Seattle Wine Blog

This blog is dedicated to commentary on all aspects of wine, especially short entries to help you find the best wines without the usual hype and spin. These are my frank, independent opinions, usually based on tasting wine at a public event, off the shelf or at the winery. "All creative acts must arise out of a specific soil and flicker with a spirit of place" -D.H. Lawrence

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Wine Rocks!

I just finished reading the silliest article with a really great title, called "Talk Dirt To Me," about "terroir," in the Spring issue of the Sunday New York Times Style Magazine by Harold McGee and Daniel Paterson. In it, they start out by setting up a straw man contending that terroir means you can actually taste rocks, dirt, minerals, earth, etc. in wine. That is silly. Soil is just one element in terroir which better translates as place or microclimate. What you taste is fermented grape juice, not literally and concretely soil. Soil influences the vine and the grape. The winemaker adds her signature. Terroir refers to the characteristics imparted to wine by the place where the vines are grown. Soil, sun, heat, exposure, elevation, tradition and culture all contribute to "terroir." The fruitiness of California wine is a reflection of a sunny "terroir." The big hardiness of grapes grown in the Napa mountains such as Mt Veeder, in contrast to the "Rutherford Dust" of softer wines made from grapes grown on the valley floor, is a manifestation of "terroir." I don't think I would want to drink a Riesling from Algeria or a Syrah from the Rhine. Certain grapes are best suited to certain soils and climates.

If anyone doubts the existence of "terroir" just come to the new wine regions of the Pacific Northwest where most wines are named by varietal rather than place, but where there are striking differences among AVAs and specific vineyards. Bednarick Vineyard in the Willamette Valley is not likely to produce wine like that from Shea Vineyard. In Washington, generally, the wines made from the Yakima Valley grapes will be softer than those from Red Mountain or Walla Walla. Just check out the three reds made by Tim Sorensen, winemaker at Fall Line - one from Yakima grapes, one from Red Mountain grapes and one a blend of the two. Why does a Ciel du Cheval Cabernet from Sorensen Vineyard (different Sorensen) in Port Townsend resemble a Ciel Cab from Cadence in Seattle or an Andrew Will from the same vineyard made by Chris Carmada on Vashon. Why do Januik and Novelty Hill resemble each other. Both are made from Stillwater vineyard grapes and both are made by winemaker Mike Januik which brings us to the real point about terroir - it's not one or the other. The taste of a wine can reflect the place where the grapes were grown and the signature of the wine maker or it can be manipulated through "science" to please the taste buds of Robert Parker or it can simply came from "nowhere" and be made by "nobody."

The grape variety and specific clones are the strongest influence on the taste of the wine just as genetics account for 60 to 70% of the variance in human personality and intelligence, but the other 30% to 40% of environmental influence makes all the difference in the world. Kittens are hard wired for vision, but are born blind. Vision only comes with tactile and proprioceptive stimulation from the environment( Huebner & Wiesel). Human infants have a critical period at about ten months when their brains are ready to develop certain kinds of relatedness such as empathy and emotional attunement (Allan Shore), but this only comes about in the presence of a nurturing, interactive parent. The French expression "elevage" meaning to "raise", is not an accident. Both the grapes and the wine must be "raised" or nurtured just as children must be raised or nurtured and this happens in a certain place or environment. There are good and bad environments for grapes and children. Some grapes and children are lucky to be in just the right environment, whereas others find themselves in a bad environment or a bland, boring , unstimulating environment where they are mechanically raised in unenriching soil. Is it any wonder that so many wineries and wines are named after the winemaker's or owner's children. I mean, there is a difference between being raised in the Central Valley of California and the Napa Valley. There is a difference between the Napa Valley and Sonoma, between Howell Mountain and Rutherford, Cotes de Fronsac and the Medoc. Chateau Reignac has probably realized its maximum potential under the guiding hand of Michel Rolland, but it is not Chateau Lafite. A good wine or a good child must be " bien eleve", well raised, in a good environment. For a vine that means setting down roots in the right place and being nurtured by a good winemaker.

Even though some of the esters, or flavor components in wine may be the same as those in, say, raspberries, descriptions of wine flavors are inevitably metaphors. We really only can say "tastes like". Tasting notes can get quite florid - lead pencil, cassis, a hint of metal, like a Beethoven symphony, "Jesus in Velvet Pants", a beautiful woman, forest floor, stone, minerals, limestone. These descriptors are sometimes hyperbolic metaphors attemting to describe taster's subjective experience. Tasting wine is a subjective experience and "ratings" only give the appearance of objectivity. There are no terms such as the names of colors to describe tastes. There is no real spectrum of tastes although Ann Noble has made a valiant effort along these lines.

After destroying their straw man, these faux counterterroiristes finally have to admit that " the place where the grapes are grown clearly affects the wine that is made from them....it's the land, stupid." It's the grape, the place and the winemaker! Boring grapes planted in a boring place and made into wine by a winemaker without soul will result in a boring wine. Wine manipulated toward the globalized gout Parker will be Parkerized. Wine from good grapes, planted in the right soil and made by a winemaker with character will rock!

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