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Monday Manifestoes
The Horror of Terroir

By Stephen Eliot

Blame The French for the unprovable notion that terroir is king above all else.

I have long held that Pinot Noir is, among red varietals, the grape that most keenly reflects its terroir. I still believe it. I am beginning to question, however, if that is necessarily a good thing, and I am struggling with the question of whether a wine’s first duty is to speak to its place or to taste good. Heresy in some quarters, I know, but I do not always find that the two are mutually inclusive.

There are those committed terroirists who would argue that a wine’s sense of place is the absolute requisite of any real vinous success, and, while I would not disagree that there are truly great vineyard sites whose wines can achieve transcendent beauty, I do not believe that every vineyard and every block within it has something to say that is worth listening to. Merely having a voice does not make one a singer.

The catalyst for my morning crankiness is not some new manifesto from those who would tell us what is true and authentic. It is instead a gnawing sense that artful blending is too often ignored in the new culture of California Pinot Noir.

The proliferation of single-site Pinots is clearly on the upswing hereabouts, and sometimes I am left scratching my head as I taste my way through ten or twelve different bottlings from one winery and questioning the point. While far from being a universal occurrence, it is not uncommon that a winery’s simple appellation bottling turns out to be more attractive than its vineyard designates. The latter are invariably more expensive, and the message is clear that they must therefore be better, but is that really borne out by what is in the bottle? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

France, I would argue, is still the standard by which great wines are measured, and, to some extent, I suppose, one can blame the persistent Burgundian mindset that values individual “crus” and “climats” above all else. There are reasons enough for doing so, but the justifiably revered sites of the Côte d’Or have demonstrated quality and distinction over generations of competition and comparison with their neighbors, and their prestige and prices are not based on winemaker whim.

In time, the market will decide which of the new California venues do and do not deserve fame and high prices, but I suspect that we will see an expanding roster of single-vineyard bottlings in the years before that happens. In the meantime, I hope that winemakers and wine lovers do not fall into the trap of blindly believing that those Pinots that identify a particular plot are inherently superior to those that do not. Place is important, but so is the winemaker’s craft.

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A Differing Opinion
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:2/3/2012 2:00:26 PM

If the point is that terroir is a false god that we put ahead of overall wine quality, then I agree.

But, I also believe that the best wines being made in California are single vineyard bottlings and not blends.

Nothing against a good blend, and frankly, with the prices for the top single-vineyard wines pushing out of sight, the best of the appellation blends are better values.

by Adam Lee/Siduri Wines
Posted on:2/3/2012 6:29:13 PM



One thing to remember is that, even in Burgundy, there was once a great deal more land planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay than there is now. It was only phylloxera that led to much of planted land being ripped out. The great sites remained....but had it not been for that unfortunate circumstance, there would be much more wine, much of it of a lesser quality.

The point being, that it took France some time to find its way...and that such will undoubtedly be the case with California as well.

Adam Lee

Siduri Wines

Is That Really True???
by TomHill
Posted on:2/5/2012 4:48:16 PM


   You're not the first person to make the statement:

" I have long held that Pinot Noir is, among red varietals, the grape that most keenly reflects its terroir ."

I've seen that very same statement made about Nebbiolo. And also about Riesling (not a red variety, obviously).

   Over the last year, when I've seen that statement (w/ varying wordings) made by some wine authoritiy, I've asked the question:

"Why does PinotNoir reflect it terroir more than any other grape. What's unique about Pinot that allows it to do that"?? I've asked that same question of Nebb producers as well.

   I've yet to receive an answer that makes any sense to me. Generally, the Pinot growers/producers assert that the statement is true. But they cannot come up w/ a reason.

   I asked that very question up at the TaosWinterWineFestival a week ago of a Pinot panel. I stated that "I don't know" was a perfectly valid, though very unlikely, answer.

   There was unanimous agreement that it was true, but there was also a lot of yammering about, a lot of fuzzy thinking, a lot of circular logic; which all sorta boiled down to "Just because it is so".

   JoshJensen, from the audience,  opined that it was because Pinot is so thin-skinned. But so are a lot of other varieties. I had suggested some time ago that the reason Pinot/Nebbiolo may reflect its terroir better than any other variety (I'm not fully convinced that that is true) is that they have in common  genetic weakness...they tend to mutate easily.

   JasmineHirsch was also in the audience and suggested it may be that Pinot is genetically weak, but that her vnyd people claim that that's not really true. ..that Pinot is not genetically weak.

So, Stephen....given your statement above, I'll ask once again..."What is it about PinotNoir that allows it to reflect its terroir more so than any other grape variety". And, again.."I don't know" is a perfectly good answer. Some mysteries are not to be unraveled.




by Charlie Olken
Posted on:2/5/2012 8:13:21 PM

I have long thought that Dry Creek Zinfandel, Napa Valley floor Zinfandel, Shenandoah Valley Zinfandel, Lodi Zinfandel, Paso Robles Zinfandel each have recognizable signatures.

This is not to say that Pinot from many locations do not have recognizable signatures. They do, but your point, Tom, is well-taken. Many varieties are quite site reflective.

Whether that asks that we have as many single vineyard Zins as Pinots is not really the questiion. Go ask Ridge or Ravenswood.

I Don't Know....
by Stephen M Eliot
Posted on:2/7/2012 12:06:58 AM

Maybe not the answer you wanted Tom, but I cannot cite any hard science in support...just experience, lots of it. Maybe it is that Pinot is less "sturdy" and a bit lighter on its feet than other first-tier red varietals and its nuances are easier to see with less phenolic toughness to fight through.

I did not mean to imply that I thought that other varietals could not reflect their respective terroirs, and I in full agreement with Charlie's comments. But, whereas Lodi, Dry Creek, Napa. et. al. may leave their signatures on a wine, it seems to me that no grape can rival Pinot when it comes to showing distinct differences, more pronouced differences on a much smaller geographic scale. I recalll a visit to highly regarded Pinot vineyard a few years back wherein the grower pointed to significant difference in the wines produced from certain rows of vines.

And, yes, Riesling is pretty good at it too.

No Subject
by Gerald Weisl
Posted on:2/7/2012 9:42:33 AM

In tasting through some vintner's portfolios, I've wondered why they bother issuing so many single vineyard wines when most of the wines taste like a "fraction" of a good bottle. 

There are perhaps two reasons for this:  1)  Smaller lots of a particular bottling will help bring a higher price, so, cha-ching!  2)  Each bottling is viewed by the winemaker as their child and they appreciate the particular characteristics a vineyard may confer on the resulting wine.

I've thought many of these wines, particularly when they come from vineyards within close proximity and with similar soils and micro-climates, might have produced something more complex and grand if skillfully blended.

On the other hand, the single vineyard wines of a producer such as Adam Lee's Siduri are fine representations of each area/vineyard/appellation. 

The numerous Pinots from, say, Patricia Green in Oregon might illustrate my point in being better if blended.

by Patrick
Posted on:2/7/2012 11:49:37 AM

I was just at a VIP tasting in connection with Pinot Days in So Cal. One noted winemaker each from Santa Maria Valley, Russian River, Sta. Rita Hills, and Willamette Valley spoke in turn, offering a taste of their products. Not one of those winemakers said anything about region specificity in their creations. My take-away: Yes pinot does vary a lot from site to site and clone to clone, but winemakers don't seem to think that terroir has much to do with it yet.

by Stephen Eliot
Posted on:2/7/2012 12:18:38 PM

Yes, Gerald, that was exactly my point; not that all single-vineyard bottlings would somehow be better if blended, but that there is a fair amount of stuff out there that tastes, as you say, like a "fraction of a good bottle".

I am a great fan of those single-site efforts from the likes of Merry Edwards, Siduri, Williams-Selyem, Kosta-Browne, DuMol and a good many more, but it seems that there is a need on the part of every Pinot producer to keep every lot separate and give it a name regardless of whther or not the wine has the distinction to deserve it.

Maybe your notion of winemaker's naming their children has something to do with it, but I have never seen quite the same extreme need on the parts of those working with other varietals. Are we trying to imitate the Burgundians a little too much?

And, yes, the vineyard-designates do seem to carry higher prices, don't they?

A controlled study...
by Christian Miller
Posted on:2/7/2012 2:44:25 PM

...would be feasible methinks. You have to start with a selection of varieties that have roughly similar climate requirements, e.g. cool (Chard/Riesling/PN) or warmish (Syrah/Cab/Merlot). Several clones of each variety, planted in three different terroirs. Within variety, each plot is harvested to the same parameters (tricky I know, but go with it) and undergoes the same vinification. Then blind tasting to determine which shows the biggest differences attributable to location. 

Too bad it needs deep pockets (where is TerroirPAC when you need them) and patience (never mind). I'd love to be on that tasting panel. 

However, IIRC something like this has been done in Germany for Riesling alone.

Bring In The Clones....
by Gerald Weisl
Posted on:2/7/2012 7:26:21 PM

At a couple of trade tastings today where California-grown Pinot Noirs were prominent, I heard more details about the wines concerning "clone numbers" than anything else.  No chatter about "terroir" or wine-speak concerning viticulture or vinification...

And there were numerous "single vineyard" bottlings, all with ambitious (or optimistic) price tags. 

Vintners should keep in mind that it's a good idea to offer the consumer something called "value."  I'm not convinced that all these single vineyard wines are that good, for one thing. 
We've seen, though, in many regions where producers diminish the quality of their flagship wine by offering reserve or single-vineyard wines at the expense of the "regular" bottling.

I'm with you, Steve...

by Ken musso
Posted on:2/11/2012 2:20:52 PM
I am of the belief that the wine drinker recognizes specific areas they can identify with. For me, Pinot is Russian River, zin is dry creek, cab is napa, etc.Sure there are slight differences in each site within these areas, but the notion that terroir is above all else in defining single vineyard wines is out to lunch. There are many styles of Napa cab or Dry Creek zin, but in general, good viticulture and good wine making are what gives what we expect.

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