Terroir: Who Cares?

Ted Lemon knows what he wants from his wines. Characteristics that are pure reflections of the physical environment that make up the individual vineyards where he sources grapes. He want’s the terroir to show through. This desire is at the top of his list when it comes to the Pinot Noirs and Chardonnay’s he produces under the Littorai label.

What surely makes him happy is that he is successful in this pursuit. However, what struck me as I tasted through six of his vineyard designated Pinot Noirs at a seminar in advance of the Pinot On The River event on Sunday is this:

Who Cares?

All six vineyard-designated Littorai Pinot Noirs were first and foremost, Pinot Noir. That is to say, you would not mistake them for anything but Pinot Noir. They possessed that familiar feminine texture and the earthy, cherry-driven aromas that are the hallmark of Pinot Noir when produced in relatively cool climates.

But it’s important to recognize that the number of wine drinkers that could distinguish between, say, Littorai’s beautiful 2010 “Pivot Vineyard” Pinot Noir and their stunning 2010 “Haven Vineyard” Pinot Noir is such as small number that the emphasis Lemon puts on the differences between these two wines and the rest of his vineyard designated Pinot Noirs is almost misplaced.

I think the following are facts about terroir:

-Those relatively few people who care to seek out the impact of climate and soil on a vineyard’s wines probably can’t regularly identify the same wines in a lineup.

-In the world of wine sales, claims of differentiating examples of terroir’s impact on wines is at least as much marketing as it is anything else. Once you start selling wines that cost $50 a bottle you better be able to say why your wine is different from your neighbor’s $50 wine.

-In the world of fine wine, terroir is not the primary driver of wines character. Varietal is. This is why red burgundy and Sonoma Coast and New Zealand Pinot Noir are so similar in character.

-If it’s true that a vineyard’s climatic and geological details can consistently deliver a specific and identifiable character to a wine, it’s also true that various viticultural and winemaking techniques can easily mask that terroir driven character.

-Evaluating wine for evidence of a vineyard’s unique terroir is an intellectual exercise akin to examining the make-up of a screenwriter’s psychological state…very few people care about it and instead care about whether the cost of seeing the film was exceeded by the enjoyment they got from the film.

The seminar that Ted Lemon presided over at Pinot on the River continues a tradition at this annual event of providing extreme wine geeks with serious food for thought. Lemon proved to be a superb guide—why wouldn’t he, he made the wines. But he also had the good sense to listen closely to what his audience of wine geeks observed about the six wines he presented, all from different vineyard. What he heard when he asked for responses to the wines were a variety of descriptors concerning the wines’ textures, aromas, flavors and colors. I don’t think you can say that the comments by the audience all immediately honed in on really specific identities for each wine.  The differences are truly subtle in many cases.

Examining the impact on terroir is serious business. It requires extraordinary concentration as well as lots of experience examining wine very closely. It requires the ability to take sensory input and translate that into a compartmentalized vocabulary that can be understood by the person sitting next to you who has a palate that is unique in numerous ways.

It’s not something the average wine drinker has any interest in, nor is capable of appreciating. This reminds us that those winemakers who put great emphasis on terroir, like Littorai’s Ted Lemon, are constantly on the look out for the rarest of rare wine drinkers: the extreme wine geek.


9 Responses

  1. Holly E. AKA Cellar Cat - October 22, 2012

    First, love every wine Ted Lemon makes.

    Second. I COMPLETELY agree with you and I am in the terroir selling business. Two kinds of folks truly dig terroir talk (sorry, couldn’t resist): 1)the uber geek/winemaker/writer/super-practitioner. 2)less practiced, but big-cellar guys thinking their cellar size is the measure of their expertise (god bless ‘em)

    The rest of the wine drinkers? There are some curious about this fancy French word and ABLE to afford to check it out. The rest (who have even noticed the vineyard specifications): confused.

    Taste this Fuji apple. Now, taste this one. Yes, both tasty (grown in appropriate Fuji/apple locations withe at least decent orchard practices). Neither one “better” necessarily from the other although I might prefer one and you the other. But, as folks who do apple tasting every day we can, after awhile, possibly name the location the Fuji came from.

    Who cares? The grower, and the gourmet grocery store selling it and the fancy restaurant serving it. Gotta explain that higher price tag.

    And it does.

    Should this nonsense stop? Hell no. But, as you said, it shouldn’t be portrayed as something 90% of wine consumers should fret about.

  2. Arnold Waldstein - October 22, 2012

    Hey Tom….

    You write so well and thoughtfully that it always amazes me how much we disagree:)

    Sure you are right about the sensitivity of the palate and the depth of knowledge that most wine drinkers have.

    But…that is not a rationale for saying that they don’t buy by terroir nor can taste it nor care.

    Take lets say a top NYC artisanal shop that has maybe 1-2000 SKUs in the store. Maybe 10% of their clientel are geeks. But the other 90% do keep coming back and asking and buying ‘terroir specific’ wines from Etna, Jura, Ribeira Sacra and on and on. Can they taste the difference between Biondi and Benanti? Don’t know.

    But they don’t keep buying the same thing.

    They buy around, enjoy the story and I have to assume, true or not, can taste the difference.

    I think most magical thing is that wine is a lens into place and culture through taste. Most don’t live in a blind tasting vacuum, they shop and buy, take home the suggestion of a story around a terroir and unique taste….and enjoy it from that side.

    I think terroir is the think that most winedrinkers in the top 15% care about. Its the story behind the wine.

  3. CSMiller - October 24, 2012

    Tom, it has been a busy week or so for terroir in Mondovino á virtuel.

    Last week Steve Heimoff reposted a controversial comment by a reader about the subject and it’s purity in Europe versus it being a marketing ploy in the “new world”. That was after an original post by Steve that also featured that nasty word terroir.

    The term terroir is just awkward, it doesn’t have a clean and exact translation and therefore is interpreted in many different ways. Yet it is important, the concept keeps wine from becoming a commodity like milk or coca-cola. Coke or Pepsi, Cab or Merlot. My guess is that 80% of the wine drinkers in the US who order a wine by the glass order by grape without much regard as to where that Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio comes from. ~ Hey Tom is that what you mean by who cares (about terroir)? Palm Bay & Paterno will be pleased as the more people that don’t care, the more customers they will have for Cavit and Santa Margherita PG’s!

    To me that’s the point and an important one of terroir, but I’d rather leave the term to the geeks and think about wine like we do people. When I look at a glass or bottle of wine, I try to remember to ask it: who are you and where are you from. If can’t get straight answers then I question the wines value. I give more value the more answers a wine gives me. Does it taste good, does it taste like the grape or style it claims to be, does it taste like it comes from somewhere in particular (not some wine factory), does tell me it will not disappoint me if I find a few forgotten bottles lurking in my cellar years after I first taste and buy the wine, will it go with the types of cuisine that I enjoy. I am not taking a shot at ‘winery factories’, they are important for introducing people to wine and varietal wines and when all the other stuff just doesn’t matter. But I don’t want to pay more than a certain amount for a wine that is (only) tasty and does indeed taste like a Cabernet or Chardonnay or whatever it says on the label. If I pay more I want more answers.

    Actually Tom I think terroir is the wrong word for what you may or may not care about, in the Littori example the term really should be climat or site and Pinot Noir geeks recognize that a Fixin 1er Cru Pinot Noir won’t get the same respect as Gevrey-Chambertin St. Jacques 1er Cru. And the Fixin 1er Cru might be a pleasant surprise when it is found in the cellar 15 years later, while the St. Jacques 1er will only be a surprise if it disappoints.

  4. Tom Wark - October 24, 2012

    Christophe:

    I don’t mind the term “terroir”. I get it: soil, climate, rainfall, aspect, etc impact the properties of the fruit and hence the wine.

    And of course a relatively small number of folks care about this. However, what I’m wondering is among those who do care about it, how many can confidently use it to guide them in their choices of wine?

    For example, I believe it is a extremely tiny number of people who can look a Pinot and be able to tell us if it came from Carneros, Green Valley, Russian River Valley, Anderson Valley or Sonoma Coast. Fewer still can taste it and tell me whether it came form the Hirsch Vineyard, Failla Estate, Oppenlander, or Savoy.

    Given the very tiny number of folks that can demonstrate this kind of understanding and familiarity with the impact of terroir vis a vis vineyards and AVAs, I’m willing ask the question, what’s the point?

    For me, Terroir is an interesting intellectual game. Now granted, I don’t grow grapes or make wine, so I get to wear a different set of goggles from say Ted Lemon, Ehren Jordan or other terroirists. But there are a lot of me than there are Lemons and Jordans.

    Frankly, I think there may be more utility in attempting to understand the difference between a “Lemon” Pinot, a “Jordan” Pinot, an Adam Lee Pinot or a Helen Turley Pinot.

  5. John Kelly - October 24, 2012

    What’s wrong with it being used as marketing? It is not as nebulous or disingenuous a concept as “natural” – and people get off on it. I try to keep three different Pinots – different vineyards, different ages – on our tasting list. The rawest noob will come in and be able to taste differences, in nearly every case. I love seeing the light in their eyes when they “get it.” Sometimes they have a strong preference, and I sell one wine. Sometimes they love them all, for different reasons, and I sell three wines. That’s utility, right there.

  6. george kaplan - October 24, 2012

    I drank a 2006 Beaucastel on Saturday. At least it said so on the label. Thus I felt I could smell Provencal spices and taste grenache and mourvedre, but it felt like Burgundy, and more so as we worked our way through the bottle. It was outstanding. International style? CdPs dosed with Pinot Noir, through the looking glass?

  7. Bob Siddoway - October 28, 2012

    While terroir MAY be slightly overrated, it certainly comes into play in the product, at least initially. Past that, a lot of it really has to do with the winemaker’s skills. That’s where the cost really comes into play and how the final product turns out.

  8. Tom Ewing - October 30, 2012

    I love cars. I love cars that go fast and have a zillion buttons and whistles. I love how it feels behind the wheel, and how it makes ME feel. But to be honest I couldn’t tell you what a carbuerator does (can’t even spell it!) or how many cylinders are in an engine without consulting the manual.

    When I take my car in for servicing, I expect my auto mechanic to not only know those basics but to be JAZZED about how a car works down it’s last detail. Personally, I could care less but it certainly matters to me that my mechanic cares. That gives me the confidence to know that when I drive my car off the lot it will drive like the finely-tuned machine that I want it to be and that I shelled out beaucoup bucks to have it that way. I’m not interested in what my mechanic had to do make all that happen, only that he delivers the promise.

    I think it’s the same way with wines that come with a high sticker price.

    I am not infrequently told by retail buyers that their customers don’t care about terroir or regions or any of that wine-geeky stuff – and I get it. But that doesn’t mean that the buyer shouldn’t care either. To the contrary, when a consumer walks into a fine-wine shop that touts itself as a fine-wine shop, that consumer is assuming that the people who run it are doing all the selective sorting that results in that consumer walking out with a bottle that won’t embarass or disappoint him. Is there some “dream-merchantship” in all of that? Abso-freakin-lutely. But dreams are important, and we love our dreams.

    Without question, terroir is one factor that helps answer what makes the wine-drinking experience magical when we’re with a wine in the so-called ultra premium category. There are other factors, like STORY (aka marketing), but it’s all of a piece.

  9. Good Reads Wednesday « Artisan Family of Wines - October 31, 2012

    […] http://fermentationwineblog.com/2012/10/terroir-who-cares/ […]


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