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September 27, 2010

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Evan:
What is your response to those who would claim the NY wine industry is still too young to determine whether terroir exists anywhere, or which grapes are actually best for the region? You do seem to indicate in your article that time is definitely an issue, as you won't say anything yet on grapes such as pinot and cab franc.

Richard -

My response is that it's hard to argue with anyone who thinks this region is too young to consider the question. I think patient observation and humility are major factors here. I would not possibly blame anyone for saying it's too early to say. I think what we're seeing when it comes to terroir is the very early echo of an answer, and one that will continue to evolve long after we're gone. But I think that echo is there in these unique cases if we're willing to listen. I do not claim to have all the answers, and I'd be arrogant if I said I did.

With the other varieties you mention, I think we're going to find out. But purely in terms of climate and soil, it makes a lot of sense to grow Pinot Noir and Cab Franc and Blaufrankisch in the Finger Lakes. Whether they will show a unique voice remains to be seen.

A wine that displays its terroir in an obvious and overt fashion - and the winemaker who allows this voice of the earth to be heard (unmolested) through his or her work is a very high expression of wine indeed.

I think the pursuit and study of terroir, and the appreciation of terroir in the romantic sense is also the highest form of wine appreciation there is.

I feel sad for the wine "lover" who attempts to dissect wine in a clinical way - or worse - who attempts to explain away terroir and disprove it.

Too bad for them. Clearly they love their wine right? But only a follower of terroir is truly "in love" with wine. Deeply, madly in love!

Of course NY has terroir, and Evan does a great job in citing examples of it here. Fortunately for the wine lover, terroir is also (seemingly!) infinite.

Does anyone have a handle on how much time is needed to establish whether or not a region's grape varieties are in-synch with the "terroir"?

Riesling has been in the Finger Lakes for nearly 50 years. Is that enough time for it to have proven itself?

In my view, the concept of "terroir" is everywhere, but it takes the vines (not to mention our senses) time to adapt. How much time is unanswerable, as the time necessary is related to many variables.

Having said that, by their nature, many grape varieties should not be considered for planting in certain locations. All the time in the world may not help them adapt, unless they are cloned properly--oops, sorry for throwing in one more variable.

I am not a "terroir" denier; hell, I grow many plants at my place and I know that they are affected by the earth and the atmosphere from which they draw their life. But I don't think the navel-gazing aspect of arguing over this or that "terroir" makes much difference to anyone who simply enjoys the wine that is produced in a certain place or places. I don't even think understanding "terroir" matters to our enjoyment. As the saying goes, we miss the forest, and so on...

If you take the "terroir" discussion to its logical point, it would be a subject that is more technical than ethereal, as it relates to topography, climatology, and the make up of soil. But most who worship at the altar of the ethereal would reject a technical explanation of "terroir" that collides with their belief system. Like biodynamics, where does the chatter get us?

I am trying to understand why wine is the only food product that stirs so much mental gymnastics.

Evan: You already know this, but I like this post a lot, and it's extremely well timed. With all of the medals/marketing/branding/PR-related discussions we've had of late, I think it's important for all of us to step back and ponder the beauty of New York wine as you've done here.

Does NY terroir exist? Absolutely. You cite some fine examples from the Finger Lakes and I think you've hit the uniqueness of Finger Lakes riesling square on the head. If Finger Lakes producers have gotten this far with it in 50 years (with how many year doing it seriously? far fewer, right?) you can't help but be excited for the next 50 -- and we'll both be around for those I hope.

One of your key points that I'd like to focus on in this comment is the concept of growing the right grape in the right place. It takes time to find these grape-spot combinations -- and it takes experimental and forward-thinking growers.

How many outstanding cabernet franc sites might there be on Long Island that are currently under chardonnay vines? Pinot noir is showing some real promise and quality in the Finger Lakes, but what if many of the undiscovered locations to grow it are used for cabernet sauvignon or seyval blanc or concord? It takes time and the right people (and money) to rip out productive vineyards and plant something new.

The point that New York is still young as a region is apt too. Before Tom Higgins, Morten Hallgren etc. upped the bar with pinot, would anyone have thought such beautiful pinot noir could come from the Finger Lakes?

In much the same way, sauvignon blanc wasn't looked upon as a future star on Long Island the way that is today. There isn't enough fruit to go around right now to satisfy all of the producers who'd like to be making it!

So yes, there is terroir in New York wines, but there is also a lot of mediocre wine that could have come from most any cooler region. In some cases, those mediocre wines are the result of wrong grapes/wrong place, but there are a million other variables at play too -- winemaker skill and decisions, crop load, vineyard practices, etc.

The answer? Time. And more dedicated people who are almost violent in their drive or quality. The world just doesn't need more mediocre wine, does it?

Thomas: I'd argue that there are other foods for which terroir-like discussions are common, including oysters, cheese...even tomatoes. We probably just hear more about wine because that's our obsession of choice.

Lenn,

Maybe you are correct, but I'll be damned if I've ever witnessed so many arguments over oysters or even cheese ;)

As for Riesling and the Finger Lakes, stellar wines have been around since the late 1970s--more than 30 years.

It does take time for the "terroir" to show itself in a varietal wine, but I'd say if it doesn't show within 20 or so years, it probably won't show, and then one must ask, why does it take even that long?

The ethereal answer is something along the lines of the vine's maturity. Perhaps vines need a long duration to become "earth-smart."

Of course, that there is no particular scientific proof of the phenomenon beyond how a vine reacts to climate and what a root system does for the life of the vine, the subject of "terroir" remains largely in the realm of navel gazing or romanticism, which, I submit, has nothing to do with wine and all to do with, well, romanticism!

Even if "terroir" were proven to be why we taste what we taste in a wine, we would then have to argue with those who don't taste what we taste in the wine. Would they be taste blind to "terroir" or just taste blind?

So many rabbit holes...

I don't think we have to wait for Terroir to show itself, rather we have to wait for the naval-gazers to start to agree what the terroir is, no?

After it has demonstrated itself to enough people, they agree what that terroir entails?

Jim,

In fact, I neglected to say that one other facet of the "terroir" concept is replication, and to me this is the most important factor. What solidifies in my mind that there is such a thing as "terroir" driven wines is the consistency of such wines within regions and at various producers.

Of course, I might think that consistency is "terroir" driven, but someone else might think it is winemaker driven, and the rabbit hole widens.

I do believe that we have to wait some period of time for "terroir" to show itself fully. I believe that happens because of a vine's need to mature. I have tasted wines from vineyards of four and five years old against wines from older vineyards nearby and have found a depth of difference in character to which I attribute maturity and the way the older vines handle their environment.

The expression of teroir takes time. Just as we cannot evaluate an entire culture of people through only one generation, we cannot expect to have a region's terroir completely figured out in only 30, 40 or even 50 years. It takes time but we are begining to understand that it indeed does exist. The fact that we are identifying a saline minerality in many Long Island wines is a clear confirmation of terroir - just as I can distinctly smell and taste shale and wet lake stone in many Finger Lakes whites. I believe terroir can express itself much quicker in white varieties while reds can take many more years to develop a unique character. We are in the early stages of seeing this on the North Fork with an iron minerality and stony salinity present in many reds from different producers.

I completely agree that terroir can only fully develop where the grape and the region combine for the "right fit" We are seeing this evolution taking place. Along with this serendipity, we need to grow our grapes and make our wines using our own local techniques, ideas and philosophy - not the strict ideology and dogma of other people, other times and far away places. Its about the here and now. Our shepherding of grapes into wine - using the best information and practices that we have developed at the local level are key to the ultimate expression of regional character.


Rich,

"I believe terroir can express itself much quicker in white varieties while reds can take many more years to develop a unique character."

Have you empirical data to support that belief?

What is it about white and red that makes the difference? Where do pink or gris varieties fit in?

Finally, why does it take more than half a century to figure out "terroir"? What is being figured out other than the sensory profile of the grapes and wine, and why should that take so long?

I'm not trying to tweak--I am trying to understand how you and others come to your decisions about "terroir."

I don't think that believing in something necessarily makes it so, especially when that something has (or should have) a scientific base.

I don't want to answer for Rich, Thomas, but I'll reiterate a point about white versus red: Oak. Simple as that. There is hardly anything that obscures varietal character like oak can. Whites deal with oak far less often, and we get a clearer look at what they're offering.

Evan,

If oak is the answer, that has nothing to do with the "terroir." That's a clear intervention.

Whites like Riesling also hardly ever (if ever?) go through malo-lactic fermentation, but just about all reds do. Does that secondary fermentation have an effect on the expression of "terroir"?

I've always felt (nothing empirical in feeling) that the reason we think Riesling provides the clearest expression of "terroir" is because it is not subjected to much in the way of "treatment" in the winery.

Thomas - terroir is and always has been, more like sociology than biology - there are a tremendous numbers of variables involved most of which are viewed anecdotally. We know what we're tasting - at some point we can begin to analyze what thee constituents are but we are just beginning to scratch the surface. As a scientist, you would need to know what to look for before you test. I think it will get there eventually. But as in all regions - it is the overall experience of aroma and flavor that is important.

As far as whites versus reds, I believe that red vines take much longer to realize their full potential - 30-40 years is not out of the question. We are continuing to see increases in depth of flavor on Long Island as the vines get older and beyond the 30 year mark. I think Evan's point about oak is also a factor although wineries that are paying attention to terroir will guide their wines appropriately.

Rich,

The problem in describing or pinpointing "terroir" is not only oak but also primary and secondary fermentation as well as introductions of things like DAP to "fix" nutrition or SO2, which can be blamed for flinty qualities, and anything else that might be added and could easily influence the sensory nature of the wine.

How about crop size? Wouldn't that be a factor in the development and/or expression of "terroir"?

Less intervention or so-called "natural" winemaking might leave the "terroir" relatively intact, but in many cases, the v.a., Brett, etc. that result in so much of what is referred to as "natural" are referred to as "terroir" when in fact, in my view, they are flaws.

Until we know the path that "terroir" takes to get from earth to grape we can't know much about "terroir". That kind of non-information relegates the discussion to one of "I feel it" but not that "I know it."

In my view, as vines get older, their wines take on a depth of character--but as in any living thing, they don't do it all at the same pace. I don't know why vines that produce red grapes would take any longer to get their than vines that produce white grapes, and I am wondering if you can explain to me why that is so.

Thomas is running down the laundry list of factors that can influence the character of a wine, but do they have anything to do with Terroir per se? Terroir isn't something so easily defined by the contributions of outside stimuli. The careful taster eliminates these things (brett, oak, SO2) as part of the search beneath that to qualify the terroir. In other words, terroir is the common denominator or thread, and not the sum of the parts of a particular wine.

A clue to the evidence we are looking for is the examination of "this wine" versus "that wine" all things being somewhat equal, over time.

In Burgundy you know that a Grand Cru lies typically next to a Premier Cru, which can lie next to a Village level wine, and so forth down to ordinary wines. It is the (undeniable) recorded evidence of thousands of monks and vignerons through the ages.

What takes time, as ROH points out, as much as many decades, is the recorded findings from comparative studies of the vineyards and the commonality they share - that empirical evidence (as Thomas seeks) can actually come from the social side of the wine studies.

Perhaps this is the revelation of terroir.

Further - if a respected taster tells you in his book that St. Julien tends towards an earthy, clay-y, soft and full-bodied flavor profile; And St. Estephe tends towards a harder, more tannic profile; And Margaux has the prettiest of the aromatics, long flavors and medium-full body; The discussion isn't about grapes, brett, barrels, winemakers or climate, and not even about vintage, degree days, or yields.

The discussion is about the historical tendencies of a region to produce a characteristic "terroir."

If we agree that the tendencies exist, well, that is terroir.

Jim,

As I said earlier, replication is key--as you point out, if wines continually offer a thread, then it can be reasonably assumed that thread is the nature of its "terroir." Still, withotu a definition of what constitutes "terroir" we are merely flinging about words. The many things that you list as not part of the discussion can also be some of the things that cause the sensations that we have identified as "terroir". The famous barnyard of Burgundy is a great example of that.

The phrase "gout de terroir" is taken to mean "taste of the earth" but does it? Is "terroir" a word to replace "mondiale" (earth). "Terrain" is a French word for the landscape.

Or, is "gout de terroir" the taste of everything that goes into producing the grapes and then the wine? Is it a signature of both a place and a process, where weather and earth dictate type and cultivation and winemaking dictate style?

I am chiming in a bit late in the thread, but I did want to respond to the comments regarding terroir in other areas as it is certainly discussed amongst cheese makers and affineurs as well.

The varying factors that affect milk quality, the sun, soil and vegetation all come into play when making cheese. There are vast differences between the Alps of Switzerland and the herbs and grasses that grow there as opposed to the lowlands in the UK, pastures in Vermont, the Loire valley, etc...

A Wheel of Gruyere made with summer milk from cows that are fed on alfalfa and clover on trails extending through the mountains in Switzerland, creates a distinct flavor profile that is identified with that region. No where else is the traditional practice of transhumance so firmly ingrained than in the herders of dairy animals. This has a profound affect on the quality of the milk as the variance in the herbs, flowers and fresh grass makes for happy animals.

This has direct correlation to terroir and is not something that can easily be replicated.
Some cheese makers have attempted this here in the states through rotational grazing, planting similar herbs and grasses for their animals to graze upon, or even commissioning a copper vat identical to what they witnessed in the Pyrenees. Some might argue that the last example is environmental, but I think that traditional methods that are unique solely to a particular region might apply...

American cheese makers are coming into their own now because they are taking traditional methods taken from European cheese makers, and applying the to celebrate their own regions. Wisconsin is known as the dairy state. Vermont is known as the Napa Valley of cheese. The cheese makers there have been able to identify what makes their region unique from a dairy/cheese perspective, and build upon it.

This is a discussion that will probably never end amongst those in the cheese world and just thought that I would comment and say that you aren't alone!

Jim/Thomas,
It has been my experience, I've spent a fair amount of time in the cellars in France, that terroir is as Jim pointed out the consistency or tendency of a place/vineyard to show a unique flavor/personality. I asked Jean Marie Guffens (Verget and Guffens-Heynen) this question and he had a relatively simple answer, a nearly impossible task for the crazy Belgium, that is similar to what you both have said. If a place, year in and year out expresses a personality (bad or good) that is unique or at least identifiable, regardless of the vintage and is not reliant on or a result of an individual winemaker then we can say that "place" shows terroir. He then shrugged his shoulders as if I was chunk of wood and poured me some Corton-Charlemagne to prove his point..I suppose he thought even a chunk of wood such as myself should be able to understand the unique terroir of Corton.

Aaron -

Awesome stuff. Thanks for adding that. It's nice to know that terroir does indeed exist outside the world of wine, and more than that, debates about terroir exist! I can so easily relate to the discussions you talk about.

Rick -

I hope he was right!

Evan,

"Finally, imitation is the sincerest form of mediocrity. The last decade has seen Finger Lakes vintners stop invoking Germany, while Long Island vintners more rarely invoke Bordeaux. Good."

There is no problem comparing or contrasting to Bordeaux, if it makes sense. There is no point being so dogmatic. If a LI Merlot is closer to a Bordeaux than to a Napa Merlot it helps in the discourse to situate that wine. Another way to contrast these same wines is cool climate vs warm climate. Both of these comparisons are valid.

As to terroir, that expression is hard to define as seen in this thread. And there are more questions than answers.

- Wines from CA from the 80s and 90s were very different from today's wines from the same "terroir". What does that suggest?

- Talking about Bordeaux, most vineyards there are not exactly new and go back a long time. In those days there were not many clones and many rootstocks available and therefore the regionality of a wine was likely to emerge from a narrow genetic selection. An area like LI which is fairly new, has a vey large number of clones, per variety, grafted on a large number of different rootstocks, making the permutations so numerous that there are probably more of them than there are vineyards. At Paumanok we have at least 3 clones of Merlot on at least 3 different rootstocks in our 4 blocks. The precision is lacking because when we started I did not even know the meaning of the word clone and purchased whatever Merlot was available at the nursery. Even though we treat them equally well, they do not perform in the same manner. And they take turns at excelling, mostly the result of different weather patterns affecting that clone/rootstock combination differently. So where is the terroir here versus the weather versus the clonal selections.

- It is largely the result of our cool weather that more acidity is retained in the wine. Not because of our soils.

- Minerality, "somewhereness", sense of place, gout de terroir, is this any more than poetic license? Is there any objective, measurable or factual data to define any of these terms?

- Furthermore the science has not yet found a pathway that would verify that there is any mineral uptake by vines.

Of course the soil has a role in influencing the outcome but it has a lot more to do with nutrient availability and drainage. Vine nutrition is something that is practiced worldwide and somehow would reduce the "sense of place" if that is what the vine gets from the soil. Vine nutrition is in fact more of a homogenizing factor.

The weather has far more influence, everything else being equal. Look at the 2009 vintage on LI vs 2007 or 2010. The wines are dramatically different and tasting them blind one might not even know they are from the same place.

- Now if the weather is included in some definition of terroir, an area like LI, where no 2 Summers have been alike since we started in 1983, may not have a chance to show the replicability that would suggest that sense of place. Hence the suggestion that here weather trumps any notion of terroir related more to the soil.

- And what about cultural practices? Purists will exclude those from a definition of terroir, but they have certainly a large role in the outcome.

- And then what about irrigation? It used to be a no no in Europe. But there have now been a number of exceptions that have cracked that limitation. Is the terroir the same with or without irrigation? That answer probably depends on the weather?

- And what about climate change? As the wines change because of greater ripeness induced by warmer Summers, their charcter is likely to change. Does that mean that the terroir has changed? Oops that sense of place might get displaced?

The bottom line is that the word terroir seems to be not very useful as at best it is ambiguous and generates heated discussions and at worst an expression the French like to use when they run out of ability to explain something about their wine, in their attempt to disarm their audience.

Charles -

You make myriad good points, and on balance, we're not all that far apart. I think there is a real sense of hucksterism to some usage of the word "terroir" in some circumstances. It can be a vague catch-all and marketing BS.

But I think we don't need the word terroir to talk about a wine's sense of place. Explain this to me: Why can I pick out a pair of Finger Lakes Rieslings in a lineup of Rieslings from around the world - even if those Finger Lakes Rieslings use different yeast, come from different sites, and from different producers? What's that common thread that is showing up in the wine despite the differences? That, to me, is sense of place. It's not all that much more complicated than that.

Establishing that common thread is vital when a region wants to earn respect around the world. Please understand: I don't have any problem with a Long Island vintner explaining that in many ways, LI Merlot is much more similar to Bordeuax than it is to California. It's the truth. I just prefer not to hear LI vintners saying, "Bordeaux is the model we're going for. That's what we want to duplicate, and we think we can." Long Island doesn't need to duplicate any other region's efforts; it needs only to show itself, which is plenty good enough.

Evan,

To pose an answer to your question:

"Why can I pick out a pair of Finger Lakes Rieslings in a lineup of Rieslings from around the world - even if those Finger Lakes Rieslings use different yeast, come from different sites, and from different producers?"

Two reasons are in play. First, you probably have more experience with local Riesling than with other Rieslings. Second, there is a sense of place, but whether that is climate or earth seems up for interpretation--since climate and acidity are related, and pH has a lot to do with what we taste in a wine, I'd go with climate as the driving force; earth second.

Thomas -

I consider climate to be an essential component to a wine's sense of place.

Some of the comments are really full of suspicion and negativity towards the subject, especially the last bit of nastiness: "The bottom line is that the word terroir seems to be not very useful as at best it is ambiguous and generates heated discussions and at worst an expression the French like to use when they run out of ability to explain something about their wine, in their attempt to disarm their audience."

I have been in this excellent business for more than 20 years and cut my teeth very early on with the great clarets from the 40s - 80s and the burgundies from the same era. Terroir, the concept, isn't a scientific equation on a chalkboard, and it isn't a dream someone had once. It most certainly isn't a fraud or a conspiracy as you may infer from the above comments.

Terroir is a gift from the earth that some winemakers embrace and some try to work around, and all find difficult to explain. It is one of the defining tenets of this business. It is what makes a Cru actually "Grand" and the lack of it is what leaves a growth just ordinary.

No producer of fine wine ignores the special characteristics of particular vineyards - the character that is there year in and year out, regardless of weather or the elevage. I take particular exception to terroir deniers, not because I disagree with them so much as I feel sorry for them. They can miss a wine's soul while searching for brix and brett.

Tell the truth, Evan. You had advance notice of that piece coming to print ;)

Evan and Thomas: Dave McIntyre is, in fact, a NYCR reader and a fellow local wine enthusiast. He gives a lot of attention to VA wines in his Post column.

Charles: A couple things here.

First, while I agree that comparing LI merlot to Bordeaux can set it apart from California, something that undoubtedly needs to be done for some consumers, to rely on that to frame your wines is dubious at best -- for a variety of reasons. When my guest column runs in Vineyard & Winery Management in November, you'll see why I think that is the case.

I also think that it's an over-simplification to try to break "terroir" down into components like weather, soils, culture, etc. You simply cannot focus on one and ignore the others. If you are going to discount "terroir" based on year-to-year variables in weather, then the only place that can truly exhibit that definition of "terroir" are places where the weather is largely the same every season. That doens't make sense.

You yourself at Paumanok, when all of these components come together (admittedly, weather plays a big part) label your best wines by vineyard -- by a particular place. Location AND weather come together on these wines.

Perhaps we, as wine geeks, sometimes get way too caught up in the word "terroir" and it's origins. Long Island wines have an emerging style. They aren't the same, obviously, but there is something about them that ties them together, at least the best examples. I know this because if you taste the wines from certain wineries -- even though who have had more than one winemaker -- you an still note consistent qualities. You just can. I'm not going to say that I understand the mechanism behind it, but I find it to be the case.

Lenn,

Actually I was not trying to break terroir down into anything. All I did I think is ask some rather simple questions which challenge the view of a concept that is not well defined. And as long as no objective definition is coming it is useful to ponder what that concept adds to the casual wine drinker who will feel quite uncomfortable as if lacking the needed initiation.

Now I got some criticism in this thread but not one answer to the many questions I asked. Do I take it that this is the end of the case for the word terroir?
Or are there some answers that would address those questions? Or were the questions not legitimate?

As to comparing any wine to any other wine I do not get why it is suddenly considered uncool. Restricting discourse is not a good idea. It reminds me a little of that Seinfeld episode with the soup restaurant.

As you know I do not frame my wines as you suggest in your paragraph yet I do not see why I should exclude such comparison from my vocabulary. At times it is quite convenient and when it is I use it. I do not see why it is uncool.

Hell, Charles, I'm still waiting for the answer to what it is that makes red grape vines take longer than white vines to show "terroir."

I am afraid that when we deal with belief systems, we are forced to deal with dangling questions as well, because faith isn't always based on information.

As I have said, I believe that the climate, the earth, and the vagaries of the world have an effect on a wine's sense of place, but so do all the things that you and I have brought up in the discussion.

Here's a question for everyone to consider: what role does petro-chemical, organic or biodynamic method of grape growing play on the expression of "terroir"? And why and how?

Thomas,

I think you meant to write Hello Charles not Hell, Charles. Yes? :)

I should think the informed opinion and observations of many generations of winemakers, vineyardists and other wine professionals adds up to more than just a "belief system." On the other hand there are still possibly hundreds of mechanisms and components that are at play in the flavor, aroma and texture of wine that the scientific community still does not completely understand.

The work I am have seen regarding the red wine issue revolves around the myriad of extractables found in the fermentation of skin, pulp and seeds of red grapes - something that is obviously not a factor in white wine production. That's also not just my belief - its also been experienced by a couple of Old World winemakers ;-)

"Petro-chemical" wine growing? If you want to be true to science, then one has to understand that petro-chemicals are also used in organic as well as in BD viticulture. As I stated in my earlier post, I count myself as one of many who are of the opinion that any management strategy (or occult philosophy) based on practices, approved material lists and recipes - formulated and developed away from one's local environment and conditions - does not respect the uniqueness (re: terroir) of the locale as well as regional best practices.

Evan,

For an interesting discussion of Rieslings which includes many mentions of terroir (without defining terroir, but where terroir seems to imply site), and other discussions of sites and climates, take a look at this by David Schildknecht:

http://dat.erobertparker.com/bboard/showthread.php?t=228349

There are some interesting comments on German and Burgundian appellations with their limitations and built in contradictions.

I do not know whether you can open that link but if you can I think you will enjoy reading it as you like Rieslings.

That is a great example of how things should be done …..And more business owners should take note. Like Miles and wine, I was wondering about the underlying change in behavior and culture, and your response summed it up perfectly. Thanks for the great read, well done, and good luck at the home bar

No Charles, I meant Hell--referring facetiously to your seemingly plaintive post ;)

Rich,

I understand what you mean about those generations of past growers and winemakers, and I also believe in the sense of place that all plants, not just grapes, offer. But (always a but) when we talk about the soul of something we are out of the real world and into a belief system. The reason I rarely if ever use the word "terroir" to describe what I believe is a sense of place is because the word has too many definitions and interpretations to have meaning.

As to petro-chemicals, et al. If "terroir" has meaning than someone will have to codify which of the interventions in the vineyard are taboo for their negative effects on "terroir" and which are allowed for their nurturing capabilities. I cannot imagine that the natural earth from which came forth grapevines millions of years before humans was the same then as it is now, and so I have to assume that what we do to the earth (not to mention, as Charles did, the various unnatural cloning of vines) has made a major impact on what constitutes the natural "terroir" of any grapevine.

Again, this is not to say that sense of place does not exist--this is to say that the things that create a sense of place are the results of a combination of the natural and the intervention. Overlooking the intervention means overlooking cultivation. Cultivation techniques is what got certain grapevines to grow in places where they never belonged before; perhaps that's why they take so long to adjust to their "terroir," and perhaps, too, some never do. But that is merely conjecture, as is anything else without basis.

Charles -

I do not mean to ignore your points. I think they are well made and, as I said, I agree with many of them. For example, you mention the three different clones of Merlot at Paumanok. Their varied performance is indicative of the clones, and the weather, and the site(s). I don't think we're focusing on terroir when we talk about the different clones, and I acknowledge that those factors are seriously important. Terroir is not some trump card that overtakes those factors; rather, I tend to think of it as something that can show through in spite of such differences.

For example, if you take a Pomerol and pour it alongside a glass of Merlot from the three separate clones of Merlot at Paumanok, would you recognize any commonality in the Paumanok wines? If you do, it's a sign that the sense of place can carry through despite differences.

But that doesn't mean there is any easy, well defined answer of what terroir is or exactly what it says in any given place. As Terry Theise often says, there is beauty in mystery, and I don't think that's a cop-out to parry the questions about specificity.

One other point: In the past I believed that terroir was only about what the land gave to the wine. But Bob Madill convinced me that terroir is also a cultural aspect, taking into account customs and common practices - irrigation, vinification techniques, etc. There are too many components involved to ever define what terroir (or sense of place) really is.

Does that invalidate it? Some say yes. Charles might say it's a conversation to avoid because it puts off those who might feel intimidated by it. But I go back to the question of whether that commonality can shine through differences. When it does, I find it beautiful. And I think we ought to embrace it and celebrate it, even when we can't settle on every last detail. After all, if we don't care about a wine's sense of place, why promote individual regions? Why not just buy the highest quality juice for the cheapest price?

Evan,

Could it be that the commonality is what we also call varietal character?

The problem with the use of the world terroir is its lack of specificity. It is a little like the word reserve on wine labels. Reserve is not a regulated word. Right here on the NF an estate uses it for its best wine and another one nearby uses "special reserve" for its lowest end wine.

You accept to include cultural practices in terroir, but others, like Robert Parker, don't. Some exclude the weather, others include it. Others offer poetic or historic references. What is common to all is that no one defines what it is objectively while some define it by what it is not.

Yet it is possible to talk intelligently and tangibly about environmental conditions and how we believe they affect the wines with much more specifivity and precision. That is what I like to do as to use the word terroir is a distraction as each time I think about using it I must preface it with a long soap bax introduction as to what I think it means. And as I said, anytime we go on talking in public to a general audience that is not geeky, it is a disservice to use words that increase the mystery rather than help clarify and educate.

I think cultivating mystery is part of marketing, the same as fashion products cultivate image. And we all love a mystery story, don't we.

Charles: I must have read your original comment in a way not intended. I'm also not saying that wineries shouldn't EVER invoke the names of other regions to describe their wines, but it has to be the start of a conversation, not the entire conversation. I'm sure you agree with that point.

Evan: I think the cultural aspect of "terroir" is often one that is forgotten. On Long Island...EVERYONE (at least everyone I know) is using VSP in the vineyard. That wasn't always the case, but over time growers here have discovered and decided that is the best system to use. That obviously has an impact.

Is the real issue here the use of the word "terroir"?

Yes, Evan, and a good deal of that commonality just might have to do with the commonality of regional grape growing, as Bob Madill pointed out to you.

As you say, it doesn't fully explain why there is a sense of place, but there definitely is a sense of place.

As to your last question: isn't that an issue that we have discussed before? It leads to another facet of the influence of place in wines--if a winery is allowed to blend as much as 15% from outside the region or state, aren't we running the risk of confusing further that sense of place? 15% is no small intervention.

Thomas -

Regarding outside juice: A very important and very good point.

Lenn -

Now I wish I would have just used "sense of place" the entire time. ;)

Charles: I must have read your original comment in a way not intended. I'm also not saying that wineries shouldn't EVER invoke the names of other regions to describe their wines, but it has to be the start of a conversation, not the entire conversation. I'm sure you agree with that point.

Evan: I think the cultural aspect of "terroir" is often one that is forgotten. On Long Island...EVERYONE (at least everyone I know) is using VSP in the vineyard. That wasn't always the case, but over time growers here have discovered and decided that is the best system to use. That obviously has an impact.

Is the real issue here the use of the word "terroir"?

One aspect of terroir - and best practices - that is not often discussed is the influence of people on vineyards and winemaking. The local human influence should also be a part of any discussion of terroir.

Terroir is not a static system - it changes and evolves over time for a particular place. Just as people have evolved over millions of years so have plants and animals. We are living in a snapshot of a moving and dynamic system - what we do as a specicies is obviously effecting our surroundings. That influence also manifests itself in our wines.

We are part of our own terroir.

"We are part of our own terroir."

Reminds me of the first time I set foot in Italy--having spent the first 20 years of my life in a New York City Italian-American environment, I stepped of the train in Firenze and felt like I belonged there.

A great discussion - there is more common ground among the presenters here than first meets the eye. We all celebrate what these beautiful regions can produce and how it all manifests itself in a glass of wine. Pretty cool stuff.

Tasting and enjoying the local aromas and flavors found in wine is a real experience - but one has to pay close attention. It's neither a pseudo-science, a belief system or an occult philosophy. It's one of the joys of life, one of the wonders of nature and a theory that someday we will have more definitive explanations for.

For now, I do believe that terroir is how we live.

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