Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir and the Varietal Revelation

ScmapSanta Cruz Mountain Pinot Noirs are really very pretty wines. They tend toward the elegant rather than bold, mineral over leafy, cherry over berry. These wines, based on my tasting of a selection primarily from the 2008 and 2009 vintage, possess a forward acid structure, evident but not overwhelming tannins and are capable of carrying a broad and complex set of flavors from the front to back of the palate.

But most of all, they are Pinot Noir.

This last point, which I didn't expect to stick with me when I sat down to the Santa Cruz Mountain Pinot Noir seminar prior to last Sunday's Pinot on the River events on the Healdsburg Plaza, speaks to something important about the notion of terroir:

The differences between Pinots produced from grapes grown in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the Russian River Valley, Carneros, West Sonoma, St. Rita Hills, Santa Lucia Highlands, Anderson Valley, Burgundy's Cote d'Or, Austria, New Zealand and just about every other place are minimal…or at least subtle.

Another way of putting it is that Pinot Noir produced from the Santa Cruz Mountains and from the Grand Cru vineyards of Burgundy will have far more in common from a characteristics, flavor and aroma perspective than Pinot Noir and Merlot produce from the same vineyard in either the Santa Cruz Mountains or Burgundy.

Nothing is more important in giving a wine its most basic and often its most interesting characteristics than the variety of grape used to produce it….including the soil in which it is grown. Terroir is a secondary factor in nearly every wine you drink.

Here's another way of understanding this basic principle too often overlooked: A $4 Cabernet with a SantaCruz_logo-s"California" appellation will taste much more like a $200 Napa Valley Cabernet, than a $200 Napa Syrah will taste like a $200 Napa Cabernet.

Or how about this: Red Burgundy tastes much more like Pinot Noir than it tastes like Burgundy.

Right about now you are probably thinking, "Well, duh, Tom….What's the big revelation here?"

The big revelation is this: Using Burgundy as an example, we really don't know what Burgundy taste like other than to say that it tastes like Pinot Noir. If we really want to know what Burgundy tastes like, then we'll need to plant more than two or three grapes in the region. We'll need to plant lots of different varieties of red grapes in Burgundy before we can even begin to suggest that "Burgundy" means anything more than Pinot Noir.

This is why it strikes me as FAR more likely that any real understanding of a piece of ground and what it might impart to wine is going to be discovered in the New World where for the most part, economic and regulatory factors don't dictate mono-varietal planting across regions and where we can look for local characteristics distributed across varieties planted in the same area—or vineyard.

Consider the Santa Cruz Mountains. It's a large appellation with relatively few acres planted to grapes. Nonetheless, you'll likely find numerous different varieties in the appellation from Pinot to Merlot to Chardonnay to Cabernet to Syrah. This so totally unlike Burgundy or any other mono-varietal wine region that has given its name to the wines produced there, rather than the varieties that are used to produce the wines.

Terroir is an extraordinarily difficult idea to nail down. It is even more difficult to taste a wine and say, "oh, these characteristics result from this soil composition, while those characteristics derive from the the regular fog events and this particular characteristic is a result from the specific aspect of the land and hillside. It's nearly a fools errend."

And yet…it's this foolish quest that consumes the winemaker, the farmer, the media and the wine junkie consumer. Wines of a variety are so similar in character that to justify the great number of different ones we speak of the differences that terroir makes in every wine. But who among you can absolutely guarantee that you could identify the wine when faced wilth a glass holding a very nice Red Burgundy and glass holding a very nice Sonoma Pinot Noir?? Sure, you'll easily say they are both Pinot. But will you be able to instantly spot the region?

The Santa Cruz Mountain Pinot Noirs I tasted Sunday were very nice wines. I'll seek them out in the future and buy them. But despite the fact that I'd never tasted them before, I have tasted them many times before…in wines from Sonoma Coast, from Anderson Valley, from New Zealand, from Burgundy and elsewhere.



13 Responses

  1. 1WineDude - October 25, 2011

    “Varietal” as a noun… Tom, man, you’re breakin’ my heart!!! 🙂

  2. Ed Masciana - October 25, 2011

    Nice article. Some of us have been enamored of Santa Cruz since way back when Dr. Bruce was still practicing dermatology, Mount Eden made wines that lasted for decades, Ridge taught everybody about field blends and Martin Ray was teaching everybody about making wine.

  3. Tom Wark - October 25, 2011

    We tasted a lovely 10 year old Mount Eden Pinot at the tasting….no doubt they age well.

  4. tom merle - October 25, 2011

    You really are a defiant anti terroiriste, except that you agree, though this didn’t really come out in the above, that certain regions are more suitable for certain grape varieties, like far west Sonoma Coast wouldn’t work for Cab. Santa Cruz Mtns offers a much more varied collection of terroirs, hense the greater range of wine varieties.
    When isolating in on one variety, the similarities across regions suitable for sourcing grapes for that wine far outweigh the differences. That in the end, it is the talent of the winemaker together with the vineyard manager that determines a quality hierarchy.

  5. El Jefe - October 25, 2011

    What Tom said. Put another way, you’d have no problem picking out the Sierra Foothills Pinot, or an Alaskan Cab…

  6. Tom Wark - October 25, 2011

    I wouldn’t say I’m an “anti-terroirist”. I just think a bit of perspective is in order.
    However, I might be willing to be nailed as a person who thinks terroir is a bit more about marketing than it is about distinct character.

  7. JohnLopresti - October 25, 2011

    I have not followed the ajev research papers on pinot noir, unfortunately. Clonal selection of pinot noir was very limited early in the modernization of CA viticulture and enology ~30 years ago; genuine French plant material was closely protected by viticulturists abroad and was available in the US for propagation only rarely and from a narrow range of French vineyard sources. In the cellar, I always look for certain varieties of oak barrels from France for pinot noir early aging; imparting just the right amount of oxygenation and a delicate infusion of select quercetins rather than a syrupy avalanche of sappy flavors from the then available American oak barrels which override pinot noir’s sensory subtlety. With respect to “terroir”, on mountain vineyard plots there is the unique increase of ultraviolet effect upon fruit color, when compared to valley alluvial fan grown grapes. This only imprecisely fits into the term ‘terroir’, as the effect of the uv really is not soil derived. For me, much of pinot noir’s uniqueness beyond its color spectra, is its aromatic compounds. As for my own creations, I can attest only to one botched batch of several 1,000 gallons which I spent a graveyard shift extracting too much color from; and voila, instant choice for a burgundy blend; c’est dommage!

  8. Tom Wark - October 25, 2011

    El Jefe…
    However, do you think you could regularly pick out the Burgundian, Anderson Valley, Santa Cruz Mountain, Green Valley and New Zealand Pinots from a line up?
    And if not, then what does this say about the utility of the concept of terroir?

  9. Edible Arts - October 25, 2011

    I quite agree that varietal character means more than the French classification system allows. But I doubt that planting many different varieties in a region will tell us much about its unique characteristics. Because varietals respond differently to soil and climate, they will probably not exhibit the same characteristics across the board.Part of the idea of terroir is the matching of varietal to soil and climate conditions, including clonal selection. Only the right match will properly express terroir. This renders the concept of terroir difficult to test, especially when you factor in all the interventions winemakers have available that shape the characteristics of the wine independently of terroir.
    The issue of terroir is maddingly difficult to sort out. But I keep on drinking hoping the next glass will clarify matters.

  10. Jeffrey Patterson - October 25, 2011

    Many times over the past 30 years I have included Mount Eden in flights of Red Burgundy with 5-25 years on them. Rarely does the table pick them out, even at the Grand Cru level.

  11. Randy Caparoso - October 26, 2011

    I’m not exactly sure what your point is, Tom — especially your comment about that “foolish quest” to sort our differences between wines from different terroirs. Of course, the differences are subtle, but they are definitely there. It’s the same as understanding a passage by Joyce, a musical piece by Coltrane, or a book by Pynchon: you might not “get it,” or even appreciate it, but that doesn’t mean the complexity isn’t there for any person to perceive or not perceive.
    The whole problem with the rating systems hoisted upon consumers over the past two, three decades is that it presupposes that all, say, Pinot Noirs should taste like some kind of mythical archetype of a perfect, 100 point “Pinot Noir,” not a a perfect pinot from, say, Mount Eden’s estate, Rosemary’s Vineyard, Bien Nacido La Bauge, Musigny, Chambertin, Vosne-Romanee, etc.
    The French teach us that even wines made from the same grape have their own sets of characteristics that we can all appreciate, and therefore their own quality criteria should we deign to evaluate them. But agricultural products like fine wine — like artistic expressions of painters, writers or musicians — resist objective evaluations, and challenge our senses and intellect individually. Call this a “foolish quest,” but I’ll take that any day over monotony, or the fundamentally flawed quest to group everything “the same” — just because it’s made from the same grape.

  12. Jeff - October 26, 2011

    Hmmm, I think it is important to point out that Burgundy grows exceptional Gamay as well as Pinot Noir. Raise a glass of Beaujolais and find out! In addition, only about 1/3 of the total grape production in Burgundy is red grapes.
    Criminally absent from your list of Pinot Noir regions is your friends to the North, OREGON, where elegant Pinot Noir is the norm.
    Terroir as “a bit more about marketing”…WOW! I think that anyone who has tried Pinot Noir from around the world would agree that the differences are anything but subtle. For me, this is the joy of trying the same grapes from different regions, sub-regions, vineyards, producers, and vintages.
    Could you grow Merlot in the Cote d’Or? Yes, you probably could, and yes, it would taste like Merlot from Burgundy. But since the Benedictines and Cistercians figured out over 1100 years ago, that Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Gamay, and Aligote worked best, we don’t need to try and find out. Culturally, the French wouldn’t even consider planting Merlot there.
    This is the advantage of being a young and developing wine region, which the USA is. But, given the economic realities of certain US wine regions, they become pegged to certain grapes. What makes money? What do people drink? These are different reasons for planting than, is the climate/soil best suited for [insert grape here]. I’ve had a Rutherford Chardonnay that reminded me of Grand Cru Chablis. Why? It was my palates benchmark and probably the winemakers too. I’ve had a Cab/Cab Franc/Merlot blend from Stellenbosch that tasted very similar to a $100 Napa red blend. To your point, maybe it is best to say that terroir is not an absolute, this depends on vineyard and cellar techniques/decisions, the intent of the winemaker. Sameness can be easily achieved in the cellar just as easily as terroir can be destroyed in it.

  13. Tom Wark - October 26, 2011

    Jeff and Randy,
    I’m not arguing that there are no differences between wines hailing from different appellations around the world. However, I think I am on firm ground in suggesting that varieties are much more critical in determining a wine’s characteristics than is terroir. In fact, I don’t think this point can be argued.
    However, I’d also ask this: If very experienced tasters of wine can’t regularly identify the the Russian River, Carneros, Anderson Valley, Santa Cruz Mountain, Willamette Valley and Vosne Romanee from a line up, then what can we say about the utility of terroir to distinguish a variety?

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