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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May 13, 2020