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Demoting Terroir
By W. Blake Gray
Oct 19, 2010
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Terroir isn't the most important factor in wine quality.  The producer is.

This is what California wineries used to preach in the 1980s:  That they could overcome their lack of limestone with superior science.  That oak treatment in the winery mattered more than the plot of ground where the grapes were planted.  That a superstar winemaker was more important than a superstar vineyard.

We moved away from all that in the 1990s, led by winemakers themselves, who recognized a consistent difference in the quality of grapes from different areas.

Today, among wine aficionados, terroir is king again, as it was before Robert Parker launched what was essentially a career-long broadside against it with his Wine Advocate newsletter.

But you know what?  Parker was and is right.  And so were those blasphemous, non-dirt-worshipping Californians.  And it's about time we all acknowledge it.

You, dear reader -- yes, you with the skeptical look -- agree with me.  Don't shake your head.  You agree with me, and I'm going to prove it to you.

Which would you rather drink:  A Ridge Zinfandel from Amador County, or a wine made from Amador's best vineyard by a winery you've never heard of?

Which would you rather drink:  A California-appellation Moscato made by Heidi Peterson Barrett, or a home winemaker's Cabernet made from grapes from To Kalon vineyard?  Be honest, because I have judged homemade wines and I know what the correct answer is.

Am these examples extremes?  Of course.  But the facts are everywhere you look.

After writing a draft of this screed, I got a paper by Olivier Gergaud and Victor Ginsburgh that was published in the Journal of Wine Economics which used statistical methods to conclude in part:  "The French terroir legend does obviously not hold."  Their point was that winemaker choices in Haut-Medoc had more quantifiable impact on a wine's quality than its natural "endowments" of terroir, which they couldn't tease out statistically.

Last March I attended a Clos Vougeot tasting at the chateau.  All the wines came from the same piece of land; some came from neighboring rows of vines.  The whole clos is a Burgundy Grand Cru:  If there are differences in climate and soils between vines, they are miniscule.

The wines varied tremendously.  Many were, frankly, ordinary.  But a few were wonderful, and they were without exception made by people who also made great wines from other vineyards.

I found this to be the case throughout Burgundy, supposedly the place where terroir matters more than anywhere else.  Premier Cru wines from great producers are better than Grand Cru wines from mediocre producers.  In fact, village-level wines from great producers are better than the worst examples of Grand Cru wines.

If terroir were truly king, that wouldn't be true:  A Grand Cru wine would always stand out.  But indifferent winemaking can minimize a vineyard's greatness.  Poor winemaking can obliterate it. 

And great winemakers, while they can't turn California Central Valley grapes into Burgundy Grand Cru wine, can make interesting wines from regions nobody noticed until they did.  Who knew Toro was great terroir until good winemakers from Ribera del Duero and Rioja started working there?

In short, terroir is only queen, at best.  Winemaking is king.

Before you mischaracterize my argument -- people tend to do that to me, as I'm not shy about taking unpopular positions -- please understand what I'm NOT saying.

I'm not saying terroir doesn't matter.  That was part of the California argument in the '80s, echoed by some in Australia.  It's wrong (though the wine economists might differ.)

I'd probably enjoy any Chardonnay made by Greg La Follette, but I'd rather have one from Sangiacomo Vineyards than, say, San Joaquin County. 

But everything matters in winemaking.  I mentioned oak treatment while starting this rant because it matters more than terroir.  Don't believe me?  Tell me you've never had a wine so overoaked that you didn't know where it was from.

Terroir has such a slight, subtle voice that the only way we can appreciate its effects is for winemakers to try to do as little as possible.  That's the concept behind the natural wine movement: to let the terroir express itself.  And that's specifically because terroir is NOT king.  You never wonder what the king thinks; it's the non-ruling queen whose influence you only see if you look very closely when the big guy is out of the room.

All of this stuff is intuitive, right?  You know you'd rather drink one of Adam Lee's Siduri Pinot Noirs, whether from Oregon or southern California, than a Russian River Valley Pinot by a producer you've never heard of. 

And yet, nobody writes it anymore.  Which is why I'm writing it now. 

This is tradition for wine writers from Maryland.  Say what you want about Robert Parker's palate, but the man is one of my heroes for having the courage to state from the very beginning something that no professional wine writer dared say at the time:  That some unheralded wines are better than some officially declared first-growths.

Sure, the science-based winemakers of the 1980s took it too far.  I don't want to drink a wine that's purely a product of technology.  I don't want oak overpowering grape.  And I don't usually choose to drink multi-region blends, even if they're delicious, because I want my wine to taste like it came from somewhere.  If I can't pinpoint the individual vineyard, I want it at least to show typicity of region.

But let's face it: There is no such thing as a wine made with no human intervention.  The single most important decision in winemaking is when to pick the grapes.  A Donkey and Goat Winery is one of my favorites in California, and they talk a lot about their non-intrusive, natural techniques in the winery.  But the fact is their wines have that "Donkey and Goat" character because they pick earlier than everybody else who shares the same vineyards.  If Kent Rosenblum made wine from the same vineyards, using the same equipment and same "natural" yeast, it would taste different because he would pick weeks later.

Terroir is queen.  Winemaking is king.  Q.E.D.  Gentlemen, start your overreactions.