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Terroir II: Thinking like a grape


My post yerterday generated an interesting discussion in the “comments” section that attempted both to focus in on the true meaning of terroir and also to expand upon it. The issues raised included:

– can heavy winemaker intervention “overpower any sense of terroir”? [this is from Stephen Hare]

– What about “the heart, soul and dreams of the people farming the vineyard and making its wine” [from scott]. Romantic notions aside, what is the importance of the winemaker’s consciousness to a fine wine that expresses terroir?

– what is the nature of the interactive process that occurs between the vineyard and its manager/winemaker? Or, to use Joe’s phrase, how important is it for the winemaker “to learn from the vineyard”?

Books could be (and have been) written about all of these concepts, which are complex and interrelated. The notion of heavy winemaker intervention overpowering terroir is probably the hardest to answer. Before addressing it, it might be helpful to ask another question: If heavy winemaker intervention overpowers terroir, then does light intervention safeguard it? (By “light” I mean less new oak or less charred oak, non-dealcoholized wine, unfiltered, natural yeast, etc.) The answer obviously is no. It seems logical, then, to extrapolate that heavy winemaker intervention does not necessarily overpower terroir. Most people, when they think of winemaker intervention, mean oak. Many of the top Burgundies and Bordeaux are aged in 100% new oak, yet they are held up as prima facie examples of terroir. I suppose in theory it’s possible to take a perfectly good wine that does reflect its terroir and then bury it under this and that. I routinely complain about otherwise good Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and Cabernet Sauvignons that are overoaked. But whether the amount of oak overpowers their terroir, as opposed to their being sound, non-terroir-driven wines that happen to be overoaked, is impossible to tell in a blind tasting. If you know the wine is from a great single vineyard with a high reputation, and the wine tastes overoaked, you can always say, “What a pity they overpowered the terroir with oak.” But what if the wine is (say) a Meritage sourced from various vineyards throughout Sonoma County? You can say it’s overoaked, but you can’t complain that the terroir has been compromised, because the wine by definition has no terroir, properly understood, unless you claim there is a special Sonoma County terroir; and if you do, you would have to claim there’s a special North Coast terroir, and even a special California terroir. It becomes more and more absurd and reductionist.

So it’s easy to show that winemaker intervention can just as easily enhance terroir as overpower it, and that leads to the notion of the winemaker learning from the vineyard. This is often overlooked, by the public and even by some critics, but it shouldn’t be. Christian Moueix once was quoted as saying it would take him 20 years to figure out how to make Dominus (and, in the event, he was right). Here, he strikes to the heart of the matter. It’s not just a question of the grower and vintner tinkering with oak forests or toast levels or yeast types. First they must listen to what the vineyard is saying to them. This is known by the producers of every great wine in the world. Just as a child with certain inherent talents may never be able to express those talents if he is forced into a role by his parents that doesn’t allow his inner uniqueness to express itself, so grapes need to be allowed to be themselves. If there is terroir in the vineyard, the winemaker must understand precisely how to allow it to be expressed through the proper oak regimen, canopy management, winery techniques, etc. It’s an ongoing process that implies an open-minded willingness to learn. But the proof is in the pudding, as reflected by the overwhelming dominance of single-vineyard wines in my highest scores over the years.

And that brings us to scott’s observation about “heart, soul and dreams.” It’s always tempting to get overly romantic and philosophical about fine wine, but in this care it’s justified. Scott is onto something. There is a relationship between terroir (which we think of as firmly rooted in physical parameters) and the winemaker’s mind or consciousness. A very fine wine reflects a very fine mind. There’s no blunter or more accurate way to put it. A wine mind, if you will. To make great wine, the winemaker first must think like a grape.

If a winemaker can obtain a great site and then think like a grape (and this implies his employer giving him the means to do so), then what you have is terroir + the human factor = what Peynaud calls cru. [pp. 225-226 in "The Taste of Wine"]. “A cru is the result of making the most of natural conditions, as we saw in the [discussion of the] human factors in quality.”

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