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MONDAY MANIFESTOS
01/17/2011
Monday Manifestos
The Sweet Smell of Terroir

By Charles Olken

It happens fairly regularly in our blind tastings. Someone will comment on the probable provenance of one or more of the wines we are tasting. “The tart cherry/sweet cherry smell reminds me of Oregon Pinot Noir”. “That richness, suppleness and focus all smack of central Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon”. “The combination of minerality and hints of tar suggests Amador County Zinfandel”. Not every guess is correct, of course, because it is just not that easy to pick out every small difference, not to mention that each producer brings its own interpretation to the grapes it uses.

Still, if one accepts that growing areas with similar soils, exposures and climate can produce wines with a commonality of character reflective of their shared location, then it is not surprising that some folks, including your faithful editors here at Connoisseurs’ Guide, would argue that “terroir” exists, that it is going to stand out at times and in ways that make it possible for knowledgeable tasters to make the occasional correct identification of a blind-tasted wine’s source. Admittedly, this argument consists of two parts—does terroir exist for some combinations of place and variety and can tasters develop the ability to distinguish the terroir identifiers of West Rutherford Bench Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, from the terroir identifiers of East Rutherford or Howell Mountain or the Alexander Valley.

Connoisseurs’ Guide has been on the side of “terroir”, meaning commonality of character, from the very outset of our publication. In 1976, we published a seminal article on fourteen sub-areas of the Napa Valley deserving of their own separate appellations. Today, virtually all of them exist under the AVA system, and if not always in exactly the shape we described, they do exist. Indeed, at a recent tasting of wines from the newly formed St. Helena AVA, the speaker stood up and quoted that 1976 article. I wish I could say that we identified all those sub-areas on our own, but the truth is that we spent months in conversation with growers, vineyard management companies and leading winemakers before finally coming up with our proposed choices. You see, even decades ago, the people at the heart of the Napa Valley wine industry knew about those differences. So, you can imagine my surprise when my writing comrade, Steve Heimoff, referred to an inquiry he received from the Dutch-based website, QLI, asking “Why do California wines show so little sign, or no sign at all, of terroir?”

Steve first wrote it was obvious that CA wines have terroir, but then he got a little off the track for my taste, and re-establishing that track is what the rest of this rant is about.

Steve then commented that he did not want to tell his European friends that they were all wet so he decided to “deconstruct the argument figure out what it really means”. And to Steve, what those folks were trying to say was that California wines don’t show certain nuances that, say, Bordeaux and Burgundy show.

Regardless of the accuracy of that statement, I think it missed the essence of the argument. It is not that California wines do not have nunace or terroir but that our wines simply do not always IMITATE Burgundy or Bordeaux. They are in the family; they have varietal character that is identifiable; and, they will often express some of the same site-driven characteristics.

It is clear, for example, that good RRV Pinot Noir has many characteristics of good Burgundy. The fact that Francophiles have for years picked out wines like Dehlinger, Gary Farrell, Chalone in blind tastings as being from France is clear evidence that there are similarities enough borne first of varietal adherence, but then also of balance and nuance.

The question of terroir in Bordeaux is a wholly different question. The variations in character in neighboring properties in Bordeaux are often less a product of terroir than of choices in viticulural practice and vinification. And, as anyone who has ever put Left Bank (Cab-based) Bordeaux and Napa Valley (or Ridge) Cabs in the same blind tasting will certainly know, aside from high-alcohol wines (which are not the majority of good CA Cabs), everyone who has ever done this from before the Paris Tasting of 1976 to today, cannot pick them all out correctly.

The bottom line for me then is this: A kindly interpretation of the QLI comments is that they have a lot to learn. An unkind interpretation is that they do not have the slightest idea what they are talking about. Suggestions of amorphous, formless, California wines may be true at some levels, but those suggestions are belied by the evidence when it comes to the choices among CA wines that drive these pages, and, indeed, drive the entire fine wine business in California.

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