In our ongoing attempt to understand terroir, or cru–the sum total of influences upon the character and quality of a wine—we now come across the statement by Eric Lebel. He is (or was, when Champagne, Uncorked was published, earlier this year), the Chef de Cave, or cellarmaster, at Krug Champagne.
The book’s author, Alan Tardi, interviewed him extensively; Tardi wanted to know in particular what makes for the highest quality in a Champagne. Lebel told him this: “For Krug, it all begins here, in the vineyards…by carefully selecting the specific parcels we want, those that produce high quality, yes, of course, but also high personality. The character of the grapes from the individual parcels, and the characters of the individuals that grow them, are preserved by this approach, and all of them will eventually turn up to play their part in the wine.”
“The characters of the individuals that grow them…in the wine.” Wow. Really? Krug buys many of its grapes from local growers, some of whom are portrayed in Tardi’s book: Gerard Moreau, taciturn, “solid, like the earth.” Robert Blanc, “gregarious, extraverted, the complete opposite of Gerard Moreau,” and others. Each sells fruit to Lebel, “and this is a big part of where complexity comes from,” Lebel tells Tardi; “this mix of personalities contributes as much to the [Krug] Grande Cuvée as the meteorological events of the season or the terroir where the grapes are grown.”
When I read these words I had to put down the book, rub my eyes and think. Grower personality as important as weather and soil? Sacre bleu! It’s not just that each grower takes a different approach to his viticulture; in fact, it’s not even clear that they do. By and large, growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Champagne is all about beating the climate and coming up with a good, clean crop. But here is Lebel stating, as fact, that somehow, beyond all measurable weather and soil conditions or physical practices in the vineyard, the personality or soul of the grower finds its way into the final wine.
This is an exceptionally curious and provocative thing to say. How does the “personality” of a grapegrower enter into the wine? Can it really be as important as chalk? We are talking about sheer mystery…the inexplicable. It would be easy to dismiss this as humbug, except that Lebel has a great deal of credibility. One has to believe that he knows what he’s talking about. I have no idea if Moreau’s earthiness or Blanc’s gregariousness actually play a role in what I experience when I drink Krug Grande Cuvée (which I wish I could more often). But I really, really like the thought that, somehow, these gentlemen’s spirits are in the wine. That is about the most romantic thing I’ve heard in a long time–and what is great wine, if not romantic?
Have a lovely weekend, and if you can, drink Champagne!
Former colleague Harvey Steiman at Wine Spectator has a nice piece on terroir in his latest blog. It actually breaks some new ground to the usual, predictably tedious conversations the wine media entertains itself with on this complicated topic. Yes, indeed, “climate, elevation, the tilt of the slope or exposure to the sun”—the usual suspects—are an integral part of the mysteries of terroir, but Harvey, citing a new study out of U.C. Davis, suggests that “microflora” could be just as important.
What are “microflora”? “Bacteria and microscopic algae and fungi, especially those living in a particular site or habitat,” according to Google. The study Harvey referred to was published in the June, 2016 issue of the online medical journal, mBio, from the American Society for Microbiology.
Its main finding, which contributes importantly to the ongoing terroir discussion, albeit in “unclear” ways (a word the study itself uses), is that these microflora can account, at least in part, not only for terroir characteristics we find in “viticultural area designations” such as AVAS, but even in “individual vineyards” (and, one would expect, in individual blocks within vineyards).
The upshot? “Grape and wine microbiota exhibit regional patterns that correlate with wine chemical composition, suggesting that the grape microbiome may influence terroir.”
Scientists already had known that these microflora or microbiota exhibit “identifiable…patterns across large distances,” but what surprised them seems to have been the vineyard-to-vineyard differences they found. The scientists were careful to point out that much work remains to be done before “causation” can be claimed, in the sense of why different wines of the same variety can be different when grown in close physical proximity, winemaking technique aside. But they do now believe that these neighboring microflora “demonstrate that the microbial composition of grapes accurately predicts the chemical composition of wines made from these grapes and are therefore biomarkers for predicting…terroir.”
Not all regions of wine country are “microbiologically unique,” the authors warn, and climate, soil type, topography and agricultural practices—long known to be part of terroir—also in turn may influence microflora. What, then, is the use of this study, which just seems to further muddy already muddied waters? “These markers could provide actionable information to winemakers to improve wine characteristics or mitigate problem fermentation…and could be practical for predicting the suitability of potential vineyard sites…”.
The challenges all of this poses for wine writers, which is what I’m interested in, would seem to make their tasks even more insurmountable, when it comes to writing about terroir. We at Jackson Family Wines have been doing a ton of research at understanding the various terroirs of the sub-AVAs of the Willamette Valley. It’s hard work, with source information often contradictory; the same platitudes seem to be repeated endlessly, without substantiation or proof, which, of course, only serves to prompt less diligent writers to repeat them. Getting an adequate explanation of the differences between, say, a Penner-Ash Estate and a Zena Crown Pinot Noir seems trickier than ever, now that we have microflora thrown into the equation.
The wine writer is tempted to throw up his hands in despair, but this is not allowed in analytic journalism. One must persevere, weeding out untruths from part-truths and absolute truths (which, on close inspection, often turn out to be not-so-absolute), and realizing that for every assertion, the contrary can be found; the best one can hope for is a valid consensus of all sources, rather the way things work in Biblical analysis. People—the general public—want simple, black-and-white truisms where, alas, they seldom exist. Usually, there are only shifting shapes of gray.
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!).
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.”
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.