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:
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.