The Wine Organizing Principle: First Varietal, Then Terroir

Varietal-then-TerroirIf a Sonoma Pinot Noir tastes much more like a Burgundy Pinot Noir than it does a Sonoma County Zinfandel, isn’t this a very strong argument for making varietals the organizing idea behind wine?

This is the question that occurred to me when I read Andrew Jefford’s article in Decanter that made the opposite case. Jeffords, who is a very clear-headed, succinct and thoughtful writer, gave us the money quote to his argument early in the article when he wrote this:

“If we were to regard place and the cultural traditions of place as the primary translators of wine flavour, and variety as secondary and anecdotal, we’d be wiser wine lovers.”

My thinking is this: before one delves into the cultural and terroir aspects of wine, one must first understand the most important building blocks of wine flavor and aroma. And that is most certainly linked to variety. This is why Pinot Noirs from Sonoma, Burgundy, New Zealand and Oregon have more similarity of aroma and flavor than Zinfandels, Cabernets, Grenache, Syrah and Pinot Noir all made from grapes grown in the same vineyard in California or anywhere else.

Jefford’s case relies a great deal on recent discoveries surrounding the DNA of grape varieties. He writes: “the more that I consider the highly technical distinction between variety and mutation; and the more that DNA insights reveal genetic links between varieties that make absolutely no sense whatsoever in relation to aroma and flavour; then the more questionable our attachment to the notion of variety begins to seem….the implications of genetic damage or errors in the DNA of a single variety can be far more consequential, to the human eye, nose and mouth, than the DNA boundary markers between varieties, even though that damage or those errors might be minute or insignificant in the DNA profile as a whole. It’s, um, weird.”

It’s pretty interesting case he is making and deserves some consideration. His point is well taken. But here is where I think he goes off the rails:
“So are we really doing a favour to Marlborough’s Sauvignon growers by continually benchmarking their wines against Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé? Mendoza Malbec isn’t similar to Cahors at all; Rutherford Cabernet and Margaux have almost nothing in common. Tasting Chablis seems to me to be irrelevant if you want to make (or enjoy) a white wine which happens to come from Chardonnay grapes in Margaret River.”
It has never been necessary to benchmark Marlborough’s Sauvignon Blanc against Sancerre or Pouilly Fume. But we do because the latter Sauvignon Blanc-made wines have long been more familiar to us. But it’s not necessary. However, There ARE Sauvignon Blancs from Marlborough that taste very familiar to French Sauvignon Blancs. And there are Napa Valley Cabernets that taste very familiar to Bordeaux. And there are Sonoma Syrahs that taste very familiar to Rhone made Syrahs. And the reasons they do is because they are made with the same grape.
There is no better way to categorize wines aromas and flavors than by variety for the simple reason that nothing influences the aromas or flavors of a wine more strongly than variety.  Yes, there are regional differences due to terroir and due to traditional vinification techniques commonly used in different regions. But assuming these techniques are no so radical, they won’t remove the unique signature that a grape variety delivers to a wine made with that variety.
And so here is where Jefford and I disagree: “It may, though, be time to move on to the post-cultivar age. Why make a fetish of what is no more than the third most important thing about a wine?”

His is an excellent article and thought-provoking. I recommend it highly.

26 Responses

  1. Brian St. Pierre - November 5, 2013

    nonononononono–if varietals are the key, there would be more sameness, this is California triumphalism (though sincere), dirt’s for more than drainage (at least, and there’s more, Andrew’s got a good point).

  2. Tom Wark - November 5, 2013

    Brian: Varietals already ARE the key and always have been. I know this because when I taste a Red Burgundy and a White Burgundy grown in the very same vineyard, next to each other, they taste and smell nothing like the other.

    That said, Andrew DOES have a good point, but it’s a point that needs directing at the most dedicated wine geeks who care greatly about appreciating the nuances that a particular piece of dirt will add to a wine.

    Wine knowledge is like any other category of wine knowledge: It is organized into sets. Understanding a given wine you have a number of sets or buckets that need to be filled to understand the wine. First, is what’s the grape. Second is what’s the style of the varietal. Then, what’s the terroir and vintage.

    Also, any piece of ground in Burgundy or Bordeaux or Napa has very little meaning and can’t be understood…until you plant a particular variety in that ground.

  3. Matt - November 5, 2013

    Simple to solve: enter in the same vineyard were multiple varieties are grown and tell me if they taste the same.

  4. Jonathan O'Bergin - November 6, 2013

    Any winegrape farmer can tell you that varietal comes first for essential characteristics. Location related distinctions are the frosting on the cake. There quite simply is no other valid perspective.

  5. 1winedude - November 6, 2013

    You all mean Varieties, right? Ah, never mind… 🙂

    • Thomas Pellechia - November 6, 2013

      Thanks, Joe, but that battle seems to have been lost to the horrible power of repetition, not to mention misunderstanding the English language…

      As for the subject at hand: I’ve never understood why any winemaker wants to have his or her wine constantly compared to “measure up” to wines produced 3,000 miles away, in a different place and by a different philosophy. In my view, that is THE major drawback of varietal wine labeling.

      Seems to me proprietary labeling is a much better alternative, because you don’t have to explain your wine by referencing someone else’s.

  6. Tom Wark - November 6, 2013

    Joe and Thomas: “Variatal” is the wine (like a 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon). Variety is the grape (like a Cabernet Sauvignon vine). Right?

    • Thomas Pellechia - November 6, 2013

      It’s simple Tom: varietal=adjective; variety=noun.

      There’s no such thing as a grape varietal, but a grape has varietal character.

      • 1winedude - November 7, 2013

        Close; varietal can be a noun, but only when it represents a wine made from a single grape variety.

        • Thomas Pellechia - November 7, 2013

          The “al” ending should tip anyone off that it is a descriptive word, one intended to qualify a noun and not to replace it. While it is true that some adjectives can be used as nouns, most have an article like “the” placed in front of them; others are the noun itself placed into a different context or with an added suffix like “ness.”

          In this case, “varietal” and “variety” are two separate and distinct words; one an adjective; the other a noun.

          “Varietal” may have made it into some dictionary list as both an adjective and a noun, but when varietal is used as a noun and does not precede another word like “wine” “character” “class” “type” “style” it is not only sloppy, it causes confusion, which is exactly why we keep having to have this debate.

          As you sate, “varietal” is a noun only when it represents a wine…therefore, you need to follow it with the word “wine” for the sentence to make sense.

          To say, “I’ve sampled many versions of that varietal.” identifies neither grape nor wine as the thing that you sampled, leaving it up to the reader or listener to decide which it was. Sloppy, sloppy.

  7. Robert Joseph - November 6, 2013

    Like you, Tom, I enjoy and admire Andrew’s intellect and his writing. But like you, too, I question his conservative respect for regionality. It’s a philosophy that works – provided you focus on high quality producers who respect traditional styles of winemaking. I find that Rioja and St Emilion today, for example, can be almost meaningless as regional definitions when you line up a wide range of what’s on the shelf.

    Secondly and most basically, the easiest way to settle this argument is to track the way blind tasters approach an anonymous glass. Yes, sometimes, one sniff says “Bordeaux” or “Cahors”, but I’d argue that most people, most often start out with climate/grape: this smells/tastes like coolish climate Chardonnay. Now where’s it from?

    • Thomas Pellechia - November 6, 2013

      Robert, this is an interesting comment of yours: I find that Rioja and St Emilion today, for example, can be almost meaningless as regional definitions when you line up a wide range of what’s on the shelf.
      I find it almost meaningless for consumers to stand in front of a wall full of, say, domestic Merlot and decide from the wide range of what’s on the shelf. Since there are no particular production guidelines, and since American appellations are merely political divides for promotional purposes, those various Merlots can represent myriad styles of wine.

      How is it better to gauge what’s in a bottle of domestic Merlot than what’s in a Rioja?

  8. Robert - November 6, 2013

  9. Fred Swan - November 6, 2013

    I think part of the difference between your view, Tom, and that of Andrew is simply the difference between the focus of tasters in Europe versus those in the US. Here, we tend to focus on aromas and flavors. In Europe wine writers emphasize body, texture and acidity.

    Ignoring flavor in favor of body and textures, and speaking of stereotypical wines, a CA Chardonnay may have more in common with a CA Pinot than a Chablis.

    • Austin Beeman - November 10, 2013

      That is an incredibly wise statement. This concept needs further thought and, perhaps, a large discussion in the global wine industry. Cheers.

  10. Lee Newby AIWS - November 7, 2013

    The terrior over variety works in Burgundy where there are only 2 varieties, well yes I know there are several more but 2 that count. In the New World where anything is possible variety comes first……….. thats the way it is.

  11. Tish - November 7, 2013

    Hey, everyone’s right here. Grape vs. Place is as interesting and inconclusive a debate as Nature vs. Nurture in Psychology. The real problem/issue as I see it is that the Old World approach is still largely locked into the origin-first argument. California and the rest of the New World have managed to convince people that you can have it both ways — that is, they can claim “this place is special… but not so special that we can’t plant whatever we want.”

    It’s a debate we will be having forever. Interesting when an article makes it percolate anew.

  12. jlb - November 8, 2013

    “This is why Pinot Noirs from Sonoma, Burgundy, New Zealand and Oregon have more similarity of aroma and flavor than Zinfandels, Cabernets, Grenache, Syrah and Pinot Noir all made from grapes grown in the same vineyard in California or anywhere else.”

    This is singularly asinine. To use but one facile example, there is far, far greater heterogeneity in, say, Oregon pinot than there is in Zinfandel made from Rockpile Vineyard. May I suggest, Tom, basing your viewpoints on reality, rather than summoning obtuse reasoning to support your dogmatic point of view?



  13. Randy Caparoso - November 8, 2013

    Mr. Jefford, it seems, simply offers food for thought. But I find it a silly argument, whether it should be “grape first” over terroir, or vice-versa, The first thing everyone learns when they get seriously into wine is that you can have the same grapes in common in wines, but that factors like where it’s grown (i.e. terroir), how it’s grown (viticultural practices), picking decisions, winemaking, elevage, vintage, et al. can *all* have such a drastic effect on the wines, quite often they don’t even resemble each other in the final sensory analysis.

    This, of course, is why appellation-centric Europeans largely eschew varietal valuation. Theirs is the classic perspective: that it’s not one thing or another, it’s many things in varying proportions, depending upon the wines, places, and hands of people. It is also the simple gist of Jefford’s piece: that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to even expect, say, a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc to resemble a Pouilly-Fume or Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc. There are just too many variables that supersede varietal expectations, and to think otherwise is to be deceiving.

    Even when wines from the same grapes from diverse regions do end up tasting similar, very often (not always, of course) it’s not so much because of commonality as grape as a conscious decision on the part of growers and winemakers to make it that way (i.e. Californians like, for one example, St. Supery which is deliberately crafted to resemble New Zealand style Sauvignon Blancs, or wines like Araujo Sauvignon Blanc that emulate white Bordeaux and are a far cry from what you find in New Zealand, etc.).

  14. Jim LaMar - November 8, 2013

    “It has never been necessary to benchmark Marlborough’s Sauvignon Blanc against Sancerre or Pouilly Fume. But we do because the latter Sauvignon Blanc-made wines have long been more familiar to us. ”
    … thus the immortal culinary-sharing phrase: Tastes Like Chicken!

  15. Richard - November 8, 2013

    Love this intellectual wine argument! This, considering that if you line up four Pinot/Burgundy(s) from anywhere in the world – say Sonoma, France, New Zealand, and Australia, most folks couldn’t tell the difference! nor tell you where they are from. If you line up a Rhone/Syrah from France, a Cabernet from NZ, a Zin from Napa, and a Chianti from Italy, it is highly unlikely that most (this is most) folks could tell you the difference – they might be able to say “oh, this one is more bold” when they taste the Zin; or “ohh, this one is smooth” when they taste the Cabernet, but to get down into the weeds like this discussion, nope, ain’t gonna happen! These discussions are for us wine snobs who like to think we can tell a difference in variety (varietal? oh, you have me so confused!) and terroir…

    • Randy Caparoso - November 8, 2013

      Interesting thoughts, Richard. I don’t think anyone disputes that the fact that the majority of wine consumers probably couldn’t tell the difference between a Pinot Noir and a Cabernet Sauvignon, or a red Bordeaux from a red Rhone. In the same way as the fact that most most people can read, but have never picked up a book by Hemingway or Fitzgerald, let alone Franzen or Joyce.

      Nevertheless, with respect: if Jefford’s and Wark’s points didn’t matter, I doubt that the international market for fine wine wouldn’t be the zillion dollar industry that it is, just like publishers wouldn’t bother to print Hemingway, Fitzgerald or Franzen as if countless readers really didn’t care. They do care, whether or not they can grasp it.

      If there’s anything I’ve learned from buying and selling wine for over 35 years, it’s that it doesn’t pay to underestimate the concerns, needs and buying habits of “ordinary” wine consumers. They might not get the fine points; but if you assume they could care less, they’ll simply take their business elsewhere.

  16. Craig Camp - November 10, 2013

    I don’t even understand how this can still be argued. You can pick grapes from vineyards next to each other, from the same clones and rootstocks, farmed by the same person and made the same way by the same winemaker and they clearly taste different from one another. I’ve seen this over and over again. Dirt matters.

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