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