Defining Terroir and Appellations


Something very interesting is happening over at (AA).

For quite some time this website sat there, taking up bandwidth, offering little more than potential. Clearly its owners had built it to be something substantial. The guts were there, but nothing much filled them. It had always been a site that, when filled, was planned to offer in-depth information on America’s appellations and appellation system. Yet little was offered in the way of information.

But something has changed.

Very recently AA has begun to sign up some very good wine minds and scribes to fill in the blanks.

Dan Berger, Thom Elkjer and Alan Goldfarb have all signed on to be regional correspondents. Goldfarb has even quit his day job at the St. Helena Star where he covered the Napa Valley as the Wine Editor with inquisitive and insightful commentary.Clearly AA has gotten some funding. But there’s more.

There seems to be a real mission here.
Take for example AA’s "Appellation Discovery Program":

The Appellation Discovery Program seeks to identify threads of commonality and to pinpoint a terroir based signature in the wines of this appellation, if such commonality exists, or is developing.  The Discovery Process is centered on structured tastings designed to distill the specific wine characteristics associated with the terroir and cultural traditions of the region.  Wines that are determined by the Discovery Panel to best express the characteristics of the appellation earn AppellationAmerica’s “Appellation Signature” distinction."

This is a tall order. So tall that it has never been attempted, amazingly, in any organized fashion. The first "Discovery Panel" was overseen by Dan Berger and centered on a pretty easy target: Russian River Valley’s Green Valley appellation, one of the smaller and best defined appellations in California. If any appellation was going to be more easily understood and the characteristics of its wines defined it would be Green Valley.

Terroir and it’s mapping via well defined appellations is the most important and most interesting intellectual pursuit in wine today. And there is no entity that is charged with looking at the overall picture. If you ask five people what Carneros Pinot Noir tastes like you’ll likely get five different answers and 10 reason why they differ.

In the end the question must be asked: Is it possible to have well founded expectations about the character of a wine based on the appellation written on the bottle? Or, is the impact of winemaking techniques, growing techniques and clonal selection on the character of a wine simply far more impactful than the shinethrough of the terroir in a region?

This is what Appellation America, with its growing stable of wine minds hopes to answer.

Posted In: Terroir


9 Responses

  1. Charlie Adler - December 17, 2005

    How noble – and yet, do we need another wine website catering to the “wine geek”?

  2. Tom Wark - December 17, 2005

    Need? Sure, why not? In fact I could think of a number of wine geek oriented website we need.

  3. Tish - December 18, 2005

    While I admire the Appellation America vision and respect the talent behind it, there is one fundamental problem in California and every other New World “appellation.” In short, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say “Our turf is special” and then have the freedom to plant whatever grapes you and then make them in whatever style you want. The bedrock of the French AOC system is not just the immutable soil/climate/etc., but more so the homogeneity of the human touch. There is no laissez-faire in the AOC system; in the U.S., the POTENTIAL for terroir expression will always be mitigated by the individualistic appraoch that Americans so proudly take.

  4. Tom Wark - December 18, 2005

    While this is certainly true about the AOC, I’m not sure that the problem with a search for meaning within the American appellation system is so much with the variety of the winemakers’ touch and the variety of varieties planted.
    I think the problem lies with the vastness of most of the appellations. Russian River Valley is a perfect exampe. To suggest that there should be a common characteristic to a Pinot that carries the RRV label disregards the fact that there are numerous climates and soil profiles that exist throughout this huge swath of land.
    Appellations like Green Valley or Stag’s Leap might be the exception to the rule. Here you might be able to say with confidence that a Cab or Syrah or Chard tends to have X character. Yet it’s then when you run up against the winemakers’ touch that conspires against the projection of that character in the wine.

  5. CaVeMan - December 19, 2005

    While the AOC system protects regional distinction by way of limiting the types of grapes, yields and so forth, i see this is as external to the terroir argument. Again, my question is, how can a case be made for cali terroir be made when the winemaker must use chemical interventions (tartaric acid, oenelogical tannins and yeasts)to render their wine. These interventions are necessary to combat one of the primary influences of cali terroir (ie. the climate) and thus attempt to negate that terroir influence. Thi leads to the question, is terroir possible in warm new world climates?

  6. St.Vini - December 19, 2005

    Bill: One of the benefits of systems that subdivide according to defined characteristics (even if they are only political boundaries) is that it should work to prevent people from making uninformed comments like “how can a case be made for cali terroir be made when the winemaker must use chemical interventions (tartaric acid, oenelogical tannins and yeasts)to render their wine.”
    Surely you know enough about California wines to know that this is not universal practice anymore that chaptalization is in France???

  7. caveman - December 19, 2005

    St. Vini,
    And i would agree entirely with you that chapitalization is also an intervention which works in opposition to terroir. And I relize that massive quantities of tartaric acid were used in France in 2003. There are those who do and those who don’t, and it is by no means limited to the new world. So no offence intended.
    And I am by no means an expert in new world viticultural techniques though a vast majority of the winemakers that I have talked to (both Californian and Australian), regularily use these interventions. (I would love to be proved wrong have a list of those who don’t use any of these types of interventions.)

  8. Lenn - December 19, 2005

    I think that what they are trying to do is a great thing…and I tend to come down on Bill and Tom’s side of this argument.
    Another point of note…you all just might know the future LI correspondant…if things work out. 🙂

  9. St.Vini - December 19, 2005

    You threw me with “…is terroir possible in warm new world climates?” but I get you now.
    Agree that terroir (however you define it) is a separate distinction from human-imposed boundaries. Particularly when all you need to create an AVA in the US is a written summary and $25k. Its marketing, not winemaking.

Leave a Reply