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Terroir in Pinot Noir: an approach, and a problem



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


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.

  1. Good luck (meant as a genuine well wish on an interesting project and not as a sarcastic “it can’t be done” comment).

  2. Steve, I’m going to be quoting liberally from this article tonight in the class I’m teaching on regions of the wine world. Thanks for expressing what I sometimes have trouble explaining to folks who want to compare California to France (not in a good way, of course). Regardless of latitude, our many terroirs are not the same as France, which is why comparisons fail. Your point about the Dijon clones is also important. While France may have been, and may still be, the standard by which all wines are measured, California’s Central Coast is special, and coming into its own. I look forward to your upcoming discoveries!

  3. Thanks, Goddess. Good luck with your class!

  4. Your study sounds like a challenging and fun adventure! I also wish you good luck.

    Science can be helpful. The fewer the variables the better, but sensory science deals relatively well with multiple variables. If K-J has a sensory department, I’d enlist their help to devise and execute a plan for your study. If not, I’d contact Hildegarde Heymann at UCD.

    I think my bar may be lower for terroir and AVA’s than yours. In the extreme, I think most would agree that there is a terroir difference between Napa and Death Valley. As the regions become “better” for grape growing, those differences are harder and harder to discern. It’s good enough for me that an AVA provides place information and, often, comes with an association of passionate producers.

  5. This kind of testing on Cal PN has already been done, albeit on a far more limited basis.
    In the mid-80s, the winegrowers of the then-newish Carneros region asked UCD to apply sensory testing principles to see if there were any significant differences between Carneros PN and Pinots from other regions (I believe that the comparison was with Napa and Sonoma PNs).
    The testing was done out of Ann Noble’s lab, and was reported in some of the technical wine mags of the day.
    There were some differences found that were touted as elements of a unique Carneros “signature”, but the testing was a bit controversial with some claiming the experimental design was flawed.

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