Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Wines Of Place

Is that better you terroir disbelievers? Don’t want to get anyone’s knickers in a wad by using the “T” word. For those less geeky and not so much inclined to troll wine blogs, terroir is French word used, (a lot) to describe what the place the grapes are grown imparts on the flavor of the finished wine, and there are lots and lots of people, both in and outside of the wine business that don’t think it’s a real thing. Whatever. Might not be everywhere and who knows for sure if it is the soil, the strains of yeast or specific clones that create that common thread between wines grown in a certain places. I’m no scientist nor am I a winemaker, but I can tell you, from years of experience, there are in fact wines grown in places that taste like no other wines, made from the same variety, often from the same damn clones, from anywhere else. Period.

I’ve way too often had some sales rep or winemaker in my grill telling me his Central Coast, or Napa Chardonnay is Burgundian, and I can tell you that nothing will get my eyes rolling back in that, “Um shut up” way like that comment. I did have a guy recently tell me his Chardonnay was “Old world” in style and I have to say I found that down-right refreshing. Old world is a style, Burgundy is a place and it bugs the living crap out of me when place names are misused or misrepresented. Not to mention I think wineries should be proud of where they are, embrace it and make whatever style wine they wish. I won’t judge by any other standard….unless you toss about shit like “Our Chardonnay is very Meursault-like” well now you’ve given me something of an expectation, a place whose wines I know the flavors of and guess what? It’s not. Doesn’t make the wine bad, not in the least but it’s not Burgundian, so stop saying that. Do I believe there are wines of the same quality as many Burgundies being grown elsewhere, hell yes I do….but they still don’t taste Burgundian. It’s not just Burgundy either, although we do tend to hear it most often with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, that comparison thing, Rhone gets its fair share of it as does Alsace and Bordeaux at times and I wish it would just stop, not going to I know but I think that comparison thingie does more to fuel the flames of terroir debate than anything else. 

So I think it is pretty obvious where I stand on the argument. Can’t tell you why the wines from a specific place taste a certain way, but in my opinion they do. Call it what you like, make up the reason why but until someone can pour me a Cabernet Franc that tastes like Bourgueil, a Sauvignon Blanc that tastes like Sancerre or a Chardonnay that tastes like Chablis, well I am gonna stay firmly planted in the “Believer” camp. That being said, a couple of years ago I started using “wines of place” rather than the ubiquitous, and oft misused, terroir. Just paints a clearer picture for my customers and for some reason kind of takes that whole, “Vs.” thing out of the equation a little. When comparisons are made we as a people are inclined to pick a “winner” and with matters of wine, (or any other subjective, preference driven subject) the only winner is the one that tastes best, to you. Might not be the same winner as the person pouring picked or the person next to you at the table right? Which brings us to my next topic……..the wine scoring system. Kidding. Not a chance in hell I’m poking that buzzing bees nest.

A couple of weeks ago I was tasted on a flashy new Chablis, leesy, rich, toasty oak and when I buried my nose in the glass I thought two things; has no aroma of place and this style wine is made, far better, in other parts of the world. Had no use whatsoever for it and I took a pass…funny thing though, he didn’t mention when pouring that it was a, “Sonoma Coastian style”. I judged that wine on both sets of criteria, place and after that, style and it failed on both. Crappy Chablis and substandard Chardonnay, no thanks. When you look at it that way it might behoove suppliers, winery reps and salespeople to skip that whole “It’s an X style” wine because now not only have you given me the, “Um, shut up” face, you’ve thrown another layer of expectation in the mix. Just sayin’….

Last night I was dropped off a couple bottles of wine, samples of a new vintage from one of my favorite producers and the second my nose was in the glass I could tell where that wine was from, without question that wine was Chablis, not Chardonnay, Chablis. A wine of place. That stony, un-cooked bread dough, salty, almost fleshy smell and taste can only come from one place. Call it what you want, matters not to me but no one is going to convince me that there is nothing at all to what a specific place can add to a wine. Doesn’t take much to cover that up should you be so inclined, as was the case with that Chardonnay producing Chablis estate I was tasted on a couple of weeks ago. Little longer hang time, some brand new or heavily toasted oak and viola, accent covered. Not so much opposed to that but keep in mind Mr. Sonoma Coastian “Chablis” producer, you are now competing on a world stage with a new world style and you’ve got some seriously stiff competition ahead of you. They are making  far more concentrated, elegant, refined Chardonnays, like in the Sonoma Coast, you erase that place flavor from your wine…you can’t compete, theirs are better examples, of Chardonnay. 

I happen to dig the fact that I can taste where a wine is from, often times more than what it’s made from. I think it’s freaking cool as hell, romantic even. If you can’t, don’t want to or fall in the terroir is bullshit camp that’s fine too but how about not pointing your finger and saying the rest of us are being hoodwinked, or worse, lying. Oh and if you really think there is nothing to it, quit using words like Burgundian, it’s a freaking PLACE, ya jackhole.  Either you believe that imparts something or you don't.

Hugs and kisses,
Kool-Aid Drinker...


Anonymous said...

Feeling a little bit of the RAWR this morning, are ya?

Also drinking the Kool-Aid...


Ron Washam, HMW said...

My Gorgeous Samantha,

Discussions of terroir always seem to boil down to Justice Potter Stewart's famous line about pornography, "I know it when I see it."

I'm certainly one of those who knows terroir when I smell and taste it. But, if anything, I often wonder if allegiance to terroir isn't in some ways limiting. Just wondering. I want my Chablis to remind me of Chablis, that's why I bought it, but what will happen to that notion of terroir as the climate changes? Will Chablis twenty years from now still have the terroir you recognize and love? Does it matter?

It's funny how every single buyer and sommelier I've ever spoken to hates when sales reps or winemakers used words like "Burgundian," and yet it persists in the vocabulary of CA. wine. When someone described a wine in that way to me when I was a sommelier I immediately knew it was mediocre wine. Honestly, I can't remember an exception to that. So sales reps reading this--just stop.

John M. Kelly said...

Thanks, Sam - this should be required reading for every loopy who throws terroir around as a synonym for soil & climate conditions. Wines do show a sense of place, that is part soil and climate, but also deeply involves the volition of the grower and winemaker. I think I am going to projectile vomit on the next person who asserts that bioD farming and "natural" winemaking "reveals terroir. Aaaaack.

John M. Kelly said...

I had to dig back through Randall Grahm's twitter feed to find this: "Terroir: 'It's the history of a family interpreting the earth.' ~Joe Mesics, VitLit."

Joe was a Healdsburg-area winnegrower who passed away February last year. Alice Feiring wrote about him and his book (Vit Lit) on her Feiring Line on 3/31/12.

Samantha Dugan said...

Just a tad.

Ron My Love,
Well baby, I can only speak from my French side and remind you that allegiance to terroir is not a mandate. Winemakers in Chablis, Cote Rotie and Vouvray are free to do, plant, and play with whatever they wish....can't always use those place names if you chose to do so though, and I think for those of us that, as you said, buy Chablis with a specific taste in mind find comfort in having at least a vague idea what to expect. That crazy Chablis producer can plant Merlot for all I care but....don't call it Chablis. Fair trade I would say and I often wonder how the domestic consumer feels when grabbing a bottle of something like Pinot Noir from the new world and have no idea what they might be getting into. Yeah, I'm a place person for sure.

As to climate change, well we've seen some of that happen already and I guess much like all things wine, we cannot take for granted what's in the bottle. We need to taste, all the time, even from regions we think we know like the back of our hand. Laziness or assumptions lead to things like paying $120 for Caymus Special Select because we once remembered a time when it was something "special".

Thanks sweetheart and I knew you would be one of the people that would get this post. Mostly because you taught me something about clones by taking me through your wines and how a clipping, from a vine planted in an area that is known for a specific flavor, can be replanted elsewhere and show similar flavors. That was a revelation to me and one I shan't forget.

Marcia Macomber said...

Great post! I hate hearing terroir bandied about. I think most using it just think it sounds cool.

Wines of place is so much better. It leaves open for more variances.

Let's not forget you can still get plonk from 'places' that usually exhibit fine qualities for certain varietals (on specific clones).

I won't mention the dreadful RRV Pinot Noir I had that could only be explained as someone made some mistakes post-harvest and had to unload the juice.

Keep 'em coming. Great advice for sales reps.

Samantha Dugan said...

Wines of place just works for me. Half the people I deal with have never heard the word Terroir anyway. Using place seems more honest in a way, not some mystical patch of dirt but there is something that can be smelled and tasted when wines from certain areas are coxed to do their thing. Just my take and I'm the first to admit that don't mean shit....well except to those that have learned from me and give me that most coveted flash of a light going off. Why I do what I do and love it.

Thomas said...

Reminds me of the time I poured my Gewurztraminer for a potential customer in my tasting room. Since I never, ever, spoke about the wine before someone tasted it, I quietly awaited his response.

"It tastes like Alsatian wine," he said.

"Thanks," I said, "but I like to think that it tastes like my wine, produced right here in the Finger Lakes, in a style that I like, and that is possible in this place."

I've always hated when local wineries marketed their products by using the name of some other place. It's insecure and it's inaccurate.

Samantha Dugan said...

I shit you not, had a customer come in yesterday morning, not an hour after I posted this, telling me that he and his wife had just returned from a trip to Burgundy and had fallen in love with Chablis. I was grinning ear to ear, that was until he asked, "Which California wines are Chablis?" ugh. What happened next, (after I told him I had that very morning written about the subject) amounted to a twenty minute Intro to French Wines class.

I briefly explained wines of place to him, can't really launch into the whole deal during an exchange on the sales floor, and in the end he was still confused. "Now we saw lots of bottles that just said, Bourgogne" on them, how are we supposed to know what's in it?"....sigh. Teaching people about a subject that tends to make them inherently nervous, and maybe just a touch suspicious, has never been easy....

Samantha Dugan said...

Whoops, left out the part where I asked him, "Now before your trip, had you asked me for a glass of Chardonnay and I poured you a Chablis, would you think that I had made some mistake? Would the flavor of that wine be what you expected when thinking about Chardonnay?" and when he shook his head, confirming that he would have had something totally different in mind I said, "That's because it is a wine of place, knowing what it is made from isn't going to tell you much." I swore he was catching on, until the "Bourgogne" comment.

Thomas said...


It's waaay too difficult to remember what makes each place unique than it is to remember that you once had a Chardonnay and liked it, and so you like Chardonnay.

Unfortunately, it takes a long time to explain the place labeling system as opposed to the varietal wine labeling system.

I believe that, while the varietal wine labeling system had its purpose in the 50s when, thanks to Marin Ray and to Frank Schoenmaker it began to pick up in California, it also became instrumental in injuring the concept of place in the New World.

Thomas said...

Oops, make that Martin Ray.

Valerie said...

Thought of you last night with my lips on a Puilly-Fuisse & slurping the Chablis sauce out of a plate of the most perfect mussels I've had since Liguria last year (before the food poisoning incident, of course.)

Having a moment to sit down & read a blog or two I found myself devouring this piece like a hobo on a ham sandwich. I agree a wine should have a sense of place, that it shouldn't just be "we buy our grapes from CA and ..." get this "... smooth it out with pineapple." Yeah - actually had that conversation with a local winemaker last year. And my friends wonder why I won't have anything to do with that winery or their wines. If I'm going to drink CO, then I want to taste Western Slope and whatever makes it so in my glass. You probably could hear my eyes roll across the Rocky Mountains.

Charlie said...

Tricky business at times, this debate between character of place and character of variety.

Ron raises an interesting question about the future, but we already know that the wines of today are different from the wines of two and three decades ago, and not just for global warming. Technique and "volition" (thanks, Mr. Kelly) also play huge roles in character.

What is BS, however, is the use of words to imply quality by associating place with every wine that comes down the pike.

Of course, Sam, if I were trying to sell you CA wine, I would be very tempted to tell you that it had European character because that is what you like.

Hopefully, of course, when I told you that my CF was made in a Loire-like style, I would be at least somewhat correct.

Samantha Dugan said...

Man, I do loves me a good Pouilly-Fuisse from time to time. Funny how place matters to some and not at all to others, kind of like the with and without food thing. My boss was talking to a lady this weekend that absolutely hated the 3 Chablis we poured for our Chardonnay tasting. He tried to explain place and then mentioned "With certain foods" and this woman's back got all stiff before she snapped at him with, "I don't care about this food with this wine. I just want to drink it". So there are those too and no matter how passionate we are about the things that move us in wine, we need to keep in mind the way others see it as well. Not always easy but...

If as a friend you were recommending a wine and said it was European in style I would be fine with that, curious to try it even, but if you were trying to sell me a wine for the shop, well that's where I get a little annoyed when things like that are said. Mostly because it's kind of my job to taste and evaluate the wines, something I'm quite good at as it turns out, and I don't care for it when some reps tells me what I should or shouldn't be tasting. Just bugs me and especially when the wines are not at old old world or European in style. Then I think they are either full of shit or have not a clue about wines of place....which is fine, but hesh up and just let me taste. Bit of a sore spot I guess you can tell. Missed you Charlie Baby.

Charlie Olken said...

Hi Sam--

Nothing I like better than trying to match food and wine. And the truth is that I have been successful most of the time.

Of course, the reason for that success is obvious. Except for disastrous pairings, most wines will find a way to be good with food. Okay, some are better than others, but I kind of like the idea that some of the chef up here in Bay Area espouse for their own pairings. Find a great wine or two and drink it/them with everything.

I still prefer individual wines for individual dishes, but the idea of drinking a wine you know to be great throughout a meal is not so bad either. Just different.

At that point, the choice has nothing to do with place or even variety. It has to do with greatness.

That why this wine business is such fun. We can be right at so many levels because sometimes it is hard to be wrong except when we get too geeky.