The Terroir Paradigms

The philosopher of Science Thomas Kuhn famously suggested that it is impossible to fully understand one paradigm through the
conceptual framework and terminology of another or rival paradigm.

I’ve been thinking about the notion of terroir some more and it strikes me that we may have rival paradigms in play when it comes to terroir that make it difficult to achieve a singular "philosophy of terroir".

The two terroir paradigms at play seem to be the Old World vs the New World paradigms. The Old World paradigm has its core the ideas that are fully undeveloped in New World wine regions.

Consider Europe where for the most part wines are identified by their place. We drink Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rioja, Champagne. We don’t drink Merlot Blends from Bordeaux or Pinot/Chardonnay blends from Champagne. Pinot and Chardonnay ARE Champagne…by law.

This is a very unique way of thinking about wine. But more important, it is a way of thinking about wine that effectively takes "varieties" out of the equation. Unlike in the New World winemaking regions, Old World wine drinkers simply don’t talk much about which variety is best suited to the region. That kind of question would be beside the point to a Burgundy drinker. The more important question is what is it about the region that makes this Burgundy taste the way it does.

On the contrary, I’ve never heard someone ask, "What is it about Russian River Valley that makes Russian River Valley taste the way it does?"

When you can’t ask the same questions about wines grown in different regions you are looking then at two different paradigms.

The New World winemakers, when they think about terroir, are these days debating which variety is best suited to a region. We hear things like, "Carneros is best suited for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir" or "Marin County wine growers are discovering that Riesling might be the best variety for that terroir". One might argue that this is a less mature way, or a less mature paradigm, for examining terroir. But it is not. It is a way of looking at terroir that is dictated, I think, by an altogether different national culture and ideology.

It seems very unlikely to me that any American-based regulatory body will ever dictate which varieties must be used in a wine in order to place a particular appellation on that wine.  Before this could even be considered seriously we’d have to  have a winegrowing region where the fortunes of the majority of winemakers were so completely tied to a particular variety that the idea of a wine being produced with that appellation on it that also was not made from this dominant varietal would have to be considered a significant economic threat to the integrity of the region.

You might argue that such a situation is developing in Napa Valley where Cabernet is increasingly dominating the vineyards and wines. Still, this situation, I don’t think, could ever develop to the level that the economic considerations of monovarietal winemaking region would over come the libertarian inclination of the American culture and people. Such a development could only occur in a future America in which our entrepreneurial and libertarian inclinations had been so undermined by economic based fears brought on by a paranoia that regulations of this type appeared to be the only way to preserve localized industry.

The collectivist attitude and culture that exists in the Old World, however, allows regulations of the type that would never exist in America. Yet, I don’t think this means we will never see a paradigm shift  among New World and American winemakers that would allow us to understand terroir from the same perspective, or from within the same paradigm, as the Old World Winemakers understand terroir.


The pace of change among American winemakers and grapegrowers is leading them down a path that has them determining with some finality which varieties are best suited for particular regions. The regions tend to be defined by the boundaries of the federally determined AVAs but not in every case. For example, there are non-designated sub-regions of the Carneros region that are viewed as best suited for Merlot. Nevertheless, the main pursuit now is determining what grows best where.

Sometime in the near future this issue will be decided and the real substance of the American Terroir Paradigm will emerge: What characteristics of a Russian River Pinot or Russian River Chardonnay or a Russian River Zinfandel can the consumer expect? When this becomes the dominant question we will, in the New World, find ourselves asking very similar questions to those asked in the Old World about Terroir. We will simply have more questions to ask.

These are generalizations about the current state of the terroir debate that takes into account two generalized terroir paradigms.  It should be noted however that in some cases Americans and Old Worlders do currently look at terroir from within the same paradigm.

Single vineyard bottlings have exploded within the American wine making world over the past decade. Because these single vineyards tend to be planted to a single or two varieties we are evaluating the wines made from them on the same basis that Old Worlders evaluate their Burgundies, with the acknowledgment that a single vineyard bottling (or old world appellation) assumes one or two varieties are at the foundation of the wines. When we talk about wines from the Allen Vineyard or Martha’s Vineyard or Hayne Vineyard we know we are talking about wines of a particular variety and, more important, what that particular plot of ground will deliver to the wine that carries its name. This is a very "old world" concept; a very "old world paradigm" for understanding terroir and wine.

Finally, one more observation on Terroir Paradigms. The idea of understanding wine from the perspective of Place is something that the average, say, French wine drinker embraces with very little effort. It’s an idea that is part and parcel of the wine buying and wine drinking experience. Even those who know little about wine drink it with a near unconscious understanding of the Old World Terroir paradigm.

Yet in America, even the idea of varieties being linked to certain regions (The American Terroir paradigm) is a near wholly undeveloped idea among the average drinker. This is  the factor that leads me to believe that while sophisticated drinkers in America are starting to link varieties with place, it will be well beyond my lifetime before the average consumer understands that Green Valley Pinot Noir has a certain characteristic different from Santa Lucia Highlands.

And yet, to insure the growing interest in wine remains growing, it is critical that America’s wine educators always attempt to drive home the idea of variety linked to place and even the idea that varieties planted in different places deliver different characteristics that can make the exploration of wine a lifelong and never ending pleasure. This, it seems to me, is the primary job of the American wine educators.


Posted In: Terroir


9 Responses

  1. johng - January 26, 2007

    Tom, you used the word Paradigm (or Paradigms) 22 times in this post. As webmaster for Napa Valley’s Paradigm Winery, where Heidi Barrett makes fantastic estate grown Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Zinfandel, I feel I should provide a link to the Paradigm website, since from now on all Google searches for “Paradigm Wine” are likely to end up here!
    (btw the 03 CF is the bomb)

  2. tom - January 26, 2007

    Always the generous linker you! Good idea.

  3. winehiker - January 26, 2007

    That’s quite a tome, Tom, and a very thoughtful piece. Aside from your spelling (I’d rather pay a pair o’ dimes to be terroir-stricken than terror-stricken), I believe you make a good case for the inherent differences in viewpoint ‘tween us and those “mature” folks across the pond. Your last paragraph drives it home well.

  4. Jerry Murray - January 26, 2007

    Tom, I take some issue with your labeling the ‘terrior paradigms’ as ‘new’ or ‘old’ world. I would suggest the reason Burgundy grows Pinot Noir and not Merlot isn’t because the Pinot is better but because Merlot would not even ripen ( and would be terrible ). This is because of burgundy’s climate being ideally suited to Pinot and poorly suited to Merlot. Here in Oregon’s Willamette Valley we have also learned this, we are known for the wine that grows best in this climate…Pinot Noir.
    It seems that in California, producers ignore this relationship. I think most of the wine world would sort of laugh at Pinot and Zinfadel being grown in the same region much less the same vineyard.
    I believe then, that it is not a matter of ‘new’ vs. ‘old’ that defines the two paradigms. I beleive it is the climate the wines are grown in.
    In France, wines are almost always grown in climates considered marginal for a given grape. By this I mean that the climate gives just enough resources ( heat, light, good weather ) to ripen its crop and does so in a slow, even way. This also happens in Oregon, most of New Zealand and many other New World regions ( which by the way is an area much larger than California ). It doesn’t happen in CA. They refuse to consider climate and therefore MUST proceed with thier exploration differently. I think ‘new’ and ‘old’ should be replaced with ‘marginal’ and ‘non’marginal. Climate dictates everything about the way grape growers and winemakers approach thier work.

  5. Josh - January 26, 2007

    I appreciate your larger point, but I take issue *with you* writing that CA doesn’t have any cool regions that ripen grapes in a “slow, even way.” That’s just ridiculous. Parts of Green Valley in the heart of the Petaluma gap struggle mightily to ripen grapes some years, areas of the Sonoma coast are so cool that without the relatively warm nighttime temps, there simply would not be enough heat to ripen the berries – and there are plenty of other examples on mountains and hillsides all over the state.
    Moreover, the past few years of Oregon weather has been anything but “cool-climate.” Oregon wines from the early part of the decade had much more in common with the stereotypical opulent CA pinot than anything coming out of Burgundy.
    “Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get,” wrote Mark Twain. I think we need to keep that in mind before we try and make sweeping generalizations about any winegrowing area.

  6. tom - January 26, 2007

    Regarding France and matching climate to variety, I suspect there are a number of appellatioins where the varieties are dictated by regulation, but which would also support a number of other varieties.
    That said, CA has a history of planting willy nilly. But it is history. The real macro movement in CA is in fact matching grape to place.
    As for Russian River Valley, I suspect if they started planting only those grapes that were best suited for the appellation as a whole you’d see mainlly Pinot, Chard and Zinfandel.
    My point about paradigms goes to how folks THINK about wine. The french consumer, for example doesn’t think about Pinot and Chard when they think “Champagne”. They think “That spot of land up north”. In the New world folks think Varietal. The most sophisticated folks think Willamette Valley Pinot or Napa Cab or Lodi Zin.

  7. Jerry Murray - January 27, 2007

    To Josh I would respond that these area’s of CA he mentioned would be considered cool for which grape? I purposely failed to label a region as a ‘cool’ or ‘hot’ climate and referred to them as ‘marginal’ or ‘non-marginal’. This is because I wanted a region’s climate to be considered relative to it’s grapes, not in an absolute sense. Yes we have had some hot years here in Oregon (’03 and ’06 being stunning examples) but if look at the average; we are a cool climate and therefore ideally suited to Pinot Noir ( and in the reds, nothing else ). If we were to plant Cab or Zin we might be able to craft a respectable wine 1 year in 10 but even then it would not compare to what CA or WA could produce in a average year. We simply do not have the climate to do so. In CA, you can grow these varitals side by side, now I will conceed ( swallow my pride ) that CA is making some great Pinot but don’t tell me that if you are growing it even within a mile of Zinfadel that it is a marginal climate for Pinot. I would also inquire about crop levels in these ‘struggling’ regions. Lets not negate the viticulturalists importance in this matter. I have spoken with many CA Pinot producers who crop thier vines at levels I could only dream of doing, even in the hotest of years.
    Tom, with you I would agree but would add the frenchman would likely think ‘that really cool spot of land up north’. Then again I MIGHT be giving the french more credit than they deserve as consumers. With regards to varitals being regulated; I would suggest that law dictates which grapes can be planted where because history has shown that THE CLIMATE WAS RIGHT FOR THAT GRAPE. There has certainly been some serious advances in winemaking and viticulture that may now have made it possible to make good wine from other grapes in these regions and we are seeing this in parts of france, italy, and spain. However, I would argue that historically climate was the overwhelming factor in varital selection. If we discuss the terrior, or the style of wine one expects from say, Burgundy or Chinon we are discussing a style that is related to
    climate. The average wine drinker may not recognize the link between climate,varital and style ( terrior ) but what they are associating a given style (terrior) with is mainly climate. That was simply my point. Great post, you guys keep me on my toes.

  8. ken - January 28, 2007

    Bottom line, I think any wine marketer would be ill-advised to ignore the power of the concept of Terroir. Reflect for a moment on the success of ‘organic’. Even Safeway now offers a vast line of foods so labeled, and at a premium price. And, with the bewildering number of wine choices available just to the California consumer, for example, a wine celebrated and explained as terroir-driven would provide a concise way to generate difference among purely climate-driven wines. Climate, along with irrigation practices, the resulting high yields and unrestrained manipulation, has saddled us with our current obsession with high alcohol fruit bombs, largely without the remotest regional distinction. The sad thing is that there is precious little incentive for many wine marketers, certainly those of the larger wineries, to educate the public as to the gustatory distinctions terroir provides. Rather, xenophobia, home-grown anti-intellectualism, the privileging of homogenized, parkerized scoring and palate, (having the heavy lifting done by another, in other words), these American tendencies they let be, to protect market share.
    Terroir is a good way to break the monopoly of sameness now enjoyed by so few at the supermarket. Further, it advances an appreciation for the land, a ‘green’ alternative, if you will, for industrial, overly manipulated wine.
    People want to drink a landscape.

  9. Scott Tracy - January 30, 2007

    This is a great topic and I don’t have all the space I need to respond to the topic in a comment box, becuase it is such a broad subject. I will response with a post on my blog.
    Terroir is about soil first and talent second and climate third. You can have a great vineyard next to ordinary vineyards. Rochioli vs Hop Kiln. I am sure Hop Kiln does a very good job of farming the vineyard in the right climate. Even with the same ownership, blocks from the same vineyards can be dramatic in how they differ. How different are the expressions from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars two vineyards, Fay and SLV?.
    The Sonoma Coast is an exceptional environment for Pinot Noir, low yields are the story at Peay, HIrsch, Cobb or Fort Ross. (And no threat of rain, Jerry) It is not a Oregon vs California issue. It is an economic issue, then it is an educationsl/marketing issue.. If Pinot Noir is selling for $12 a bottle,a winery can’t afford to make wine with low yields.(Unfortunately, California doesn’t offer the agricultural tax breaks that Oregon offers.) If you can’t communicate how our wines are better, you can’t get $35. a bottle for them.

Leave a Reply