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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.


Meet the new meme: terroir as marketing

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What I wrote yesterday isn’t to say that all Bordeaux tastes alike. Lewin doesn’t go there and, in fact, goes out of his way to point out distinctions between chateaux (e.g. Haut Brion and La Mission Haut Brion) that must be due to something–although he cautions the reader that “the only difference [between them] is that Haut Brion is planted at 10,000 vines per hectare, while La Mission is planted at 8,000 vines per hectare.” Last time I checked, terroir does not include the way a vintner plants his vines, so what vine density has to do with terroir is a mystery to me.

In California, when you think of all the things that can mitigate or mask terroir (in addition to Lewin’s catalog, there’s clonal/selection, a tendency to use more oak, a general standardization of winemaking techniques, and considerably more career mobility than in Bordeaux), it becomes easier to understand why all coastal Pinots taste more alike than not. What the wine critic’s task then becomes is to look for differences of elegance, finesse, beauty, balance, texture, ageability and so on–qualities that are not merely expressions of local growing conditions, but of human influence, of proper vineyard management and superior winemaking skills. In other words, the writer’s task becomes the telling of stories, not repeating the conventional wisdom of the terroir meme, which is of very little use to consumers.

And so we come to yet another iteration or mutation of the concept of terroir: it now becomes a marketing tool, a word to use on back labels and sales brochures. How many wines have I seen described as coming from superior terroir that actually are purchased on the bulk market and blended into county-wide or even Central Coast and North Coast appellations? I wish we could put the toothpaste back into the tube and limit our use of the word “terroir” to the only place where it could conceivably apply: to small, individual vineyards that have produced particular wines (varietal or blend) over a longish period of time, where those wines have shown a consistent style and profile. (We might for example look at the Allen Vineyard on Westside Road for its Pinot Noirs from Williams Selyem.) But I think it’s no longer valid (if it ever was) to talk about “Santa Rita Hills terroir” or “Russian River Valley terroir” or “Oakville terroir,” except in the most generalized way, and even then to warn our readers (those of us who have readers, anyway) to take these terroir distinctions with a generous pinch of salt.


The End of Terroir

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One of the most enduring memes in wine is that of terroir. (A meme, by the way, is a cultural idea that spreads virally from human to human. Memes have been compared to genes in that they may mutate in response to environmental pressures, a concept I’ll return to in a minute.)

We all know the origin of the concept of terroir: France. That it was borrowed by American wine growers and vintners, primarily here in California, is perfectly understandable, especially after the boutique winery boom pushed prices high enough that vintners had to come up with some rationale to convince consumers to dig deep. Their rationale: Mass-produced wines have no terroir. The word “terroir” went beyond its original French meaning of referring to a given set of growing conditions, to acquire qualitative and even esthetic dimensions. One might say that the terroir meme mutated.

In the 1980s and 1990s, as I was learning about wine and becoming a wine writer, the concept of terroir was all-pervasive at the higher levels of California. Napa Valley was said to make the best Cabernets because of its terroir. When Pinot Noir started to become popular, there were fierce intellectual discussions of the difference between the terroirs of, say, the western part of the Santa Ynez Valley (now called the Sta. Rita Hills) and the Russian River Valley. One might say that being able to describe his region’s unique terroir was as integral a part of the winemaker’s job as producing good wine. Certainly, it became a necessary part of the job description with the rise of the wine media.

Personally, I always had my doubts. While I could certainly tell that Napa Valley Cabernet was better than Cabs from elsewhere (as a general rule; not always in every instance), I always felt some skepticism when someone told me about how radically different Rutherford and Oakville were, or Howell Mountain and Mount Veeder. I didn’t see it quite that way. But one learns to keep one’s mouth shut in such cases: I feared that perhaps it was my lack of ability that prevented me from detecting what seemed so obvious to others. The guilty fear of many writers, maybe all of us for all I know, is that nagging feeling that you know less about wine than people think you do. So when I wrote about terroir, I dutifully quoted winemakers, while myself seldom if ever proclaiming terroir distinctions in my own voice. There’s a big difference between quoting others and making your own declarations, and I have never been confident making the kind of ultra-fine statements that would be needed in distinguishing Rutherford from Oakville.

Or Sta. Rita Hills from Russian River Valley. Or Santa Lucia Highlands from Sonoma Coast. Or even Carneros from Russian River Valley. Which is a problem for a wine writer expected to know these things. I can describe the differences, intellectually, based on my knowledge of climate and soils, and from things I’ve been told by winemakers over the years. But I would hate to be put to the acid test of having to identify these wines in a blind tasting in a public format, for a simple reason I’ve been hesitant to express, before now: The truth is, Pinot Noirs from all California’s top regions taste more alike than not, and so do Cabernets from Napa’s appellations; and now we are seeing the emergence of Cabernets from other parts of the state (not just Sonoma County, but Paso Robles and Santa Barbara County) that one might easily confuse with the real thing from Napa Valley.

Wine writers aren’t supposed to admit such things, and few do, at least in public. Which is why I have been so enjoying Benjamin Lewin’s new book, Claret & Cabs. He does such a superb job of demolishing the terroir meme, not because he doesn’t believe in terroir–he does– but because external factors are minimizing its impact, to the point where traditional terroir concepts in Bordeaux–the mothership of terroir–have become so blurred as to be largely unintelligible. (My words, not his.)

Lewin, who’s an M.W., compiles a list of reasons why terroir distinctions in the Médoc have gotten so fuzzy. Vintners pick riper. Some varieties, like Malbec and Carmenere, are being eliminated, in favor of more Cabernet Sauvignon–which may be making all Bordeaux wines taste more alike than they used to. Cabernet is being planted in areas where it didn’t used to, even at the top chateaux. Wines from lesser parts of Bordeaux are fast becoming as good as classified growths. Most importantly, perhaps, global warming is doing away with climate patterns that dominated when the communal distinctions were first established–patterns that made for perceptual differences between cooler and warmer micro-terroirs. As he writes, “I suspect…that [terroir] differences were brought out in the past by marginal conditions”–conditions that less frequently apply in today’s Bordeaux, so that “it would be a fine taster who could always tell the difference between St. Julien and Pauillac.”

Such a statement would have been heresy in Michael Broadbent’s, Hugh Johnson’s or Alexis Lichine’s heyday. Today, as established a figure as Lewin (who may be the most prolific and best wine writer in the English language) can come out and say the unsayable, the truth about terroir that dare not speak its name. He blew my mind when he called terroir “a point of faith in Bordeaux.” Faith is something you believe in despite evidence to the contrary. But for how long, and at what price?

TOMORROW: Part 2.

 


Further reflections on terroir: Does Pinot Noir show more of it than Cabernet Sauvignon? PLUS a reader survey

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Before we get into terroir, I want to ask you to take a reader survey. You can click here to access it. My blog is 4-1/2 years old now, and it’s time for me to take it to the next level, whatever that is. The information this survey provides will help me enormously, and I’m grateful to you for taking a moment of your time. Rest assured, the information is completely anonymous. I’ll have no idea who you are. The survey software simply crunches the numbers I need. I’ll keep you posted on future developments. Thank you.

* * *

So does Pinot show more terroir than Cabernet? This question popped up in the comments section last week when I was exploring these issues of terroir. Then I got my latest copy of Anthony Dias Blue’s trade magazine, The Tasting Panel, in which the one and only Fred Dame, M.S., a former president of the Court of Master Sommeliers, has a conversation with his fellow M.S., Emmanuel Kemiji, whom I first met when he was wine director at the San Francisco Ritz-Carlton.

Emmannual made this remark:

Cabernet Sauvignon is a grape variety driven more by its character than where it comes from, quite unlike Pinot Noir.

When I read that, I went, Wow. When I was coming up in my wine education [early 1980s], everything I read–and I read a lot–addressed the importance of terroir in Bordeaux. The Classified Growths along the Haut Médoc were in the Goldilocks porridge geography of just right with respect to the Atlantic. They were far enough away from the marshy palus along the Gironde. The best growths were those with the best drainage. Haut-Brion was great because it sat on piles of gravel. And so on. Even within the individual communes, terroir showed its hand: Margaux were lighter and more elegant, Pauillac firm, Saint-Estephe tannic. For centuries Bordeaux–the region–defined Bordeaux–the wine–with its own inimitable character.

So how could it be that Cabernet is defined more by character than terroir?

And yet, the more I thought about it, the more I decided that, yes, Emmanuel is onto something. I’m not sure how he defines the “character” of Cabernet Sauvignon, but I would define the best of them from California (which is to say Napa Valley) as full-bodied, dry and tannic, with intense, spicy flavors to which oak often brings a hint of chocolate.

Having said that, the above description could apply to hundreds of California Cabernets, most of which are perfectly nice for drinking, but not major league. To achieve major league status, you have to have something more than merely that generic oak-aged Cabernet-y quality.

It’s not until you get to Napa Valley that you find that “something more.” Which isn’t to say there aren’t great Cabernets elsewhere, but they tend to be outliers. Napa sits in the sweet spot: warm-hot enough to get the grapes nice and ripe, yet not so hot as the Central Valley. Cool-foggy enough at night to preserve acidity, yet not as chilly as, say, Carneros. Another just-right case of Goldilocks porridge.

Cabernet does have powerful “character,” but just what it brings to Napa’s terroir, and vice versa, is ultimately unanswerable. They work in tandem. Each distinct area within the valley boosts them in different ways: Yountville will accentuate tannins and earth, Howell Mountain power-packs everything, Rutherford brings that dustiness and herbs and often pushes the black fruit into the red direction. Atlas Peak brings minerality, west Oakville perhaps the most opulent peacock’s tail of everything, Pritchard Hill that high-alcohol delirious headiness. Yet these are subdivisions of a single entity, Napa Valley, that you have to concede offers sublime Cabernet Sauvignon.

And then we come to Pinot Noir. Does Pinot, in and of itself, have less “character” than Cabernet Sauvignon, making it more contingent on where it’s grown? I suppose in one sense, that’s true, because Pinot is lighter and more delicate, which would suggest that it is a site-specific grape and wine.

But great Pinot Noir now comes from an extraordinary range of places, stretching along 500 miles or more of California coast, while we still have that anomaly of great Cabernet Sauvignon isolated in one small region, Napa Valley. So I’m not sure it’s true that Pinot Noir is more terroir-driven than Cabernet, unless you’re prepared to say that 500 miles of coast constitutes a single terroir. Moreover, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to tell the difference between, say, a Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir from a Santa Lucia Highlands or a Russian River Valley. (You can do it when you know what you’re tasting, but it’s much harder in a blind set-up.)

Still, I think I know what Emmanuel means because it’s that very lightness and transparency that make great Pinot Noir so exciting. In the end, though, I don’t think we have to compare Pinot and Cabernet and wonder which is more or less terroir-driven, more or less transparent, more or less susceptible to winemaker interventions, or which has more or less inherent character. It’s when we get into these angels-dancing-on-pinheads theological debates that we lose sight of the simple things: Napa Valley is great Cabernet terroir, coastal California is great Pinot terroir.

Please do my survey!


Rebutting critiques of California terroir, this time in Napa Valley

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A reader made the following comment yesterday on my most recent post, Terroir and cru: an exploration. I don’t usually reproduce reader comments in full, but this one contains many interesting and complex points I want to address. Here’s his comment:

Steve, there are many problems with California ever establishing a reputation with any level of authenticity.

First and foremost is one of genuine sincerity. Quite honestly this just reeks of Napa’s latest marketing gimmick. It’s hard to listen to anyone from Napa/Sonoma discuss terroir knowing full well that during their heady Parker fueled era of success, they stenuously discounted the notion of terroir. It was, after all, about what happened in the cellar when (fill in name), superstar-genius-rockstar winemaker made the magic happen.

So, where does this newfound respect for terroir come from? Could it be borne of the desperation of market rejection, particularly in those sought after major metropolitan markets? In Chicago, you can’t give away expensive California wine, and I’ve heard that the situation is similar in New York, Washington, Boston and even San Franscisco. I can’t count how many restaurants have opened with all-euro winelists in the Chicago market over the last eighteen months. Conversely, I can’t think of one (outside of steakhouses) that’s opened that prominently featured high end Napa/Sonoma wine and none (even counting steakhouses) that focused on it exclusively.

Beyond issues of sincerity and authenticity is the issue of establishing terroir in California where the notion of vineyard designates has been corrupted to utter irrelevancy. When an admittedly quality vineyard such as Truchard of Hudson encompossas hundreds of planted vines, how does one seriously maintain that it has any real sense of terroir. Lee Hudson’s vineyard would, by European standards, encompass hundreds of indivdual terroirs–some premier cru, some village level and maybe even a couple of grand cru. Is Lee going to allow an outside authority to determine that–and thus what he can charge for his grapes? I doubt it. Also, simply calling a particular piece of land a vineyard (a’la “my daughter/wife/great grandmother’s vineyard” or “dollarsaddlehidestick vineyard” and have it immediately mean something is not how the game works. That’s marketing not the estblishment of a true AOC/DOCG sytem.

The notion of California terroir will go nowhere because their [sic] is no genuine belief in it by those who will tout it only for marketing reasons and there are powerful vested interests who will line up against it.

Many of the opinions expressed above are widely shared throughout American wine circles. Anyone in this industry is aware of them. In essence, it’s a critique of California wine reduced to the following points:

-California wine has become Parkerized.
-Parkerization is a code word for too high in alcohol, too ripe, too oaky.
-As a result, the wines lose their connection with terroir–the ground in which they were born–and become internationalized in style.
-There is a movement afoot now whereby consumers are rejecting such wines.
-Producers of these wines increasingly must resort to marketing tricks in order to sell them.

We’ve heard all this before. It’s an old argument but it does have its adherents and the issues need to be addressed whenever they arise. The truth is that the style of ultraripe wines, especially in Cabernet Sauvignon, is one that people like. That’s why producers make these wines: because they find favor among buyers. I myself reject the argument that high alcohol trumps terroir because it makes no sense. Logically, there is no reason for that to be true. Those who believe it have to assert that something in the ground that is transmitted to the wine can only be expressed if the ABV is below a certain number. That is implausible to me. After all, alcohol levels have been rising in France, too, so one would have to argue that even in France, the notion of terroir is being lost. Eventually one becomes a terroir-ideologue, finding violations everywhere, fixated on a romantic notion that doesn’t exist.

Some consumers may well be rejecting high-end, expensive, high alcohol Napa Valley Cabernets, but I would suggest that is due more to the economy than to any shifting in taste. When the Recession hit, everything pricy got hit. Napa Valley wine will find its way, I’m sure, as recovery occurs.

As for those “marketing reasons” producers rely on to tout their terroir, nothing new there either. Bordeaux and Burgundy have been doing it forever. That’s what high-end wine does: tries to convince people it’s special due to its ground and that no other wine can ever be quite like it. The Napans learned that from the French. Yes, Colgin does it. Continuum does it. Harlan does it. Screaming Eagle does it. Ditto Araujo, Dalla Valle, anything with the word To Kalon or Tokalon on it, Shafer, Staglin, Ovid, Diamond Creek, Vineyard 7&8, Duckhorn. Lord knows I’ve criticized some proprietors for not letting me taste their wines blind, which is a marketing trick if you ask me. But that’s not to say they’re not in possession of spectacular terroir capable of producing spectacular wines. They boast about their terroir because it’s real, not because they’re trying to trick people into thinking it’s real. In other words, if you’ve got it, flaunt it.

So you can see I reject most of my reader’s comment. But I do thank him for reading my blog and for taking the time to express his opinions, which I respect. I just don’t happen to agree with them.


Terroir and cru: an exploration

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I read this piece on J winery by Richard Paul Hinkle and it got me thinking about those vineyards in California I think show distinctive and consistent terroir. I’ll mention a few of them shortly, but first, a discussion.

We’ve talked about terroir on my blog before, but not for a while. It’s always a topic guaranteed to make you think! My definition of terroir is the totality of the physical things that impact the vineyard: climate or weather, soil and drainage, elevation, orientation, wind and light exposure, things like that. These are the “nature” part of the grape, as in “nature and nurture.”

The “nurture” part is what the winemaking team brings to the terroir. The viticulturalist does all kinds of things, from trellising to pruning. The enologist has the final stamp on the wine, all those intricate fermentation and aging decisions. Together, these two things–”nature” and “nurture”–comprise what Emile Peynaud, in The Taste of Wine, calls “cru”:

[Cru] is a complex notion because it combines a whole group of activities that are essentially different: agricultural, in part industrial, always involving processing, and even commerce…In Bordeaux…the cru…is the wine-producing property, the chateau…The Bordeaux cru…combines the three activities of production, processing and marketing.”

[Forgive the ellipses: Professor Peynaud’s style of writing demands concision or, at least, his English translation does.]

Because terroir is so intricately wrapped up in the notion of cru, it is possible for a great property to not live up to its potential, due to neglect by its proprietor, or perhaps the inability to properly finance it. It would be a mistake to judge a winery’s output inferior in substance: if it is not doing as well as its neighbors, it could be because the terroir is wanting, in some way, but it could also be because the human aspects of cru have been degraded. Over-production of the vines is a common form of degradation of the cru.

On the other hand, a poor terroir cannot be compensated by superior human factors. It is impossible for great wine to come from patches of earth that are simply incapable of producing it, for whatever reason (too hot, too cold, poor drainage, etc.).

Most of the wine I review is merely good, ordinary stuff. It’s impossible to know exactly why a $75 Napa Valley Cabernet earns only 87 points instead of 97. It could be that the terroir is not superior. It could be due to failures in the cru or human aspects. It could be a combination of both. A critic cannot know these things without undertaking a comprehensive survey of that property, which obviously is impossible in every case.

What is possible, however, and delightful as well, is to study that handful of vineyards that out-perform on a consistent basis. Vintage after vintage they offer the greatest wines. In these cases, we have to conclude that both the terroir and the cru are working in perfect harmony and at the highest levels. This is the happiest circumstance in winedom, because it represents the pinnacles toward which all other wines, from that region, should aspire. (“From that region” is in italics, because it would be absurd to say of a Burgundy Pinot Noir that it should aspire to be a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. And vice versa. Nor does this mean that every Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir should aspire to be, say, a Failla. But every Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir should aspire to be a great Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir.)

I’ll mention just a few of the vineyards that, in my opinion, bring together this fortunate union of terroir and cru. In the Russian River Valley is Williams Selyem’s Estate [formerly Litton Estate] Vineyard. We know from history that this stretch of Westside Road, in the so-called Middle Reach of the valley, is one of the great places to grow Pinot Noir in the New World. It seems to be a combination of the cool, foggy nights and mornings that preserve vital acidity, the days that are so reliably sunny and even warm after the fog burns off by mid-morning, and some quality of the soil, which is very stony. I think also that the vineyard’s location, on slightly sloping ground midway between the higher hills and the sands along the river’s bank, plays a key role. One has to assume, as well, that winemaker Bob Cabral understands his fruit intimately, and owner John Dyson is prepared to make the necessary investments. That is a true coming-together of terroir and cru.

Another great vineyard for Pinot Noir (as well as other varieties) is Bien Nacido, in the Santa Maria Valley. The overall conditions are of a cool climate, with the valley’s well-known transverse orientation bringing chill and overcast moisture in directly from the ocean every night. Here again we have a situation wherein the fog burns off by mid-morning with the reliability of a clock; nor do the daytime temperatures get as warm as, say, in the Middle Reach. Bien Nacido also is famous for the quality of its viticulture. Dozens of wineries buy grapes from the vineyard. Not all are entirely successful. Not all have access to the best blocks, for Bien Nacido is a very big vineyard. Not all bring the most creative cru to the wine’s production. But a Bien Nacido Pinot Noir always is a compelling wine and, more often than not, a great one. Here again, we have the fusion of “nature” and “nurture” it takes to make unforgettable wine.

The best wine book to write in California would be one exploring the state’s greatest wines through the lens of terroir and cru, including the person of the winemaker. Winemakers often say modestly that the wine is made in the vineyard and all they do is accompany it on its journey to the bottle. That’s true in one sense but false in another. Such a book also would explore Prof. Peynaud’s seemingly strange remark that “marketing” is part of the cru. What can this possibly mean? I may write that book someday.


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