Pleasure Vs. Intellectual Stimulation in Wine
I’ve been thinking a bit about the nature of "terroir" and how wine drinkers interact with the idea. There are some of us, myself included, that often give the impression that when terroir is evident in a wine that’s always a good thing.
Let me be clear about what I think is, or should be, self evident:
1. Characteristics in a wine that are demonstrably derived from terroir are NOT ALWAYS GOOD.
As St. Vini points out in an earlier comment: "if an Anderson Valley cab exhibits its terroir, but tastes
terrible will it receive a better review in Appellation America’s brave
new world than an Anderson Valley cab that tastes good? Personally, I
want the wine that tastes good!"
That said, I think we can say:
2. Characteristics in wine that are demonstrably derived from the terroir equate to "natural authenticity".
The question might be asked is what does "natural authenticity" bring to the wine drinking experience? This question goes to the heart of the importance of terroir to wine drinkers. It seems to me that we there are three things a person is looking for when they sip any wine:
-An aesthetic accompaniment to a meal
I think we can say that it is self evident that the existence of characteristics in a wine that are demonstrably derived from terroir do not necessarily deliver pleasure or a pleasing accompaniment to a meal. They CAN do this. But they don’t necessarily do this as part of their nature.
However, I’d argue that whether or not the characteristics in a wine that are demonstrably derived from terroir are pleasant or off putting, they always provide intellectual stimulation. Always. They do this because they deliver information to the drinker.
As an aside, I’d note that the very same set of statements can be made about oak characteristics in wine, the characteristics derived from malolactic fermentation, the characteristics of high alcohol or any other characteristic that can be identified by its source.
The question I’m interested in concerning the utility of recognizing the characteristics of terroir in a wine is this: are the characteristics derived from terroir any more intellectually stimulating than oak, alcohol or malolactic fermentation characteristics?
I believe the answer is YES.
Characteristics derived from terroir are more intellectually stimulating because:
1. They provide the wine lover with infinite possibilities
2. They are a pathway to understanding who wine can be more enjoyable
3. They connect us to the history of man’s endeavor to understand and control nature
4. They give us a natural way of categorizing the experience of wine
5. They give us a place to go to further connect to the wines we love
6. They give us a near unlimited way of comparing wines
Of course when someone suggests that none of this interests a person who’s only concern is a tasty, satisfying drink they are correct. It is quite easy today to know nothing of terroir, appellations or history to enjoy a class of red wine.
Given this, should a reviewer of wine take into account what is admittedly an arcane knowledge base? Not if the audience is reading them only to discover a tasty wine. Why it’s tasty is really of no concern to the person who just wants "tasty". It’s the reviewer’s job to discern if their audience is mainly of the "tasty" sort…or, if they are of the sort that seeks intellectual stimulation with their pleasure.
I’d argue that the readers of The Wine Spectator, The Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits, Wine News, Quarterly Review of Wine, Vinography, Connoisseurs Guide to CA wine, Decanter, The International Wine Report and nearly any other specialty publication and website is made up of readers who likely would not be reading this material if they did not want to use wine to stimulate their intellect as well as their palate.
This of course leads to what I was talking about yesterday: Should a wine reviewer evaluate a wine, in part, based on the degree to which it exhibits characteristics that have been identified with the terroir in which its grapes were grown? I think the answer is yes, to the extent that the reviewer is capable of doing so.
There is a natural push back to this claim. I think it derives from the fact that many people who do review wines simply are not capable of identifying what the common characteristics are of Green Valley Chardonnay vs. Santa Lucia Highlands Chardonnay vs. Anderson Valley Chardonnay. To quote St. Vini from his comment in another post, "the campaign to define and highlight regional terroir seems premature
as I don’t think California wines are ready to be defined by a single
terroir for each region/varietal yet. To me, that’s much of their charm!"
I would note that Vini could only make this claim if Terroir is in fact an intellectually stimulating facet of wine. If it were not, Vini’s comment would be unintelligible.
Vini’s comment begs the question, under what circumstances would California wines be ready to be defined (or at least evaluated) based on their terroir? It seems to me that the most enthusiastic conversations about CA wine today and the most enthusiastic work being done by winemakers across California and the United States is on the issue of understanding what makes wines taste different when they are from different regions or terroirs.
Now is the time for for us to begin considering the characteristics of California’s varied terroirs. Certainly the marketing folks know this. The winemakers are pursuing this. There is also a band of enthusiastic wine lovers who are excited about learning about how wines differentiate themselves from one another. The question is should wine reviewers engage in this project.
The best of them, I think, must.