Terroir, an Addendum.

 


Last week, Greg posted a spot-on treatise on the Terroir debate.

Between Greg and the readers who commented, there was enough meat in their words to satisfy those seeking the Executive Summary and those hoping to take a peek behind the curtain.
Greg's comments reminded me of the wineanorak, Jamie Goode's “Terroir” chapter in his book “The Science of Wine.”  Goode dedicates the entire second chapter (which follows ‘The biology of the grape vine) to the Terroir debate.  If a respected wine journalist is going to commit an entire chapter that early, front and center, in a book about Wine Science, then we must realize that this ethereal thing we call Terroir is and will always be up for debate.

Terroir is religion for some and bunk to others.  The notions of Terroir are deep rooted, no pun intended, shunned by those who don't have it and celebrated by those who do.  But the comments regarding winemaking styles having an impact on the eventual representations of said dogma are true.  It is a constant debate in these parts of California as to whether Terroir exists.   Nature's forces will never allow two wines from two different parts of the globe, even if they are from the same grape vine lineage, to taste the same.  However, the goal is that the man made impact in the vineyard and in the cellar respects his or her natural surroundings.  That being the hopeful representation of the winemaker's motives, the conversation ensues amongst us whether or not one, five or twenty-five wines that are produced from the same vineyard will reflect the essence of that vineyard.  We hope so, but….

When a winemaker harvests grapes with a 30% sugar to water ratio and places those grapes in a fermentation tank with the intention to bleed off (what the French call ‘saigner') the juice that was created naturally from the sorting, de-stemming and transferring processes before the ‘cold soak' (the pre-fermentation maceration that allows the grape juice to extract non-alcoholic, color concentration along with textual and aromatic components), how much of the vineyard's character is going to remain in the wine?  Wait, we're not done. What usually follows this style of winemaking is the addition of pre-fabricated yeasts, water, tartaric acid and nutrients to promote a healthy fermentation.  But is that really healthy – to attempt to put back everything that was taken out of the grape?  This process is where the hand of the winemaker comes into play and knowing this, you ask, where's the Terroir?  Where is the ‘sense of place' as Greg D. and Greg T. point out in their comments?

This begs another question, using Greg's example of North Coast Pinot Noir and its stylistic components - if a winemaker is stylistically apt to pursue, as Greg calls, a ‘low acid, fruit bomb' Pinot Noir does placing a vineyard designation on the label mean anything anymore?  If one is fortunate to source fruit from some of the storied vineyards in Sonoma County are they just using the vineyard as a marketing tool?  Probably so.  And if you, the consumers, are fortunate enough to taste a number of the same wines made from the vineyard designated, it will be up to you to decide which wines you appreciate, but will you ever really know, because of different winemaking styles, the sense of place that the vineyard is offering?  Probably not.  And that is a sad state of affairs if you believe that a wine could be marketed in such a way to promote itself through association.  So now the debate comes full circle to some comments I made on this blog back in April regarding the disclosure of winemaking techniques.

As Sir Walter Scott said: “What a tangled web we weave, when first we [practice] to deceive.”

Similar to Greg, I started out one way and finished another.  But in truth, that is the beauty of wine.  We will all share our own opinions sometimes vehemently, but the truth is in the palate of the beholder.  Drink well and enjoy.

-

Here's a quick addition to this post that is quite interesting and falls in line with this debate.  In yesterday's Wine Business e-mail newsletter they reported on Wine Intelligence's new research that queried wine drinking consumers about their familiarity with worldwide wine producing regions.  Some of the results are startling.  With only 31% and 29% of American drinkers aware of French wine regions Cotes du Rhone and the Loire, how is it possible that the balance would ever know the Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc “terroirs” of said regions, even if they put it in their mouth?!?  My favorite tidbit from the report asked consumers to write the first thing that came to mind when they saw the name of a wine region.  “When Marlborough was shown, the most popular response was “cigarettes”; for Chianti, the film Silence of the Lambs was one of the most frequently repeated [responses].”  Egad.

Larkmead Vineyards in Napa Valley. Dan has an MBA from New York University and worked as an Ad Exec in New York for several years, before switching it up and trading his suit for a move out west


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Comments

  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 7,993

    Liver and favabeans must have registered a hit at some deeper level…

    Thanks, Dan, for your views on this subject, too. I personally feel that gout de terroir is real, though I am also suspicious of any number of winemakers. ;-)

    Jun 17, 2009 at 6:27 AM


  • Snooth User: Greg Tatar
    89564 3,227

    “When a winemaker harvests grapes with a 30% sugar to water ratio and places those grapes in a fermentation tank with the intention to bleed off (what the French call ‘saigner') the juice that was created naturally from the sorting, de-stemming and transferring processes before the ‘cold soak'. . .how much of the vineyard's character is going to remain in the wine? Wait, we're not done. What usually follows this style of winemaking is the addition of pre-fabricated yeasts, water, tartaric acid and nutrients to promote a healthy fermentation. But is that really healthy - to attempt to put back everything that was taken out of the grape? This process is where the hand of the winemaker comes into play and knowing this, you ask, where's the Terroir? ”

    Dan - I'm not sure that I follow the logic there. If you bleed off some juice, how does that make the remaining wine less reflective of it's origin? I sell a great rosado that is a bleed from a red wine. That red wine is pretty big stuff, ages well, and I don't think it reflects anything other than Toro, the region it's from.

    Moreover, if you bleed some juice, do you then add water? And if you use a commercial yeast, I'm not entirely certain how that eliminates the terroir. The whole idea of “wild” yeast is a little tricky because unless you plate the yeasts, how do you know exactly what you have? Is it a feral yeast that escaped from the neighbor, is it something that was brought in by your former winemaker, or what exactly is it?

    My problem with the idea of terroir is that virtually every decision a winemaker will make, from the choice of grape variety and then clone, to row orientation and planting density to green harvesting (something not really “natural”) to picking date to length and temperature of maceration, will affect the final wine. And whatever that wine is, it has to reflect the terroir! If I make a wine in CA, no matter what I do to it, it's not going to reflect the terroir of Burgenland or Patagonia. I'm not sure how someone can say that a wine will only reflect it's terroir if you do A, or B, or C or D, and will not reflect its terroir if you do G and H and I and J. And if the winemaker produces a low-acid fruit bomb, how does that negate the vineyard designation? Is the vineyard only “supposed” to make one specific style of wine? If so, how would anybody ever know that unless they received engraved stone tablets from a burning bush?

    In any event, I quite like Larkmead wine and it's consistently one of the best quality wines at its price level. Good job there.

    Jun 17, 2009 at 7:00 AM


  • Snooth User: Daniel Petroski
    Hand of Snooth
    30091 696

    GregT, thanks for your insightful comments; we've all alluded that this debate can get vehement. So, to answer some of your questions; in my opinion, the best wines are built with balance. From the farming of the grape vine and the weather of Mother Nature to the choices a winemaker has to live by (i.e. the definition of terroir as per your previous comments, “the sum of all influences”). However, what happens when those influences come out of balance?

    When making decisions to harvest, the hardest part is to taste the grapes on the vine and pinpoint the optimum moment when the sugar, acid and phenolics are in line. If the sugars go way out of whack, the pH rises, the acid drops and the tannins disappear. At this point the grapes are basically dehydrated of their natural nutrients; therefore, additions (water, yeasts, acid, etc.) need to be made in order to replace those lost during dehydration - is that native to the elements produced naturally? No. Is that healthy? Certainly not. Will you lose some of the ‘influences' with this decision? Of course.

    So, for example, if you decide to bleed off more of the juice, you are concentrating the wine; i.e. increasing the ratio of one influence against the other, or better yet, widening the gap of balance. Thus placing one character, the sweetness, above all others. There are no instances in my history of wine tasting that I have come across a ‘jammy' wine that was definable as this appellation or that appellation. The wine was one-dimensional and lacking the 'sum of influences'. However, If you want to say that this wine is germane to the style of said region, that is fine, but don't claim it to be a representation of a micro-climate, sub region site.

    I'll agree, every global region has its dominant terroir characteristics and maybe that is where the terroir debate should end, however, I don't believe in marketing against them on a vineyard designation if the style of wine making is on a macro level. That was the point of my comments regarding tasting multiple wines from one vineyard designate. Wine style in the new world of California tends to, to use your words, “trump everything.” And when one thing, like a “low acid fruit bomb” is put to nose, lips and mouth, it could be from anywhere. And we learned from that survey I linked to, that is fine, but the debate lingers on. Keep it coming. Good fun. And thanks for the Larkmead compliments, those are much appreciated. Hope to raise a glass with you one day.

    Jun 18, 2009 at 12:23 PM


  • Filip

    you should read the last issue of TONG magazine. It's on terroir, and one of the contributors, a sociologist from the University of Burgundy, simply states the following:”Terroir is not a natural phenomenon, it's a historic construct created by mankind.”
    His article is on the importance of human bureaucracy on the creation of “terroirs” in Burgundy. Really interesting.

    Jun 19, 2009 at 1:36 AM


  • Snooth User: Philip James
    Founding Member Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    1 12,550

    Filip - I read about Tong, apparently each issue uses a different paper stock, font and layout to reflect that issues theme - very haut!

    Jun 19, 2009 at 10:08 AM


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