Category Archives: Terroir

Site Trumps Everything

Tasting a line-up of the 2016 Gary Farrell Pinot Noirs shows why Theresa Heredia, the winemaker for wines, is adamant about the importance of site.  Same grape variety, same vintage, same winemaking, so how else to explain the wonderful difference between the Pinot Noir she made from grapes grown in the Fort Ross Vineyard in the Fort Ross—Seaview AVA and the one made from those in the Toboni Vineyard, located in the Russian River Valley?  These wines reinforce the idea that site (a.k.a. terroir) is alive and well in California.  American wine consumers are finally starting to come around to the idea of terroir, a concept vehemently articulated by the French.  Perhaps if we just talked about the importance of site instead of using a French word, Americans would embrace the concept.

Terroir, or place of origin, is important whether we speak of wine or any other food product.  Though we Americans do not have the legalized appellation system the Europeans have for food and wine, there’s no question that the character of the product varies depending on its place of origin.  Idaho potatoes, Copper River Salmon, Washington State apples all command premium prices because of their origins.  Door County (Wisconsin) cherries are prized above those grown elsewhere.  In the broadest concept, briny East Coast oysters are vastly different from their creamier West Coast cousins.  Yes, they are different species, so maybe it’s not just locale, but even the same species of oysters harvested in adjoining towns on Cape Cod taste different.

It’s no different when it comes to wine.  Place is critical.  Two impediments have led to our reluctance to accept the concept of terroir when it comes to wine.  First, in the 1970s, the early days of the modern American winemaking industry, the winemaker was all important.  When the 1973 Montelena Chardonnay bested prestigious white Burgundies at Steven Spurrier’s now famous 1976 Judgement of Paris tasting, no one asked the origin of the grapes.  It was Mike Grgich, the winemaker, who received the acclaim.

Secondly, California wineries rarely focused on specific vineyard sites.  In the past, and in large measure today, wineries would obtain their grapes from various parts of Napa or Sonoma, to use those two areas as examples, and blend them to make a finished wine.  Winemakers rightly would speak about the differences between Cabernet Sauvignon grown in Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley, or within sub-regions of Napa, but consumers rarely had opportunities to taste the differences between the wines because very few producers bottled them separately.  So, if a consumer tasted a Jordan Cabernet made from Sonoma grapes side-by-side with one from Beaulieu Vineyards whose grapes came from Napa Valley, were you tasting the difference between origin of the grapes or producers’ style?  In the past, Robert Mondavi made separate bottlings of wines that highlighted the vast differences between the Oakville and Stags Leap districts of Napa Valley, but few other producers did so.  My point is that unless you taste wines made by the same producer, the average consumer will never be able to separate the impact of site from the impact of producer.

Compare this practice to the tradition in Burgundy, recently awarded UNESCO World Heritage status because of the patchwork of vineyards that makes Burgundy the classic case in point for the concept of terroir.  There, traditional and current marketing was and is done via négociants.  In Burgundy, the individual estates are small and fragmented, with farmers owning portions of vineyards scattered over several villages.  Production from each plot is small, which means it is impractical for individual growers to make, bottle and market their wines themselves.

The négociant, or wine merchant, system evolved in the 19th century to solve this problem.  Growers from throughout Burgundy would sell their grapes or newly pressed juice to large merchant houses, such as Maison Louis Jadot or Maison Louis Latour to name two of the best.  In turn, these houses would blend the grapes or juice purchased from several growers, each of whom owned plots in the same vineyard or village.  The négociant would then make, bottle and market the wines under his name.  Although the system started for economic reasons, a consequence was that it allowed the general consumer to taste wines from different villages made using the same winemaking techniques.  Since the winemaking was the same, the only differences among the wines were where the grapes were grown.  The uniqueness of terroir—the importance of site—became easy for the entire world to see, understand and appreciate.

Which brings me back to Gary Farrell’s array of 2016 Pinot Noirs.  It certainly helps that Theresa Heredia is an excellent winemaker and avoids the temptation to put her imprint on the wines at the expense of individual sites.  I’m certain that winemaking techniques, including oak aging, could have made all seven of the Pinot Noirs that I sampled recently taste the same.  But, because she let the various sites speak, the wines did, in fact, speak clearly—and differently.  The range of Pinot Noirs provides something for everyone, from more delicate and savory wines to those that are robust and powerful.

Gary Farrell was a pioneer in single-vineyard Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley.  Though I sampled seven of Gary Farrell’s 2016 Pinot Noir recently via a Zoom® tasting along with several colleagues, Heredia told us that they make between 12 and 14 different ones depending on the year.  In addition to buying grapes from well-respected growers throughout the Russians River Valley, they buy grapes from the famed Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Maria Valley and from vineyards in the Sonoma Coast AVA.

The wines were all very good, although dramatically different stylistically, reflecting their origins.  They are all easy to recommend.  Those who prefer bolder Pinot Noirs that focuses on fruitier flavors will gravitate towards the Russian River bottlings because the warmer climate there—compared to Bien Nacido and Fort Ross—produces riper grapes.  The Bien Nacido and Fort Ross bottlings, in contrast, will be more appealing to those who prefer a lighter expression of Pinot Noir with an emphasis on its savory aspect.  The flavors dance across the palate.  The Gap’s Crown Vineyard bottling, from Sonoma Coast, delivered a nicely balanced combination.  It also taught two lessons: first, it weighed in at the same 14.1 percent stated alcohol as two from the Russian River Valley, the Toboni and Martaella Vineyard, yet handled it far better, showing you cannot judge a wine by the numbers.  And, second, the Gap’s Crown and the Fort Ross couldn’t be more different, yet both reside in the Sonoma Coast AVA.  I guess the Sonoma Coast AVA could use more sub-divisions.

Gary Farrell (Fort Ross Seaview, Sonoma Coast) Fort Ross Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($75):  Review copy:  The Fort Ross Vineyard is a cold site, lying less than a mile from the Pacific Ocean and roughly 1,500 feet above sea level.  The temperature rarely exceeds 85º, all of which explains the wine’s profile: a fabulous combination of beguiling fruitiness and smoke-y savory nuances.  Lively acidity gives it brightness and amplifies its charms.  Beautifully balanced, it’s long and refined, with suave tannins.  It conveys what I think of as a Burgundian sensibility, namely, one of flavor without weight.  All of 13.2 percent stated-alcohol shows you don’t need super ripe grapes to make a super wine.  96

Gary Farrell (Russian River Valley, Sonoma County) Hallberg Vineyard Pinot Noir Dijon Clones 2016 ($60):  Review copy: The warmer Russian River Valley compared to Farrell’s Fort Ross bottling explains the riper style of this Pinot Noir.  Black fruit flavors mingle with savory earthy components in this juicy, bright, and long wine.  Though slightly bigger and bolder than their Fort Ross Pinot Noir, it remains impeccably balanced.  Again, a modest-–by today’s standards—13.7 percent stated-alcohol reinforces the notion that riper grapes don’t necessarily make better wine, especially when dealing with Pinot Noir.  95

Gary Farrell (Sonoma Coast, Sonoma County) Gap’s Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($80):  Site matters.  A skeptic of that statement just needs to taste this Pinot Noir made from grapes grown in a vineyard located in the windy Petaluma Gap of Sonoma next to the Gary Farrell Pinot Noirs from the Russian River Valley.  This one has the power and robust nature of the Toboni and Martaella, but with layers of savory nuances that add complexity.  Though it displays a muscular style, it is not overdone.  Bright acidity keeps it from falling into the “Pinot-Syrah” category.  More tightly wound than Farrell’s other Pinot Noir, this wine could use further bottle age.  It should develop beautifully because of its wonderful balance.  If you can’t wait—and that’s understandable—open it a couple of hours before dinner.  94

Gary Farrell (Russian River Valley, Sonoma County) Hallberg Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($55):  This wine presents a fascinating comparison with the Farrell’s Dijon Clones Pinot Noir from the same vineyard.  The winemaker says it’s a blend of five clones of Pinot Noir instead of two Dijon clones.  It has the same power as the Dijon Clones bottling, but reveals less complexity at this stage.  In my mind, it suffers by comparison to its stablemate.  As a stand-alone wine, I’d be thrilled to drink it with grilled salmon.  The lesson for me is that clones matter, but that subject is far too geek-y for this review, so I’ll leave it at that.  92

Gary Farrell (Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County) Bien Nacido Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($70):   Santa Maria Valley’s east-west orientation is unusual in California where most of the valleys run north-south.  Its orientation, which allows cooling Pacific Ocean breezes, explains its cooler climate despite its southern California location.  The bright red fruit-like profile reflects the coolness of the site.  Though this Pinot Noir has fewer savory notes, touches of spice season it nicely and add complexity. Its raspberry-like flavors dance on the palate.  It’s a lighter and brighter Pinot Noir, which Theresa Heredia, the winemaker, calls, “sexy and spicy.”  92

Gary Farrell (Russian River Valley, Sonoma County) Martaella Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($65):  Those who love a more robust style of Pinot Noir will embrace the Martaella Vineyard bottling from Gary Farrell, in relation to the rest of this producer’s lineup.  The focus here is on the ripe, plum-like fruitiness.  As with all of Farrell’s Pinot Noirs, the tannins are fine and the textured refined, which makes it easy to enjoy now.  The sunny Santa Rosa plain where the vineyard is located helps explain the opulence in the wine.  91

Gary Farrell (Russian River Valley, Sonoma County) Toboni Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($55):  The warmth of the Russian River Valley compared to the Sonoma Coast or Santa Maria Valley accounts for riper raw material for this Pinot Noir, which is translated into a more robust wine.  Similar to the one from Martaella Vineyard, it delivers power at the expense of subtlety.  But, showing that site is critical, its fruit and spice profile differs from the Martaella even though the vineyards are a stone’s throw apart. It’s not the style of Pinot Noir I personally look for, but it is well made and certainly will have an audience.  The glossy tannins, a hallmark of Farrell’s Pinot Noir, make it a good choice now with grilled beef.  90

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August 26, 2020

E-mail me your thoughts about the importance of site in general or Gary Farrell’s wines in particular at and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein.

Focusing on Terroir, Following Burgundy’s Lead

If terroir—that French concept that where the grapes grow determines the character of the wine—is so important, why haven’t American consumers embraced it?  Maybe wine appellations, which should define terroir, are just not all that important.  That could be, but I doubt it. Wine appellations should help the consumer know what to expect: Is the wine sweet or is it dry?  Full-bodied or more delicate?  I think Americans haven’t embraced terroir because our focus has always been—and still is—on the importance of grape varieties, brands and winemakers.  But that may be changing as evidenced by a recent release of a trio Pinot Noirs by Siduri Wines, one of the properties owned by Jackson Family Wines.

Wine appellations should allow a consumer to predict, more or less, what’s in the bottle.  Wines from particular areas should have unique characteristics that reflect the locale.  European laws governing the various appellations mandate what grapes are allowed within the defined geographic area, further narrowing the range from a particular appellation.  Consumers, especially those just learning about wine, can confuse the appellation of Pouilly Fumé with that of Pouilly Fuissé, but quickly discern the difference between the herbal bite of the former with the gentler minerality and fruitiness of the latter.  Certainly, there will be differences among the styles of Pouilly-Fuissé depending on the producer, just as different chefs prepare different tomato sauces.  But overall Pouilly-Fuissé should be identifiably different from Pouilly-Fumé just as a plain tomato sauce is different from a tomato-based meat sauce.

Some U.S. producers have focused on terroir with single-vineyard bottlings.  Merry Edwards, Siduri Wines, and Dutton-Goldfield with their single-vineyard Pinot Noir and Nickel and Nickel with their single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons are superb examples of terroir in California.  These producers have shown the importance of site and that where grapes grow make a difference.  Edwards’ Meredith Estate Pinot Noir is consistently different from her Klopp Ranch bottling despite both vineyards being in the Russian River Valley.  Similarly, Nickel and Nickel’s Cabernet Sauvignon from the Sullenger Vineyard in Oakville differs from their State Ranch bottling in neighboring Yountville.  Site matters.

By and large, the U.S. wine industry has focused on individual producers, less so on differences between regions.  But despite our focus on American wine brands and their winemakers, terroir does exist on these shores. It’s not some French philosophic fantasy.  It exists outside of France, but is difficult to isolate unless—and this is critical—a single producer bottles wines from different American Viticultural Area (AVAs), our equivalence of European appellations.  Consumers can taste Domaine Drouhin Oregon’s Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and compare it to Merry Edwards’ Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, but are the differences due to terroir or to winemaking style?  One just doesn’t know.

That’s where Burgundy has led the way.

UNESCO has inscribed Burgundy’s vineyards—its terroir—on their list of World Heritage Sites, recognizing its importance as ground zero for terroir.  Two reasons explain Burgundy’s unique status.  Firstly, for 800 years, monks who planted the vineyards, with little else on which to focus (among worldly matters, at least), were able to study which sites did best year after year, decade after decade, and century after century.  Equally critical, in my opinion, has been the unique marketing system of the wines—based on the centrality of négociants.

The fragmented ownership of vineyards in Burgundy with most farmers owning portions of vineyards scattered over several villages, meant it was impractical for individual growers to make, bottle and market their wines themselves.  The négociant, or wine merchant, system evolved in the 19th century from this patchwork of vineyards and growers.  Growers from throughout Burgundy would sell their grapes or newly pressed juice to larger merchant houses, such as Albert Bichot, Bouchard Père et Fils, Maison Joseph Drouhin, Maison Joseph Faiveley, Maison Louis Jadot, and Maison Louis Latour to name just a few.  In turn, these houses would make, bottle and market the wines under their name.  Although the system started for economic reasons, the unanticipated consequence was the introduction of the concept of terroir to the general consumer.

Customers could—thanks to the efforts of the négociants—taste wines from the various villages and vineyards made using the same winemaking techniques.  The differences between wines from the villages (soon-to-be appellations beginning in the 1930s) of Gevrey-Chambertin and Chambolle-Musigny could be appreciated because winemaking practices were the same.  The only differences among the wines was where the grapes were grown. Unexpectedly, the uniqueness of terroir became easy for the entire world to see, understand and appreciate.  The négociants made the transparency of site apparent to everyday consumers.

Today, though the distinction between négociant and grower has blurred, the concept of terroir remains clear.  Négociants have purchased more and more vineyards.  Growers, seizing on their rock star-like reputations, are becoming “micro-négociants” by buying grapes from other farmers and expanding their range.  With the growth of more micro-négociant model, the practice of a single producer bottling wines from a plethora of individual appellations has expanded and is stronger than ever.   A mini-version of this fragmentation exists in Piedmont, but with the exception of the Produttori del Barbaresco, a co-operative that bottles up to nine site-specific wines, and Sordo in Barolo, which bottles eight single-vineyard wines, most producers bottle no more than two or three separate wines.  Burgundy is the only place in the world where a single producer bottles 50+ individual appellation wines made from the same grape.

Unsurprisingly, Oregon, with its focus on Pinot Noir, a variety that has the potential to express terroir beautifully, has taken a lead in focusing on AVA.  The Drouhin family led the way when they established Domaine Drouhin Oregon in 1987.  Now they produce two distinctive and different Pinot Noirs from two AVAs there, Dundee Hills and Eola-Amity Hills.  Jadot followed suit in 2013 when they established their Oregon outpost, Résonance, in the Yamhill Carlton AVA and within a few years expanded by making Pinot Noir from another AVA, the Dundee Hills.  As with Drouhin’s Oregon bottlings, Jadot’s reflect the different growing areas.  Árdíri, based in Oregon, and Siduri based in California, have taken it a step further by crossing state lines.  Árdíri makes a Pinot Noir from Chehalem Mountains AVA in Oregon and from the Carneros AVA in California. Siduri has expanded the idea by producing multi-vineyard blends of Pinot Noir from three of America’s best AVAs for Pinot Noir: Oregon’s Willamette Valley and the Russian River Valley and Santa Barbara County in California.  Paradoxically, by being less focused on specific vineyards, these wines allow consumers to see—taste, really—the broad differences among these three prime areas or appellations.

Siduri, named for the Babylonian goddess of wine, has always specialized in Pinot Noir, especially single vineyard bottlings.  According to their website they make single vineyard wines from a total of 20 vineyards throughout California and Oregon.  These multi-vineyard single AVA additions to their portfolio are a boon for consumers because each of the wines is easy to recommend and is reasonably priced—at least for Pinot Noir.  Plus, if you taste the three side-by-side, you can easily discern the differences among the AVAs.  Everything except the where the grapes are grown is the same: same vintage, same grape, same winemaking team.  So, the only difference is the origin of the grapes.

Siduri’s Willamette Valley bottling ($35) comes from grapes grown in three AVAs within that valley: Yamhill-Carlton, Chehalem Mountains, and Eola-Amity. Racy and juicy, it delivers far more that bright fruitiness.  Indeed, savory notes are clear and balance the red raspberry-like quality.  A welcome hint of bitterness in the finish adds to its appeal and shows the understated charm that Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley delivers.

Compared to the Willamette Valley bottling, their Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($40), which comes from several vineyards throughout the valley, is broader and riper, with dark fruit flavors.  There’s no bitterness in the finish in this plush, suavely textured wine.  The slight increase in stated-alcohol (14.5 vs 14.3%) is noticeable in the hint of heat in the finish.  Overall, the greater power reflects the warmer Russian River Valley sites compared to those in the Willamette.

The grapes for the Santa Barbara bottling ($30) come primarily from the Sta. Rita Valley, whose east-west orientation is rare in California, where most of the valleys run north-south.  Sta. Rita’s orientation allows cool Pacific Ocean influences to reduce temperatures, especially close to the coast, making it an ideal locale for growing Pinot Noir, a grape that prefers lower temperatures to higher ones.  Siduri’s Sta. Rita bottling is a fine contrast to their other two, falling somewhere in the middle. Slightly riper and more full-bodied that their Willamette offering, it is more restrained compared to the Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, reflecting the cooler environment.

Finally, consumers can learn for themselves the wonderful differences between Pinot Noir from the Willamette, the Russian River Valley, and Sta. Rita Hills without wondering whether they are tasting terroir or the producer’s signature.  Thanks to Siduri for reminding us that France does not have a monopoly on terroir. It’s alive and well in the USA.

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Email me your thoughts about terroir at and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

May 13, 2020

Terroir Exists

“When we can’t explain something, we call it terroir.” That was Jean-Philippe Delmas’ answer to the question of why such notable differences mark the wines from Chateau Haut-Brion and Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion. At some points, these two stellar properties literally across the road from each other in the Bordeaux sub region of Pessac Léognan actually dovetail with one another. Although Delmas’ comment was met with laughter from the guests at a wine dinner at Blantyre (an upscale Relais & Chateaux property in Western Massachusetts that is rapidly becoming known for their sensational wine dinners), the truth is that–at least in this case–terroir does indeed explain the difference between these two legendary properties.

Chateau Haut-Brion, the only Bordeaux property outside of the Médoc to be included–as a first growth no less–in the historic Médoc Classification of 1855, has been owned by the Dillon family since its purchase by the American financier, Clarence Dillon, in 1935. The Dillon family purchased La Mission Haut-Brion in 1983 and now the two properties are owned under the umbrella of Domaines Clarence Dillon.

As with the ownership, the management of the estates has been a longstanding family affair. Jean-Philippe, now the third generation of the Delmas family to run the Domaines Clarence Dillon, took the reins from his father, Jean-Bernard, in 2004. Jean-Bernard had been the director since 1961, when he took over from his father, who was formerly the director at Cos d’Estournel and moved to Haut-Brion in 1923. He remained in charge after Dillon purchased the property.

The concern within the wine world at the time Dillon purchased La Mission was that the two wines would become similar since the management and winemaking teams were the same. That concern has turned out to be unfounded. That the wines of Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion remain distinct despite the same team and a similar varietal mix in the vineyards speaks to the importance of what the French call terroir.

Similar Varietal Composition

What’s planted in the vineyard is similar at each property:

Haut-Brion: Cabernet Sauvignon 45%, Merlot 40%, Cabernet Franc 15%,
La Mission: Cabernet Sauvignon 48%, Merlot 45%, Cabernet Franc 7%

The composition of the wine in any particular vintage depends on the weather during the growing season and how each variety responds to it. If, for example, the Merlot is hit by a spring frost, there will be less of it in the final blend. Similarly, if autumn rains harm the Cabernets, the blend that year would have a larger proportion of Merlot. As a case in point, the 1985 La Mission, an elegant powerhouse (95 points, by my rating) has a third more Merlot–a whopping 60%–in the blend. In 1998, another great success for La Mission (95 points), the blend was also 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon. No Cabernet Franc was included that year. Despite the difference in varietal composition year to year, the wines retain their classic aromas, taste, and character. For example, at a vertical tasting of 10 vintages of Chateau Haut-Brion back into the 1980s at the Nantucket Wine Festival several years ago, the amount of Merlot in the blend varied by 100%. Nonetheless, the wines all had the typical ash-like nose and elegance of Haut-Brion. In short, they were all clearly identifiable as coming from Haut-Brion.

To Jean-Philippe, the differences between La Mission and Haut-Brion are clear. La Mission always has more concentrated flavors and is a ‘bigger’ wine, while Haut-Brion is longer with more finesse. He is adamant, ‘it is not the mixture of grapes or winemaking, it is the land.’

Jean-Philippe speculates that perhaps La Mission was omitted from the 1855 Médoc classification because it was too small, less than 13 acres at the time (today it encompasses about 63 acres, still about half the size of Haut-Brion). I think it was omitted because it lacks the consistent finesse and grace of its first growth neighbor. First Growths–or grand cru Burgundies for that matter–owe their revered stature to complexity, length and finesse, not sheer power or concentration. Chateau Haut-Brion, similar to Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, sneaks up on you. It’s not the direct, overt impact that grabs your attention; it’s the length and plethora of flavors that continue to excite the palate.

The White Wines

Even as the amount of land at both La Mission and Haut-Brion devoted to white grapes continues to shrink, both properties still produce extraordinary dry white wines. Although not a separate property, Château Laville Haut-Brion is the name used for the white wine of La Mission Haut-Brion. The prior owner of La Mission felt that the quality of the white wine was not comparable to that of the red, so opted not to use La Mission on the label. It is unique in Pessac because of its high percentage of Semillon, 80%. Fifteen years ago, it covered about 16 acres, but now is down to roughly 6 acres because it is more profitable to produce red wine in this area. For similar reasons, the vineyard area devoted to white Haut-Brion has shrunk from about 12 acres in the 1930s to about 6 acres today.

Second Wines

Not all of the wine made at Haut-Brion and La Mission is deemed suitable for the grand vin. Wine from young vines or from less than perfectly situated parcels may not be of requisite quality. According to Jean-Philippe, the assemblage or assembling of the blend is ‘like making a perfume’. The team makes the first blend for Haut-Brion or La Mission and then makes another blend from the remaining barrels for the second wine. (Wine still remaining after the completion of the second wine is used for daily consumption by the workers at the property).
Les Plantiers du Haut-Brion is the name for the second white wine from both Haut-Brion and Laville Haut-Brion. It is an under-appreciated white Bordeaux and typically an excellent buy.

Bahans Haut-Brion (pronounced ‘baahn’) is the second wine of Haut-Brion. Since even the French have difficulty pronouncing it, the name will change to Le Clarence de Haut-Brion starting with the 2007 vintage, to honor the man who had the vision to buy the property.

La Mission’s second wine is La Chapelle de la Mission Haut-Brion. Only by tasting these second wines side by side with the grand vin can you appreciate that their tannins are slightly coarser and the wines not quite as refined. Similar to Les Plantiers, the second wines from Haut-Brion and La Mission are typically excellent buys.

Chateau La Tour Haut-Brion, which formerly was a separate property and label, no longer exists. The wine now goes into La Chapelle de la Mission Haut-Brion.

Is Terroir Always Critical?

Clearly terroir is critical, at least in parts of France, such as this part of Bordeaux and Burgundy. It also plays a key role in determining the character of the wines in California and other premium wine areas. Tasting the single vineyard bottlings of Cabernet Sauvignon from Nickel and Nickel in Napa Valley confirms that vineyard sites play an essential role in the flavor and character of the wine.

But the French may be realizing that geographic overload makes it difficult to market their wines. Wines from neighboring areas may be very different to the citizens of those villages, but not to the world at large. Geologic rigor can be mind-numbing, and off-putting, to consumers. In an attempt to simplify the appellation controllée (AOC) system in Bordeaux–home to 56 individual AOCs–several of them, accounting for about 10% of the region’s production, have been combined into one, which will be called Côtes de Bordeaux starting with the 2008 vintage. (The new labeling allows a vestige of the old AOC, as in Côtes de Bordeaux Blaye, or Côtes de Bordeaux Castillon).

It makes sense to have clear geographic delineation when the wine in the bottle justifies it. But local pride and chauvinism–two specialties not just limited to the French–should not trump common sense and marketing.

November 18, 2008

Is it Really Terroir or Is it Just Marketing?

It is often difficult for American consumers, who are accustomed to varietal labeling, to understand and the see the virtue in the European tradition of naming wines by reference to place of origin rather than the name of the grape–a system that highlights the importance of terroir or place.

Part of the difficulty stems from determining whether the character of the wine is due to the producer’s style or whether it is truly due to the origin of the grapes. Maybe the difference between wines made from grapes in adjacent regions–or even vineyards–is due to the winemaker’s techniques and has little to do with the locale.

Certainly in Burgundy, tasting two Puligny-Montrachet Les Folatières from different producers, such as Louis Latour and Olivier Leflaive, who have vastly different styles, can make you wonder how they could have both come from the same vineyard.

This is not a problem limited to a single grape variety or an individual country. In California and other New World wine areas, producers are trumpeting the uniqueness of wines made from grapes grown in a single vineyard or specific regions. Pine Ridge, an outstanding Napa Valley-based winery, bottles a variety of Cabernet Sauvignon made from grapes grown in different subregions of Napa, such as Stags Leap, Howell Mountain, Rutherford and Oakville.

Pinot Noir and Chardonnay–perhaps it’s the Burgundy paradigm at work–seem to be the favorite grapes for winemakers to use in an attempt to capture a sense of place. While Patz & Hall produces a Napa Valley Chardonnay made from a blend of grapes grown in five vineyards, they also produce ones from grapes grown exclusively in vineyards scattered over Northern California: the Hyde Vineyard in Carneros, the Durell Vineyard in Sonoma, Dutton Ranch and Zio Tony Ranch, both in the Russian River Valley, and Alder Springs Vineyard in Mendocino. They also have six single vineyards bottlings for Pinot Noir from similarly diverse geographic locations. Patz & Hall emphasizes the importance of vineyard by putting the vineyard name on the front label and relegating the varietal name to the back label.

Morgan, an excellent Monterey-based producer that focuses on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, bottles several wines from single vineyards that are only miles apart from one another. They produce Chardonnays from grapes grown in their Double L vineyard, located in southern end of Santa Lucia Highlands, and from Gary and Rosella Franscioni’s Rosella’s Vineyard, just three miles down the road. The soil in the two vineyards is similar–sandy loam with traces of limestone–but Rosella’s Vineyard is slightly warmer and has more protection from the wind. Gary’s Vineyard, from which Morgan makes an excellent Pinot Noir, is just four miles south of their Double L Vineyard, which is planted to Pinot Noir as well as Chardonnay. (Both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir can flourish in different parts of same vineyard. The best European example is Corton, which has Grand Cru status for both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir-based wines).

More and more, we are seeing single vineyard wines from places like New Zealand, countries that have a shorter tract record for discerning individuality of specific geographic areas. Villa Maria, one of the country’s leading producers, bottles both a Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir from the Taylors Pass vineyard in the Marlborough region on the northern tip of the South Island.

The fundamental question remains. Are the wines unique and reflective of the site, or is this single vineyard labeling just a marketing tool?

Do Try This at Home

The obvious way to answer this question is to taste wines–from the same vintage–from different vineyards or areas made by the same producer. It’s a worthy exercise that offers consumers an instructional home wine tasting and an easy way to entertain a small group of friends.

Compare Patz & Hall Chardonnay and Pinot Noir

The limited availability and the plethora of single vineyard bottlings from California producers make a full comparison difficult. But the pairing of two of Patz & Hall’s Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs is a good place to start. Patz & Hall’s 2005 Pinot Noir from Hyde Vineyard ($60) in Carneros delivers pure raspberry-like bright fruit and uplifting acidity that contrasts nicely with the deep black ripe fruit–almost what I call ‘Pinot Syrah’ style–from their 2005 Pisoni Vineyard ($80) in the Santa Lucia Highlands. These are clearly different and distinctive wines that will appeal to different consumers.

Their 2005 Durell Vineyard ($44) and Hyde Vineyard ($50) Chardonnays also demonstrate real differences. The former has riper, more tropical fruit flavors and comes across richer and slightly heavier compared to the sleeker version from Carneros’s Hyde vineyard. Again, these wines are unique, will appeal to different audiences and dramatically demonstrate the point that location matters in determining wine style.

Compare Perrin & Fils Wines from the Southern Rhone

A selection of wines from Perrin & Fils allows you to determine for yourself if the maze of appellations in the southern Rhone makes sense. The Perrin family, owners of the famed Château de Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, has a négociant business that buys grapes and unfinished wines from growers–often neighbors–in various appellations in the southern Rhone Valley. They make the wines (or complete the winemaking) and sell the finished wine under the Perrin & Fils label.

Tasting Perrin & Fils wines– the 2005 Côtes du Rhone Villages and Châteauneuf-du-Pape ‘Les Sinards’ or their 2006 Rasteau ‘l’Andeol’ or Vacqueyras ‘Les Christins’–side by side allows consumers to experience the influence of terroir because the same winemaking team made all the wines usually from the same blend of grapes. The only variable is the individual locale. Their Châteauneuf-du-Pape ‘Les Sinards’ ($33) has a floral aspect, minerality and silkiness that set it apart from their Côtes du Rhone Villages ($12). Similarly, their Vacqueyras ($25) is a more broodingly tannic wine that needs time compared to the more polished, but less complex, Rasteau ($16), despite the same blend of grapes, 80% Grenache and 20% Syrah. Not surprisingly, location matters.

February 12, 2008

Reserve Wines Score, But at What Price?

Bait and switch, an unsavory tactic in the used-car business, is finding its way into the wine industry. Think of the bait as a New World reserve wine that is produced simply to generate a 90-point-plus score from a top wine critic. Think of the switch as the regular bottling of the same wine, which is more likely to be what’s available to the average consumer.

A reserve wine in the New World typically is a super selection of a winery’s best production, although it can represent the entire output because there is no legal definition of a reserve wine in the United States. They are usually produced in tiny quantities and sometimes are only available at the winery or to the restaurant trade.

Enter bait and switch. A consumer orders a reserve Cabernet with dinner at an upscale restaurant, is wowed by its concentration and extraction, and looks for it at the local retail wine shop. But he is forced to buy the regular bottling, because that’s the only one available in the shop. The regular bottling pales in comparison because removing the best ten percent of the wine for the reserve strips it of flavor and concentration.

Winemakers acknowledge the potential problem. They defend the practice with the claim that skimming off “only” five to ten percent–a typical amount of reserve wine compared to the regular bottling–does not diminish the quality of the normal bottling.

At the same time, they agree that even a one or two percent addition of Petit Verdot or Merlot to Cabernet Sauvignon alters the wine significantly. In that context, their argument that “it’s only ten percent” seems hollow. The next time you have the chance to taste a producer’s reserve side by side with the normal bottling, make your own blend by adding back ten percent of the reserve wine to the regular bottling to see what a difference it makes.

I first noticed the phenomenon at a vertical tasting of Pinot Noir from a prominent Oregon producer, who shall remain nameless. Starting with its first vintage, the wines improved dramatically with each successive year, as would be expected from its increasing experience and the increasing age of the vines. Then, after about five vintages, the quality dropped noticeably. That wine was not from a particularly poor vintage in Oregon. Rather, it was the first year they introduced their delicious super reserve bottling. In the process, however, they stripped their regular bottling of its usual excitement.

The cru classé of the Médoc take a different approach, which bears emulating. Instead of skimming the cream from the top and calling it a reserve, the Bordelais remove inferior wine–a third to a half in some years–and bottle it under a second label. Although they sell it at a lower price, they maintain the integrity, and price, of their primary bottling. The increase in quality of Château Léoville Las Cases in the 1980’s and Château Lagrange more recently has been due, in part, to creation and expansion of their second labels.

The Italians have codified reserve wines, which limits, but does not eliminate, potential for abuse. A riserva, although typically selected in the cellar, must be aged longer before release. Knowledgeable consumers realize that there are two styles of Italian wine–a non-riserva, ready-to-drink everyday wine and a riserva, which is a sturdier wine that needs even more bottle aging. Also, many Chianti Classico Riservas, such as Vignamaggio’s Monna Lisa, come from particular sections of the property and are not just a selection of the best barrels in the cellar.

Some forward-thinking Tuscan producers reject the concept of a reserve wine. Paolo di Marchi, owner of Isola and Olena, no longer makes a riserva because he feels that by doing so, he dilutes the quality of his regular Chianti Classico. This philosophy may explain why his regular Chianti Classico is consistently excellent.

While the reserve bandwagon has chiefly been a New World experience (there is even a California winery that produced a Very Special Reserve), wine critic Robert Parker’s influence has caused it to surface in the Rhone Valley as wineries there try to impress him with ever more concentrated wines.

It is ironic that French producers, the champions of “terroir,” embrace the practice. Châteauneuf-du-Pape producers may not label their special wines, but that’s what they are. Twenty years ago there were practically no special cuvées in the Southern Rhône. Now many Châteauneuf-du-Pape producers have not only one, but two special wines. Sensing the commercial value of these bottlings, even Côtes du Rhône producers are starting to bottle special cuvées.

No doubt the producers are motivated to show what exceptional wines they can make with their raw materials. But when I asked one why he made a special bottling, he replied that if Guigal could reap such financial success from his single-vineyard bottlings, why not he.

But what Guigal is doing in Côte Rôtie is fundamentally different. He is bottling wines made from grapes grown in uniquely situated vineyards. As I walked the vineyards with Philippe Guigal, he showed me that the La Mouline vineyard was situated in a unique amphitheater, with a heat-retaining nature that helped ripen the grapes.

Philippe noted that the adjoining vineyard, not even separated by a footpath, which Guigal had acquired with his purchase of two local firms, had excellent exposure and was a wonderful vineyard, “but it is not La Mouline.” Philippe noted that its fruit would not be used to expand La Mouline’s miniscule production.

Guigal’s latest super duper Hermitage bottling, Ex Voto, while not from a single vineyard, comes from his own vineyards–again recently acquired–and is not a selection of the best barrels of his négociant Hermitage. In that regard he is similar to the Burgundian négociant who produces two wines from the same vineyard, one from his own vines and one from purchased fruit.

Not all New World producers embrace the reserve concept. Napa’s Shafer Vineyards traditionally makes its flagship wine, Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon, from grapes grown in a distinctive area of the estate, not a selection of the best barrels in the cellar. Its unique profile and power derives from the location of the vines. Some Oregon Pinot Noir producers, such as Bethel Heights, eschew the reserve designation and instead present a plethora of single-vineyard bottlings.

Just because some single-vineyard wines have tiny productions, do not confuse them with “reserve” wines. A single-vineyard wine is created by nature and its limited availability is a function of nature.

Reserve wine is created by man; by a selection in the cellar, at the expense of the other wines. Its scarcity often leads a consumer to settle, unknowingly, for an inferior wine bearing the same name.

December 20, 2005

Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough: A True New World Terroir

The French speak passionately about terroir, a concept maintaining that the character of a wine comes from the unique climate and soil where the grapes are grown. They claim grapes are mere vehicles for transmitting the flavor of the earth into the wine from which they are crafted. Hence, the French usually name their wines after the places where the grapes are grown rather than after the grape varieties from which the wines are made.

For me, the most compelling evidence for this concept comes from Bordeaux. The blend for Chateau Lagrange, a consistently delicious wine from St. Julien, is different each year depending on how each variety ripens. Marcel Ducasse, the proprietor, uses more or less Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend depending on the vintage. In 2000, the finished wine was comprised of 76% Cabernet Sauvignon and 24% Merlot (with no Petit Verdot). Compare that to the 2002 vintage, when Ducasse used 54% Cabernet, 33% Merlot, and 13% Petit Verdot. Despite the dramatic differences in varietal composition, both wines are easily identifiable as Chateau Lagrange. But the French do not have a monopoly on terroir. Sauvignon Blanc grown in the Marlborough region of New Zealand imparts a “sense of place” as stongly as any wine in the world.

The advantage for consumers of wines that have a sense of place is predictability. Just as you know what to expect in terms of basic character from Chateau Lagrange year after year, you know what to expect from Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Even when a winemaker incorporates a little Semillon in the blend or ages a portion of the wine in oak barrels, the inherently “place-specific” character of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc–a piercing citric quality and electrifying edge–still shines.

New Zealand is probably the only country in the world where vineyards contain more Sauvignon Blanc than Chardonnay. And in Marlborough, located at the northeastern tip of the South Island (and New Zealand’s most acclaimed area for Sauvignon Blanc), there is five times the acreage devoted to Sauvignon Blanc as to Chardonnay.

Sauvignon Blanc thrives in Marlborough and produces distinctive wine primarily because of the place’s climate–lots of sunshine, but not a lot of heat. Blenheim, a town in the middle of Marlborough, usually has more sunny hours than any other place in New Zealand, according to Michael Cooper, a leading authority on New Zealand wine. Marlborough’s climate is cool, especially at night, and is comparable to vineyards on Germany’s Rhine River. The combination of sun without excessive heat means that the grapes ripen slowly, developing deep flavors while maintaining good acidity. Cool temperatures at night prevent the degradation of malic acid in the grapes, and the resulting wines are flavor-filled and lively.

It is staggering to realize how Marlborough has established itself as one of the world’s great areas for Sauvignon Blanc in such a short time. No grapes were planted there until 1973, and the first Sauvignon Blanc vines went in a couple of years later. In about three decades, Marlborough has gone from producing no wine at all to crafting world class Sauvignon Blanc. It is illuminating to compare that time span to the history of the Loire Valley towns of Sancerre, Quincy and Pouilly-sur-Loire (home to Pouilly Fumé), which have been growing Sauvignon Blanc for centuries. Similarly, in Bordeaux where Sauvignon Blanc is a mainstay of that region’s white wine, the grape has been planted for hundreds of years.

Although New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs take top honors every year at the International Wine for Oysters Competition at Washington D.C.’s Old Ebbitt Grill, they are equally well suited to other types of seafood. Their bracing acidity and overall edginess also makes them a good choice for pairing with spicy Asian fare.

These are wines to drink young–upon release. The appealing piercing quality that is their hallmark is lost with age. Kiwi winemakers use every technique they can to capture and preserve that character, which explains why most of New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs are bottled with screwcaps.

I have been a fan of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc for years and have tasted a wide range of them from every recent vintage. The 2004 vintage stands out as a year when it seems that almost every producer made exciting wine. It’s hard to go wrong even if you close your eyes and point randomly at any bottle on a store shelf. But for those who would like some specific advice, here are 20 that I found particularly appealing:

The Crossings, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc Reserve “Catherine’s Run” 2002 ($27, W. J. Deutsch & Sons): An exception to the “drink ’em young” rule, the Crossings 2002 Reserve Sauvignon Blanc is a gorgeous, classy wine. Fermentation and aging for a brief time in three year-old French oak barrels added complexity without imparting oakiness. There’s no doubt regarding the originating location behind this wine–the signature cutting edge of Marlborough has not been lost–but there is much more going on in the glass than usual. An eye-opening treat. 95

Babich, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc “Winemakers Reserve” 2004 ($20, Select Fine Wines): This rich expression of Sauvignon Blanc is less angular than most, but still retains attractive zing and acidity. It delivers enticing complexity without losing its focus. 92

Cloudy Bay, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($30 Moët Hennessy USA): Cloudy Bay’s Sauvignon Blanc is credited with introducing American consumers to the category–and perhaps to New Zealand wines in general. The 2004 continues Cloudy Bay’s winning streak of combining an attractive, slightly smoky, almost gunflint quality (which adds considerable complexity) with a vibrant, citric zing. 92

Gravitas, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc St. Arnaud’s Vineyard 2004 ($ distributor): I predict that we will see more single vineyard bottlings as winemakers and viticulturists gain experience with Marlborough’s microclimates and diverse soils. Gravitas has produced a stylish, delicious wine etched with smoke, minerals, and a racy lime finish. 92

Nautilus, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($18, Negociants USA): A lively wine, this has good weight and plenty of fruit and minerality to balance its citric acidity. A stellar example of what Marlborough has to offer. 92

Tohu, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($16, Davies & Co): One of the few wines of this vintage still sporting a cork closure, this has alluring herbaceous notes intertwined with minerality. Its broad range of flavors is balanced by its zingy citric edge. 92

Brancott Vineyards, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 2004 ($21, Allied Domecq): Brancott–known as Montana everywhere else in the world–was the leading company to invest in and develop Marlborough in the 1970s. The company has extensive vineyards from which to select fruit for its Reserve bottling. It’s no surprise that their 2004 Reserve combines great depth and length with the quintessential grapefruit tang of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. 91

Mount Riley, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($16, Quintessential): Mount Riley is riding a string of successful vintages of Sauvignon Blanc. Their 2004 has an appealing pungency and an almost electrifying zip to it. 90

Spy Valley, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($23, Broadbent Selections): Although the name of the winery comes from a nearby electronic surveillance station, there is nothing clandestine about this Sauvignon Blanc. It delivers appealing gooseberry flavors and that signature Marlborough grapefruit-like edginess. 90

Huia, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($23, Via Pacifica): I’ve always liked Huia’s Sauvignon Blancs, and their 2004 is no exception. The lemon-lime flavors are clear, but do not dominate this well-balanced wine. 89

Matua Valley, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($13, Beringer Blass Wine Estates): Matua Valley produced New Zealand’s first Sauvignon Blanc in 1974 near Auckland on the North Island. Their 2004 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, vibrant and long, is a super buy. 89

Wither Hill Vineyards, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($20, Paterno Wines International): A plethora of flavors, buttressed by refreshing and penetrating acidity makes Wither Hill’s 2004 an easy wine to recommend. 89

Coopers Creek, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($16, various importers; refer to Coopers Creek website for importer in your area): Hints of smoke and minerals add intrigue to the lime-infused flavors in this wine. It’s a balanced beauty. 88

Glazebrook, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($17, Frederick Wildman): Even with a slightly less citric signature than most of its counterparts, Marlborough character still shines through in this wine, which culminates in a grapefruit-like finish. 88

Twin Islands, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($11): Lemony and lively, this is an easy-to-recommend example of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. A great value. 88

Redcliffe, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($12, Palm Bay Imports): Redcliffe’s rendition, a more straightforward offering than most, retains the quintessential Marlborough zip and is another great value. 88

Postscript: Marlborough Doesn’t Have a Monopoly on New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc

Outstanding Sauvignon Blanc also originates from other locales in New Zealand. Martinborough, located at the southern end of the North Island, is a stone’s throw away (across Cook Strait) from Marlborough. Looking at a map, it not hard to imagine that these two areas were attached before being separated by some hiccup during the earth’s formation. Well known for some of New Zealand’s most prized Pinot Noir, Martinborough also makes noteworthy Sauvignon Blanc.

Craggy Range Winery, Martinborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc, Te Muna Road Vineyard 2004 ($23, Kobrand): Slightly less piercing than its counterparts from across Cook strait, Craggy Range’s version has a captivating minerality and depth that results in an outstanding wine. 92

Palliser Estate, Martinborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($19, Negociants USA): Also a little less edgy than the ones from Marlborough, Palliser’s 2004 Sauvignon Blanc has an extra dimension of minerality. 91

Pencarrow, Martinborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($13, Negociants USA): Pencarrow, the second label of Palliser Estate, offers solid wine at an excellent price. Their 2004 Sauvignon Blanc is flinty with good substance and an attractive bite. 88

Mount Difficulty, Central Otago (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($19, American Estates Wines): Located in Central Otago (a tiny area in the southern part of the South Island known best for its Pinot Noir), Mount Difficulty made a dynamite 2004 Sauvignon Blanc. Its name notwithstanding, subtle earthy flavors balanced by cleansing citric zing and a long finish make it easy to enjoy. 92

October 25, 2005