others adopt the artist’s attitude. It’s risky to be an artisanal winemaker, because sometimes your idea of art is contradictory to what the market—as interpreted by your sales force—wants. If you march too stridently to the beat of a different drum, people won’t buy your wine. But if you follow the dictates of the mob, your vision suffers. This is the stuff, the challenge and irony, of what truly artistic winemakers confront every day.

* * *

I’m off on another trip to Santa Barbara County and the lovely, windswept and austere Santa Maria Valley, “a house of sand and fog,” home to Cambria and Byron wineries. Will be down there for the rest of the week, but I’ll try to get daily posts up. Salud!


California Pinot Noir: A followup consideration

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A question arose on my blog late last week, after my March 27 post, What about those reports that “weaker wines are better than stronger ones”?

When the comments turned to a discussion about soils, the topic of limestone arose. Now, as any historian of Burgundy (including Chablis), the Loire and Champagne is well aware, limestone (or chalk) has been considered the “bedrock” (pun intended) of those regions’ terroir. Hugh Johnson, in his “World Atlas,” praises the limestone of Nuits-St-Georges (to use a single instance) for causing “the inimitable sappy richness of the Pinot Noir.” James E. Wilson, in his book, “Terroir,” titles his chapter on Champagne “Chalk Country” and reminds us that it took centuries for “the significance of the relationship of this lifeless-looking white rock and the soils of Champagne” to be recognized.

A few California Pinot pioneers with experience in the vineyards of Burgundy recognized it. They sought chalky soil when they developed their properties. Foremost among them was perhaps Josh Jensen, at Calera, who once described to me how he had scoured the state of California, armed with geology maps and a little vial of acid, in search of limestone, which he eventually found on Mount Harlan. (“Calera” itself is the old Spanish word for “lime kiln.”)

When I began visiting the Santa Rita Hills, local vintners made a big deal of pointing out the white-stone outcroppings that burst through the soil along the shoulders of Santa Rosa Road—limestone, uplifted or exposed from the now-retreated sea bed. In western Paso Robles, too, one can see these eroded white rocks, evidence not only of the California coast’s birth deep below a long-gone ocean, but of the fact that there is more limestone in our state than anyone had previously thought.

The comments on my blog concerning limestone underscored its importance for Pinot Noir at such wineries as Calera and Chalone. This may well be true, although in the case of Calera the terroir is dominated by the warm summers, which in my judgment trump soil there. As for Chalone, its changes of ownership over the years have resulted in some inconsistency of the wines, which makes them difficult to appraise. If we view the broader Santa Rita Hills (and Santa Maria Valley, as well), with its fossilized seashells, it’s easy to apprehend that these old chalky deposits lend a certain something to the wines (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay especially), but precisely what that “something” is, is hard to say, beyond the intriguing but amorphous word “minerality,” which almost everyone in California claims to find in their wines, whether it be Zinfandels from the Sierra Foothills or Cabernets from Oakville. I will not at this time venture any further into the tall weeds of minerality.

So I see limestone, if a Pinot vineyard is lucky enough to have it, as a good thing. But so are the Gold Ridge soils of the Sonoma Coast, the barren, austere dirts of the Mayacamas stretch of Alexander Valley, the volcanic soils of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and indeed the clays and pebbles of Carneros. This is the puzzle of Pinot Noir in California: that so vast and turbulent an array of soils can consistently produce so fine a wine.

Which leaves us, then, with the only thing these regions have in common to explain wine quality: climate. (Obviously, all the different soils are well-drained, no matter their chemical composition. Well-drained soil is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the production of fine wine.) These regions all are within the Region I-Region II spectrum of the old U.C. Davis scale. I look to the warmer parts among them, such as the Middle Reach of the Russian River Valley, to give dense, textured and frankly flamboyant Pinot Noirs. The cooler areas yield silkier, more delicate and perhaps more complex Pinots, with the most complex of all coming from those places so impacted by the coast that, in a chilly year like 2011, the grapes might not get fully ripe. But in a more moderate year, like 2012, look out.

There’s no point in pitting these styles one against the other. It’s petulant to do so. Which is why I hold that, when it comes to Pinot Noir, California has achieved—finally—a degree of variation, based on terroir, that we long envied among the French. We need envy France no more—what we need is further exploration, fueled and paid for by consumers willing to pay the bottle price, because they know that California coastal Pinot Noir needs to offer no apologies, to anyone, for being what it is.

I do think that the lower the alcohol is on Pinot Noir, the more it will reflect its particular soil conditions; there is an inverse relationship between ripeness and the soil part of terroir. In this respect, it’s important to keep in mind that the soil part of terroir is to some extent at odds with the grape itself. Which will dominate? I see this as a pitched battle between two sides. There is a school of thought that roots for terroir, another school that roots for the fruit itself. (One might almost conclude that this is the essence of the difference between “old world” and “new world” palates.) Ideally, Pinot Noir, and all wines actually, is the result of an exquisite balancing act between terroir and grape, the sort of equilibrium sometimes referred to as “tension” or “nerve,’ which is more than just piquant acidity. It’s rarely achieved; one hopes that any wine that gets a high score from a reputable critic comes close. This touches upon the ripeness conversation we’ve all been having, but does not resolve it because, in truth, there is no resolution.


On terroir, and the vine’s microbiome

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Doesn’t it seem to you like these stories lately about microbes in soil affecting wine are making the concept of terroir even more complicated than we thought it was? We used to think terroir was a matter of the physical structure of the soil and the climate, or meso-climate, of the vineyard. John Winthrop Haeger, in his encyclopedic “North American Pinot Noir,” interpreted the soil part to include “orientation and aspect,” and possibly the “chemical composition.” But he said nothing about microbes.

Emile Peynaud, the great French enologist, in “The Taste of Wine” similarly referred to terroir’s “combination of site and soil,” and while he differentiated between “surface soil [and] subsoil and its water content,” he, like Haegar, has nothing to say about microbes. (For the record, as I’ve pointed out before, Peynaud takes note of the hand of man in crafting wine’s qualities in introducing the word “cru” to denote the combination of terroir and human intervention.) Even as hardcore a scientist as Clark Smith, in “Postmodern Winemaking,” refers to no fewer than “sixty five data dimensions” in soil analysis, but they have to do with structure, chemical composition and water content—not microbes.

So if this new report on the “wine grapevine’s microbiome,” published by the American Society for Microbiology and widely reported in scientific media, is true, we’re looking at a vastly more complex explanation of terroir than anyone has envisioned up to now. The study looked at “how different bacteria colonize these plants [i.e. grapevines] and also how those microbes might ultimately contribute to the wine’s sensory properties.” The study found a very close connection—almost an identity—between the “bacterial species found in the plant [and] the soil it was growing in.”

While one of the scientists who conducted the study, Jack Gilbert, conceded that “We don’t have evidence that bacteria are specifically contributing to terroir,” he firmly concluded that “those bacteria are affecting the chemistry of the plant,” which seems to pretty conclusively state that the microbes are, in fact, impacting terroir, since the chemistry of the plant obviously plays a large part in the qualities of the wine made from it.

The thing that puzzles me is this statement from Gilbert, which really requires more explanation than I’ve been able to find. “No matter where you are in the world, the types of bacteria growing on or in Merlot grapes are quite similar.” Gilbert looked at Merlot grapes or wine from Long Island, Bordeaux and California and found “similar bacteria species” in them all. Several things are unclear. Were the Merlot microbes also found in lab specimens of other grape varieties and wines? Were the Merlot bacteria substantially different from the bacteria associated with other varieties? Why should plants growing as far apart as California and France all possess similar bacteria? Does this suggest that Merlot itself can only thrive in the presence of certain bacteria?

I hope the scientists do a lot of followup work in these areas. This entire conversation about terroir has been stuck in a ditch for decades, and important new discoveries in the vine’s microbiome may help to push it forward. It will certainly give wine writers a whole new area to write about.


Understanding temperature data? Not so easy!

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One of the toughest parts of my job—of any wine writer’s job, actually—is finding reliable, historic data on which to base conclusions about terroir.

Lord knows, we have endless discussions about terroir, yet most of them are based on anecdotal information and as we all know anecdotes are not reliable. They may be interesting, they may be well-meaning on the part of the teller, and they may even be true. Yet there’s nothing like accumulated, provable data to underscore a scientific claim.

Having been in this business for a long time I can’t tell you how often I’ve been given directly conflicting info by winemakers who often couldn’t agree on the characteristics of their region’s terroir even when their vineyards were right next to each other! Or, along similar lines, they couldn’t agree on the qualitative aspects of the wines from the appellation they shared. Needless to say, this makes the wine writer’s job more difficult, so in the end, we’re forced to come to our own conclusions—for which the winemakers who couldn’t agree in the first place then criticize us. Sigh…

A nice example of my current challenge is to determine, precisely and clearly, the temperature and climate differences between the Santa Maria Valley and the Santa Rita Hills, especially for growing Pinot Noir. The two AVAs are, of course, close together. Both are open to the west winds from the Pacific; both are east-west-running valleys. Is one cooler than the other? How does one define “cooler”? This is where the tough part of my job kicks in. Where is the data? Who controls it? Is it a government agency, like NOAA? Do individual vineyards have weather sensors that could tell us? Is that data proprietary or is it sharable? Over how many years does the data span? I don’t want data only from a single year; to be credible the data should span multiple years. Who’s been measuring degree days or daytime and nighttime lows for a decade? How long does the high temperature remain high during the day—for 30 minutes? An hour? Both AVAs are long, in an east-west direction: how much does the daily high temperature vary as you move inland? A degree a mile, as is commonly cited? What part does elevation play (both AVAs contain significant hills). This only begins to describe the complexities. As the great Saintsbury winemaker David Graves notes, “What do you mean by cooler? Hours above or below a threshold? Nighttime lows? Daytime highs? The period between veraision and harvest? Bloom-harvest? And what role does relative humidity play?” For the wine writer these are difficult things to determine, but they seem central to me, if you’re trying to pick apart the differences between neighboring appellations. After all, if an appellation means anything to begin with, it consists of these very complexities and ambiguities.

Yet if a writer wants really to tackle issues of terroir, these data points need to be accumulated. The trouble is, where are they?

It’s hard work, which is why there are so many shibboleths and myths in this business. Who’s got the time to research this stuff, or even to figure out how to begin? So, too many wine writers look up something Matt Kramer, or Oz Clarke, or Steve Heimoff or Larry Walker or somebody else once said, and repeat it, as though it were the gospel truth. Which it might or might not be. It’s not that any of these individuals would deliberate misstate something (Heaven forbid!) but that they might have got it wrong to begin with, without knowing it and without having subsequently been corrected.

Anyhow, this is one reason why the more I last in this business the less I trust “the conventional wisdom.” Still, understanding appellations is as central to my job as breathing is to life. I hope to just be able to contribute some small part to it that will stand the test of time.


Terroir in Pinot Noir: an approach, and a problem

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When it comes to coastal California Pinot Noir, we make much of the distinctions of terroir (“we” being the wine media, some winemakers and everyone else involved in this rather arcane conversation).

We know the regions we celebrate: Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, Carneros, Anderson Valley, Santa Cruz Mountains, Monterey County, San Luis Obispo, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Rita Hills and so on. We say (and may actually believe) that each region is unique. If this were not the case, then what difference would an appellation of origin make, anyway? If each of these regions is not truly different, the only thing we’d concern ourselves with would be the reputation of the winery and the quality of the wine.

But of course they’re different. Aren’t they? Anyone classically educated in Burgundy understands that Chambolle-Musigny is “feminine, elegant,” Vosne-Romanée “deep, rich, velvety but not heavy.” Gevrey-Chambertin is “masculine, complex and long-lasting;” Echézeaux “close-knit and elegant.” (Descriptions are from Michael Broadbent.) To expect anyone who loves California wine not to transfer these templates to California—in Californian-ese–is, frankly, magical thinking.

And so we insist that the Pinot Noirs (and Cabernets, and Zinfandels, and Chardonnays, and so on) from our different AVAs must be different; and, when we discover (if we do) that they indeed are, we feel content and justified. To discover that the world is the way you expect it to be, is a verification of our moral and intellectual good judgment. Life is good, when you can make sense of it according to your own terms. Without that sense-making, life turns disturbingly chaotic.

And yet, anyone who’s been around for a while will tell you that, when it comes to California wine, things aren’t that simple. It is not always possible to tell an Arroyo Grande Valley Pinot Noir from a Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir, nor for that matter to tell a northern SLH Pinot (Morgan) from a southern one (Pisoni), as has historically been the case for the two Côtes, de Noirs and Beaune. As our grapes get picked riper than they used to, and vintages become warmer, regional distinctions become blurred. (This isn’t to say that picking early is a guarantee of terroir.) It may also be that the much-touted Dijon clones contribute a certain sameness to Pinot Noir. And there’s a standardization of winemaking technique (cold soaking the grapes, new French oak) that also covers or can mask terroir. It can be very difficult even for trained winemakers to discern their own wines in blind tastings—or even to agree on what characteristics their own terroir displays!

Terroir, then, is a conundrum, a paradox. In one sense, it’s a bunch of hokum. In another, common sense tells us it has got to be true. Are grapes not like humans? Someone from the Louisiana Bayou country is going to be a lot different than someone from the South Bronx (me). Where we were born and grew up puts an indelible stamp on us; no matter how much we might subsequently change, our upbringing never leaves us. This is the terroir of humans.

One could prove the truth of wine terroir and end all the discussions forever the following way: You could organize a blind tasting of all the experts. Give them flights of Pinot Noirs, from all of California’s major coastal regions, and ask them to come up with descriptors. Correlate all the findings in a statistically meaningful way. If there is such a thing as terroir, you should be able to tweak out reliable and consistent characteristics from each region. Then repeat the experiment for the next ten years.

But you can see that this is clearly impossible, on practical grounds, if no other; and whatever the conclusions, reputable people would object, and we would have to factor in their objections. We are therefore faced with the limitations of theory. Here, a few quotes are apt:

If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts.

Albert Einstein

The moment a person forms a theory, his imagination sees in every object only the traits which favor that theory.

Thomas Jefferson

The next quote isn’t specifically about theory, but it does say a lot about how Californians like to break society’s theories:

I moved to California because it’s a lot freer, you know? You can do what you want to do, and nobody bugs you.

Janis Joplin

And my favorite:

Before I got married I had six theories about raising children; now, I have six children and no theories.

John Wilmot

THE META-TAKE

I’m working on a project where we’re trying to figure out what makes Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir different and distinct from all other coastal California appellations. I think, in my bones, that it is; I believe I’ve noted those differences, over the course of many years, and can describe them, even if I can’t explain them; and I know for damn sure that the Santa Maria Valley is utterly unlike any other coastal growing region, in climate but perhaps even more in earth. Every fiber in me insists that there’s a Santa Maria character to Pinot Noir. At the same time, for all this certainty, I know the enormity of the challenge in nailing it. Wish me luck.


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