Terroir, Terroirism and Terroirists

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Terroir, Terroirism and Terroirists

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1nemoman
nov. 28, 2009, 3:13pm

I recently finished a new book by Jonathan Nossiter (director of Mondovino): Liquid Memory: Why Wine Matters. I found the book increasingly irritating as I made my way through it; however, it did force me to analyze my own preferences. The book is an all-out assault on Robert Parker and extols the values of wines that exhibit terroir. My problem with Nossiter is that climate is a big part of terroir. Bourdeaux often does not get the heat to fully ripen cabernet sauvignon - hence the resort to blending and chaptalization. To me these techniques merely reveal defects in the terroir. In contrast, Napa likely has a better climate in which cabernet sauvignon can reach its ultimate expression. Under such circumstances, you will taste more of the fruit and less of the soil. The best wines combine both. When I lived on the Mosel River, my favorite vintner would quip: "Do you want to taste the grape or do you want to taste the dirt." Although his wines were fruity, and balanced by appropriate acidity, you could also taste the slate which covered the slopes. My problem with extreme terroirists like Nossiter, is that they denigrate the importance of the grape varietal. A fantastic pinot noir from Burgundy is going to have more in common with an Oregon pinot noir than it does with a Chardonnay from Burgundy; in other words the grape varietal is more determinative than terroir in a wine's taste. Nossiter also laments the passing of oxidized white wines in Spain; oxidation isn't terroir, but a defect in the winemaking process. I am not wed to Parker's rating system; however, I do not think he has been a bad influence on the wine world. I will not lament the passing of numerous undrinkable vins du pays to improved modern winemaking practices.

2pechmerle
Editat: des. 2, 2009, 7:53pm

Hi Henry,

I haven't read Nossiter's book, and will not try to defend him. For all I know, he takes an extreme posiiton.

On the other hand, I can't agree with your post. 'Do you want to taste grape or dirt' is a faulty rhetorical question. When you taste a Napa cab, you are tasting terroroir. Yes, grape variety is a major determinant. But heat alone does not make a fine cab; you know that. Cab grapes will get fully ripened if grown in Lodi or Modesto. But they'll never make a Napa-quality cab there, and nobody thinks they can. I can get a fully-ripe South African cab for $1.99 currently. Nobody will ever confuse it with a Napa cab or a fine Bordeaux.

Pinot Noir is even more critical for this discussion. The best California Pinots don't come from Napa. They come from places like Russian River, or cooler areas of central coast. That's no accident. The best Pinot Noir in the world comes from selected plots in Burgundy -- a cool climate where ripening can be chancy, but when it is just enough the results can be wonderful. But not all of Burgundy -- those special soil plots make much finer Pinots. The other region you mention, Oregon, similarly can make great Pinot because of a combination of cool climate and favorable soils. Note also that, as in Bordeaux and Burgundy, chaptalization is legal in Oregon.

Oxidized white wines in Spain are not 'a defect in the winemaking process.' Over centuries, wine makers discovered various techniques that produced interesting wines with unusual characteristics. That's the origin of sherry. It's also the origin of sauternes and late-harvest rieslings. The 'noble rot' is not a defect, but a specialized technique for making unusual types of wine. Blending is also far from universally a sin. A 100% grenache will often be a somewhat characterless product. But blending with several other grapes, as in the Rhone, yields fine wines. Chateauneuf is not a 100% varietal.

I do think Parker has been a bad influence, world wide. After Parker, too many California cabs are over-extracted and muddy tasting. And over-ripe California Pinot's have less in common with fine Burgundies. But wine makers world wide have learned that if they make a big, rich wine, it will get more Parker points and sell better to the public. (Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson are far better guides for independent views, IMHO.)

I'm jealous of your time living on the Mosel. So many wonderful Riselings! But the best of them have a combination of very pure fruit and slatey/flinty qualities that are very attractive. Rieslings from two different plots a couple of miles apart there can be very, very different in quality. As you seem to note, we want to taste the grape and the dirt and the climate in a fine wine.

A votre sante!

3nemoman
Editat: des. 3, 2009, 11:49pm

Pechmerle: Thanks for your comments. The "faulty" rhetorical question was by my German vintner commenting on French v German winemaking. I hope my post did not give the impression I was anti-terroir (whatever that means). As I pointed out, my German vintner's own wines had a nice mineral base. Yes, some white wines are intentionally oxidized - Oloroso sherry comes to mind as does that French eccentricity Jaune wine. When I first started knocking around Spain in the seventies, however, the local white wines were highly oxidized from aging in porous barrels. I do not know that this was intentional so much as it was traditional. Moreover it expressed a basic peasant mentality of not spending money on say stainless steel. It was meant to be drank locally and the locals grew up with it. The addition of O2 into the wine was not expressive of local terroir any more than the addition of resin into Greek wines reflects terroir. To the contrary, such techniques, or lack thereof, probably masked the underlying terroir. As for Parker, I am not a big fan, and I agree some overextracted, highly alcoholic wines have been made perhaps in an attempt to get a high score from him. When I moved to California in 1978 from Germany the Napa Valley was beginning to transform itself into a source of world-class wines. Since then the variety and quality of California and other new world wines has exploded. Certainly the relentless cheerleading of Mondavi and the advent of publications like the Wine Spectator had something to do with it. I do not know that Parker helped, but I cannot say he hurt. In any event I think you might enjoy Nossiter's book. As I noted, it irritated me, but forced me to think. We always learn more from those who disagree with us than from those who merely validate our prejudices. On a closing note I will give you my favorite red wine recommendation in exchange for one from you - Poliziano Asinone Vin Nobile di Montepulciano.

4pechmerle
des. 4, 2009, 3:10am

I'm sure I would like the Montepulciano. A nearby favorite with me is Rosso di Montalcino.

Asking for my favorite red wine is like asking which of my children I love best. But a favorite is Fixin Premier Cru, from the Cotes de Nuit.

5Atomicmutant
des. 4, 2009, 8:48am

OK, I'm a novice compared to you folks, but thought I'd chime
in a bit.

I was only introduced to the concept of terroir about four years ago,
at a tasting. At that time, they had samples of the soil along with
the tasting, and I was first able to "parse out" those characteristics
from the wine. I've since become fairly fond of wines which exhibit
this in a bit more forward manner.

I've been enjoying, on a budget, for example, Argentinian and Spanish
Tempranillo wines, something about that varietal makes room for the
terroir as a more primary characteristic. Or, perhaps the budget wines
I am drinking just taste like dirt. :)

I don't know much, but I am interested. Perhaps you who know can
make a couple more recommendations of wines that have a balanced
approach to terroir--let me know the average price as well.

6nemoman
Editat: des. 4, 2009, 5:58pm

Atomicmutant: I think Ridge does a good job with its single vineyard zinfandels. They are not cheap and range upwards of $30. For Napa cabs, I think the Rutherford Bench produces wines that are distinctive. They are pricey; Sequoia Grove is one of my favorites. On a cheaper note, I like the suagvignon blancs from Marlborough New Zealand (Cloudy Bay is consistently good, and can be found on sale for under $20). The best rieslings come from the middle Mosel and go great with any food. You also might want to try some pinot gris and gewurztraminer from Alsace (Trimbach is a good producer). The vin nobile di montepulciano wines from Tuscany are somewhere in between Chianti and brunello di montalcino in taste. They are very berry forward and the best (Poliziano and Avignonese) taste like they could only come from there.

7Atomicmutant
des. 4, 2009, 8:45pm

Well, with advice like that, I had to run right out to the wine store!

Enjoying a bottle of Avignonese right now, thanks!

The Poliziano was 60 dollars! Yikes. The Avignonese was 25, but on
sale for 16, thankfully!

I just opened it, so waiting for it to open up a bit, but on first taste,
I like it. There is a lot of fruit there! I'll refrain from attempting a
nuanced review but I'm happy I have it!

The wine store was having an amazing sale, so I came home with
a couple of biggies, a Stag's Leap and Clos Pegase Cabernet. Mmm,
it's going to be a good holiday season.

8Atomicmutant
des. 4, 2009, 10:59pm

Oh, yes . . . it has become a beautiful butterfly.
At 16 dollars, best wine I've had in a long while for this money.
Lovely. Thank you again! A toast!

*sips*

9nemoman
des. 8, 2009, 12:10am

Your enthusiasm is infectious. You must have access to a fairly decent wine shop. Was the Stag's Leap a cab or a petite syrah?

10Atomicmutant
Editat: des. 8, 2009, 8:39am

Thanks! Well, it's not hard to be infected by enthusiasm for
delicious wine.

Yeah, I will certainly stumble over words, here, but once the wine had
been opened for about a half hour, it really was marvelous. I like to drink
some straight out of the bottle, and experience what happens as it breathes.
I'm a big fan of what I might call an "oaky suede" mouth feel, and this one
had it in spades. Does that make sense? Not a wine writer, here! Big
berry + oakey suede + terroir = loved by me. I am a fan of giant, ridiculous
Cabernets, and have recently been charmed by the unruly ruffian that is Zinfandel.
Zinfandel tastes like a vine that wants to escape the earth and wreak havoc
like a B movie monster, rather than be stuffed in a bottle for my enjoyment.
Any recommendations, there?

I got the Stag's Leap Cabernet. I walk by it all the time, but this was a 55
dollar bottle on sale for 35. I had to grab it. I have seen it at the higher
price before, so I knew this was a deal. Well, in my mind it was, anyway.
I didn't check on the petite syrah.

11nemoman
Editat: des. 9, 2009, 12:09pm

Zinfandel is my favorite red wine. I mentioned Ridge. Rosenblum has pretty good single vineyard offerings (Paso Robles and Rockpile Road); however its entry level Vintners Cuvee is ok but grapey and lacks any terroir. Rancho Zabaco, at its Sonoma Heritage level is very drinkable (Dancing Bull is drinkable, but grapey with no terroir) . Ravenswood single vineyard offerings are excellent; however. they are not cheap. Nalle and Cline are consistently good. Turley can work magic; however. some of her wines are over-the-top acoholic and over-extracted, plus overpriced. For my tastes, the Dry Creek appelation of Sonoma produces the best Zinfandels. There are fans of Amador County (too big for me), Lodi (too hot and too ripe) , and Paso Robles (I see a lot of potential in this area). The Zinfandel grape is a relative of Italy's Primitivo and some of southern Italy's primitivos are very drinkable and very cheap ( A Mano comes to mind). You might read David Darlington's book: Angels' Visits : An Inquiry Into The Mysteries Of Zinfandel. It is somewhat dated, but a wonderful read - as are all his books. If you have not tried Petite Syrah, Bogle is good entry level introduction (under $10.00) and Stags Leap is great.

12Atomicmutant
des. 9, 2009, 9:56am

A couple quick notes. I have tried the Rosenblum rockpile. Fantastic.

My wife and her friends drink Bogle chardonnay at their book club. I have
always thought it might be good to boil bratwurst in, but not much more. :)
I'll tenatively give a shot at their Zin.

I have a case of Zin from a small Lodi vineyard that I do enjoy, Olde Lockford
Winery. I came upon it on a "work for wine" trade, and have been pretty happy
with that and their other varietals. Their Cab Franc is quite nice.

One other question--as this LT group is pretty quiet, generally, do you participate
in a good "wine board" somewhere?--I haven't sorted through the offerings out there,
but I find it difficult to find welcoming message boards on intense topics such
as wine. I'd be interested if you know of a place that welcomes experts and newbies
alike.

Either that or we need to recruit more wine nuts to post here.

13pechmerle
des. 9, 2009, 8:15pm

Agree that we need to entice more wine buffs to post here. I'm thinking about an idea that might have some effect on that. Will post sometime in the next several days, and get your reactions.

14nemoman
des. 10, 2009, 12:46am

I have not sought out a specific wine lovers' forum because I am not usually that chatty about wine. I simply got my panties all in a wad over Nossiter's book and had to vent. On a serious note I like this forum because booklovers tend to be polite, educated and open-minded. If someone likes both wine and books, I feel an immediate kinship.

15clamairy
des. 10, 2009, 8:26am

After the insanity of the season is past I plan to come in and take copious notes. I love 'big reds' and I hate spending money, and it looks like there are quite a few wines listed that would suit me perfectly.

16pechmerle
des. 11, 2009, 3:44am

Good to see you here, Clam.

A recommendation: Aglianico del Vulture Riserva.

Any maker whose product you see here in the U.S. will probably be worthwhile. The Riserva is released only after five years aging. Can be a truly wonderful wine. And as a bonus (to me anyway), the grapes have been grown in southern Italy for over 2,500 years -- history in a bottle.

17margd
Editat: des. 11, 2009, 5:44am

> 12 One other question--as this LT group is pretty quiet, generally, do you participate in a good "wine board" somewhere?--I haven't sorted through the offerings out there, but I find it difficult to find welcoming message boards on intense topics such
as wine. I'd be interested if you know of a place that welcomes experts and newbies alike. Either that or we need to recruit more wine nuts to post here.

> 15 ...I hate spending money...

Are there people here that make their own wines--backyard wines? I am interested in trying and have been searching for information on the web. My first purchase, which I am just now reading, is Jon Iverson's Home Winemaking Step-by-Step. I am also looking for information on appropriate wine-grape strains for my area (Great Lakes--apparently a Niagara chardonnay recently held its own in blind taste test against France and California?) Advice welcome!