Is Knowing More Important Than The Nose?

In a recent story in the San Jose Mercury News, Laurie Daniel explored a topic that remains very important to winemakers and wine geeks: The degree to which Pinot Noir currently does or is capable of exhibiting regionality in its character. Interestingly, the extent to which this issue is important to non-geeks seems to me to extend only as far as the occasional comments by casual wine drinkers that they "like California Pinot more than French" or believe "Oregon Pinot Noir is better than California Pinot."

Of course these kinds of general comments about the source of Pinot aren’t exactly what the proponents of terroir and dedication to regionality are looking for.

They are looking more for the kind of schooled judgment that Daniels reported about in her story that looked at a seminar at the last World Of Pinot Noir Event where six Pinots from different parts of California all made from the 115 clone of Pinot were examined. The point of the seminar was to determine if regional difference could be determined between the wines.

Daniels writes:

The wines had similar color
intensity but otherwise did display big differences, but it was nearly
impossible to tell whether those differences were due to vineyard
location or to factors such as picking decisions, oak treatment or
myriad other variables related to the hand of the winemaker."

Mmmm… this is of course the perennial problem: Are we tasting the hand of the winemaker or the hand of God.

I thought about this article as I had dinner on Monday with a group of fine folks in Nashville. In the course of the dinner we tasted a lovely red blend made by Kip Summers from Arrington Vineyards located just outside Nashville. Had I not known the wine was made from Tennessee-grown grapes I could not have guessed under any circumstances that it came from this state. And, I suspect that no one else, not even the most schooled and educated palate on earth, could either.

Houston…we have a problem!

Just how much tasting of wine must be done by an individual, how much competence must they possess in the field of wine before regionality in a wine even matters?

Of course the most interesting question of all is what makes the regionality of a wine matter at all…outside of course for folks like me who work to market wine on the basis of regionality: "This wine is brilliant expression of the unique terroir of X Valley".

I wonder if it’s enough, even for the most geeky of wine geeks, to simply know the wine was made from grapes grown in Oakville or "Joe’s Vineyard" or Greece or Champagne, etc? I wonder if the importance of the regionality or terroir that a wine expresses is really less important than the simple knowledge that one is drinking something from a particular area?

In the case of the Tennessee wine I was thrilled to know I was drinking a wine from this state that I truly enjoyed. I liked that I was partaking of a particular region’s unique fare. It make me feel cosmopolitan and gave me the confidence to state that Tennessee is making some very fine wines.

Is that enough?

8 Responses

  1. Arthur - March 26, 2008

    In order to appeal to the mainstream, Pinot Noir is either spiked with Syrah or hung into oblivion on the vine or smothered with gobs of new oak.
    With that regimen, it has no chance of showing varietal typicity, let alone regional typicity.
    There are commonalities to site or region: THE 2005 Clos Pepe-sourced pinot noirs had a distinct sous bois like character whose intensity was inversely proportional to grape ripeness. I also agree with Dan Berger, who pointed out that Monetery Pinot noir tends to have distinct levels of geraniol.
    That aside, recognizing regionality and varietal typicity is contingent on previous experience or the characteristics inherent to the variety or site. How how can you recognize my father in a crownd, if you’ve never met him or seen his picture?

  2. Thomas Pellechia - March 26, 2008

    I admire the person who can talk regionality after tasting a wine without knowing much about it. Of course, in order to do that one must have experience with the region first.
    What can you do if you’ve never experienced a Tennessee wine before the one you have in front of you, and you don’t know it’s from Tennessee? In that case, does the name of the place matter, other than to make you understand that there are other parts of the universe where decent wine is produced, and you just haven’t had them yet.

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  4. Melissa A. Dobson - March 27, 2008

    Hi Tom,
    As a “core drinker” with an ever-increasing wine geek factor, I personally feel that the regionality or terroir of a wine is less important than an understanding that a wine is from a particular area, whether it be a state or country. The wine stores I frequent have wines displayed by country or state of origin and most everything I have read about a terroir quickly flies out the window. I tend to purchase a “New York Riesling,” a “California Pinot Noir,” a “Spanish Red,” a “Chilean Merlot” etc. As I continue to explore new wines, this may change as my level of understanding and knowledge expands, but for now, area is enough for me. Like Thomas Pellechia, I too admire those who can speak to regionality…with the increasing sophistication of today’s wine drinker, I bet we’ll see a gradual uptick in those who understand and seek out wines by terroir.

  5. Morton Leslie - March 28, 2008

    I think Arthur put the issue in perfect perspective. Thirty years ago I used to say this about Burgundy and American Pinot Noir. “If I buy a mixed case, I expect to find a couple Pinots I really like. But even if I only find one, I love Pinot so much; one is a bonanza.”
    I recently judged Pinots in a competition that included Oregon, Washington, and California. I expected to see something completely different, but I regret to say that things appear to be worse. No golds were given, the silvers were charity. Judge after judge were astounded by the number of defective wines. The amount of barrel and prune aroma and the frequency of very un-Pinot-like dark purple color and thick astringency was disappointing.
    Somebody needs to tell this herd of Pinot producers that size does not matter when it comes to Pinot Noir. You do not need oak. You do not need Mega Purple, Syrah or saignee. All these give you is imbalance. You’re not fooling anyone. Just make the wine straight and give us a break. You have a long way to go before you even consider “terroir.”

  6. Jeremy - March 28, 2008

    It seems to me that people with a deeper knowledge of a particular region, its producers, and vineyard sites, have a well established “signature” profile for wines from that area hard wired into their brains. This reference point allows them to discern subleties that less involved wine drinkers simply can’t make. The latter group probably cares more about “where” the wine comes from in that its origin provides a valuable quality cue to them, while the former will want to understand where the wine came from because that information, along with the production methodolgy employed by the winery, helps them understand why a certain wine falls above or below the reference profile they have established for the area.
    These two groups of consumers are worlds apart really.

  7. [email protected] - April 2, 2008

    As a native Tennessean, I was glad to hear that you would have been stumped on the TN pinot. I thought Arrington was only good for antique shops and pretty bike rides. Who knew they had vines growing between the tobacco and corn that dominate the fields in the summer?

  8. DRD - April 2, 2008

    I just visited Arrington Vineyards last week and completely agree about their blend. I couldn’t believe that TN wine could actually taste that good! Another TN winery that is doing a fabulous job is Chateau Ross in Springfield. They’re very small, but worth seeking out. Their Petite Syrah and Big B—- Red are really something else!

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