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Thursday Thorns
I Loves Me Some Terroir—Guess Which Grape I Am

By Charles Olken

We talk a lot about concepts like terroir, typicity, authenticity, varietal precision, influence of soil type, and often we are just about as accurate as The Farmer’s Almanac—which predicted sunshine today so I could enjoy a baseball game in the same conditions that grapes like—comfortably sunny. Instead it is cold, looks like rain as I am writing this piece, and I have to decide if it is worth freezing my ass off to watch the Oakland A’s play the Minnesota Twinkies.

The grapes, of course, have no such choice. They are just going to have to hang out in the cold, wintery conditions that look, for the moment, like a repeat of the failed summer of 2010. We talk a lot about how provenance affects grape character, and we tend to ascribe the end results to that elusive concept—terroir—about which we cannot even agree on a definition.

But, leaving aside that latter minor concern, I have spent the last day thinking about a question that Tom Hill, surely a guy who ought to be writing about wine instead of folks who are making it up on the fly and inventing new rules that serve only their own palates, asked about yesterday’s blog entry.

He innocently (well, not really, because Mr. Hill is actually posing a somewhat different question) asked why it was that Pinot Noir was better at reflecting its location than other grapes. I started to compose an answer on the spot and then realized that the Mr. Hill might actually have been questioning whether the idea that Pinot gives more differentiation by small differences in location was, in fact, accurate. It is a somewhat different form of a concept floated by the San Francisco Chronicle in its attack on Russian River Pinot when it lambasted the idea that RRV Pinots should be bottled by vineyard rather than as blends from the larger area.

First to Mr. Hill. I have always thought that Pinot and Riesling are the grapes that most strongly reflect the place where they are grown. It is one of those bits of common wisdom that has been passed down over time. I now realize that I have accepted that concept as “learned” without knowing why. As a wine-taster, not a grape-grower, I truly have no answer for Mr. Hill’s question as stated. If I were to guess, as I started to do yesterday, it would be that Pinot Noir (and Riesling for that matter) are nuanced, somewhat delicate grapes and thus will show their provenance more easily than grapes that are less given to subtlety. It is also true that those grapes in their native Europe are, more than any other, grown in small plots with individual names, and thus have been giving us looks at small differences in location whereas other grapes have given us less of that “individualism” based on lesser amounts of vineyard differentiation.

Not a bad answer, that, but one which is loaded with speculation. Which came first? The grapes’ nuanced personalities or the divvying up of vineyard land into small plots and the tilling of those small plots for a couple of centuries?

So, let’s move on to what I think is the real question of interest here. What can we learn by looking at other grapes? Does our experience with them suggest that they do or do not reflect small differences in location?

Christian Miller answered Mr. Hill with a reference to Zinfandel. And if one tastes the multiple Zinfandels now being offered by folks like Ridge, Ravenswood and Rosenblum prior to its sale to Diageo, it is clear that each of those wines from each of those producers offers unique characteristics that separates them one from another. Even leaving aside the hand of the winemaker, which is perhaps every bit as apparent in those wines as the changes of location, it is also true that those wineries’ effort come from such widely variant places as to make them poor cases for speculation about the influence of terroir on Zinfandel. Still, when one looks at the grapes from Hendry Vineyard in the Napa Valley, we know that Block 7 has always performed differently from the adjoining blocks of Zin on the same hillside.

We do not, however, have enough broad experience with small plots of Zin, or really most other grapes even though examples do exist. Cathy Corison, for example, makes Cabernet from adjoining plots in the Napa Valley and chooses to identify the wine from one patch as her Kronos Vineyard bottling. Because she searches out plots that have very similar soil types for her wines, one of which is a very successful blend from spots on the West Rutherford Bench, her choice to bottle the wine from the Kronos plot separately is a statement of recognized and appreciated difference.

Would that we had another couple of hundred examples of such small differences in location for Cabernet. Then we might be able to reach a more educated conclusion. Instead, we need to accept two bits of evidence. Cabernets from Corison do reflect terroir both collectively and individually, and Cabernets from divergent areas do also reflect changes in location. Howell Mountain is different from Mount Veeder is different from Spring Mountain is different from Diamond Mountain. On Diamond Mountain, the wines of Diamond Creek have always been bottled by plot, and those wines are different. But their soil types were also uniquely different, and what we do not know is how much of the difference is soil type and how much is some other land-driven piece of uniqueness.

But here again, the Tom Hill question, in its fullest meaning, rears up and bites us in the backside. Is terroir made up of any difference or must it be small differences that get reflected more broadly.

We know that the Pinot Noirs of the Russian River Valley AVA vary widely from the lands near the Pacific Ocean to those further inland near Westside Road. We know that the Cabernets of the Rutherford AVA vary significantly from one side of the Napa Valley to the other. In that latter case, we also know that the soils are different as well as the nature of the sun exposure (early morning on the westside versus late afternoon on the east).

Not only do we not know why Pinot is uniquely grown in small patches as opposed to Cabernet, but we have no evidence to suggest that Cabernet, if produced in tiny bits, would not also show more uniqueness by location than the conventional wisdom imparts to it. For now, what we mostly know is that some wise men in Europe, choose to create a patchwork in Burgundy but not one in Bordeaux.

If I am allowed one more piece of rank speculation, it is this. All grapes will reflect the places where they are grown to some noticeable extent, and if it had been Bordeaux that had been broken up into a hopscotch array of holdings instead of Burgundy, we might be having a different conversation.


No Subject
by TomHill
Posted on:5/19/2011 9:41:25 AM

Awwwwww, Charlie...'twarn't just an "innocent" question. I was just in my finest pot-stirring mode!!!

   Thanks for taking the bull by the horns and trying to answer my question. You're the first to attempt a reasoned/well-thought answer to that question.

   Over the last several yrs, on several wine boards/blogs; I've seen that same statement: "PinotNoir (or Nebbiolo, or Riesling) reflects its terroir more than any other grape variety". When I see an absolute stated like that, the scientist in me raises the BS antennae in me to its high-gain mode.

   In most cases, the question is simply ignored or it is dismissed by a wave of the hand that everyone just "knows" that to be true.

   So thank you, Charlie, to having the guts to take it on.

   I like your thought that maybe Cabernet displays that same terroir-sensitivity, we just don't have the evidence to discern it. Seems like a very reasonable idea to me.

   When I taste thru a producers tableau of wines who takes from a variety of terroirs/vineyards; such as AdamLee's Pinots or MikeOfficer's Syrahs and Zinfandels; I'm always struck by the differences I find in their expression of their terroirs; though sometimes they're quite subtle and damnably tough to verbalize. But they come thru the commonality of their winemaking style. In other cases, like with Ridge Zins, I'm struck by how much the winemaking style tends to minimize the influence of the terroir.

   So does Pinot (or Nebbiolo) reflect terroir better than other grape varieties, as is the "common wisdom"?? Sure beats the heck outta me. I'm not so sure it's really true.  But if it is, I'd like to know why (that pesky scientist thing in me again).

   One thought I had the last night. Both Pinot and Nebbiolo are well-known (I think, anyway) to be genetically mutate at the drop of a hat. Could that be the reason they reflect terroir better?? Beats me.

    Thanks again, Charlie. Maybe not the definitive answer, but it's a start.

No Subject
by TomHill
Posted on:5/19/2011 9:50:19 AM

Or....maybe....we can also ask the mirrior image of that question:

"Are their certain terroirs/vineyards that reflect themselves  more strongly in Pinot/Zinfandel/Cabernet/whatever than other terroirs/vnyds"

   Certainly with Martha'sVnyd Cabernet or TomFeeney's Zin (RIP), with their influence of eucalyptus trees, that would be true.

   Maybe that's a question best left to another day's blog??


emulation ennui
by John
Posted on:5/19/2011 9:59:07 AM

Charlie I will support your rank speculation. A friend started a Cabernet brand by contracting many small hillside vineyards in Napa, fermenting them separately, and blending the best 10% or so every vintage. I can say that there was as much variation in quality and sense of place among these Cabernet vineyards as I have ever noted among wines made from different Pinot vineyards.

On our vineyard I grow 9 clones of Pinot on 3 soil types, 2 mesoclimates, 2 vine spacings and 1 rootstock. So far each block produces a distinctive wine. But I also have 4 clones of Syrah on 2 rootstocks, 4 soil types and 3 mesoclimates. Each one of these blocks produces a wine as different from the others as the Pinots are from each other.

Does it do us new world winemakers any good to emulate some idealized model of Burgundy? From a commercial standpoint, maybe yes - in the me-too sense that if we bottle up many small lots of single-vineyard wines we somehow share the shine of that historied locale. Or not.

The Terror of Terroirs
by Chuck Hayward
Posted on:5/19/2011 10:02:52 AM

Great article and I think where you are going, that any grape can reflect terroir at either a macro or micro level, is the logical and correct conclusion.

With respect to Bordeaux, one reason the plots are smaller in Burgundy is as much a reflection of economics as anything with families dividing the land amongst their children for inheritance purposes. Bordeaux estates, being larger enterprises, swallow up the nuances of terroir that exist in their holdings. There are differences in the land they own. Most estates I visited recently discussed how certain plots were either included or excluded from the final blend due to superior or inferior terroirs. The problem with Bordeaux is the individual nuances are blended away when they could, if they so chose, bottle superior sites individually to highlight the differences. Champagne does a bit of both, masking terroirs in their non-vintage blends while highlighting individual terroirs (think Clos des Goisses or Clos de Mesnil) in other circumstances.

Whose Dirt Anyhow
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:5/19/2011 10:03:06 AM

Tom, you and I are old enough to remember when these discussions were carried out in Letters To The Editor columns and went on for months.

If the topic were hot enough, eventually lots of evidence and opinon would be accumulated over a period of time, much of it researched and well thought out.

We have lost that ability to focus on topics continuously in one thread over months. Now, it is on to tomorrow's blog entry.

It has taken me almost a year of blogging to get to the point that serious journalism, not daily pap, could at least occasionally appear here. Thanks for participating. Maybe we can somehow keep this thread going and accumulate enough informarion to begin to constitute a body of evidence.


Terroir and Different Grapes
by Larry Archibald
Posted on:5/19/2011 10:27:26 AM

I think there are lots of examples of cabernet displaying minor terroir differences.  Elyse makes  cabernet on Niebaum Lane from two different vineyards, Morisoli and Tietjen.  The two vineyards appear to be on exactly the same kind of Rutherford Bench soil, same exposure, same just about everything except the hill that forms the west side of the Napa Valley.

Two very different wines, every year.  In Bordeaux there are also many examples, Pichon Baron and Pichon Lalande, right across the street from one another and yet making quite distinct wines, year after year.

One hears that pinot noir or riesling are the most discriminating of grapes with respect to terroir, but one hears lots of things -- not sure I ever believed that one.

No Subject
by Christian Miller
Posted on:5/19/2011 1:19:49 PM

Within a grape variety, "what is/is there terroir" seems like an empirical question to me. Compare the same clones, with the same viticultural techniques, similar harvest parameters, same vinification, but planted in different terroirs. You have to have some combination of significant time, money and luck to do it, but it's doable.

But deciding if one variety is more or less reflective of terroir than another? What's the metric? This is a tough one.

Maybe it's the inverse -how easy is it for viticultural or winemaking choices  to "overwhelm" terroir? With Sauvignon Blanc, pretty easy. Compare the same SB clone in the same location, from two rows with different trellising and leaf-pulling.

brilliant marketing idea
by John
Posted on:5/19/2011 1:52:34 PM

Maybe I should consider doing "single-vine" bottlings! ;-)

Single Vine Bottlings
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:5/19/2011 3:35:51 PM

I think that idea will catch on, John, but, look out.

Coming up fast to challenge will "single grape bottlings", but, course, they will have to wait until  "single cluster bottlings" and "top of single cluster" bottlings run their courses as the NBT.

by Stephen Eliot
Posted on:5/19/2011 7:34:45 PM

Tom.  I have been away from a keyboard, so please accept apologies for a delayed reply to my posting yesterday, but my thoughts very much parallel all of those offered above. Nothing "ex catherdra", mind you, but I, too wonder, about Pinots genetic "instability" as influencing what I see as its ability to shape shift. As I understand things, Pinot is also a very low-vigor vine, and induced low-vigor seems to heighten site specifics; Pinot seems a vine with built-in stress. The more stressed a vine, we are told, the most likely it will affect any expression of terroir, if terroir is to be found. I suspect that since both Pinot and Riesling have traditionally been planted in colder, less-forgiving sites, that the models they have provided more easily lead us to believe that the varietals themselves are thus prone to being more mutable, i.e., the more challenging the sight, the more vinous difference.

Do think that terroir is a valid and real concept? You betcha. Do I think that every last patch of dirt has a distinctive aspect that is palpable? Not in the least. But what has distinguished the great vineyards over the years is their ability to produce something extra, some replicable of identifiable character. I carefully avoided the word "terroir" yesterday as I believe it is only one piece in the Pinot puzzle. And, yes, I do think that other varietals are equally capable of showing different faces depending on where grown. I guess what my point really was is that, of the many faces and facets that a given varietal might show, I find that Pinot Noir shows me many more that I like than other other grape that I know.

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