Terroir predetermines the greatness of a wine. Or does it? Terroir is a
romantic concept that appeals to wine lovers when the edges of the
world get just a little blurry â€“ right around that second glass of
wine. We love the idea that a special parcel of soil produces wonderful
wine, wine that could be made nowhere else, because the soil, the slope,
the sun exposure and the microclimate would not be the same at any
other place or time.
And in the next breath we extol our favorite winemakers. Be it Helen
Turley, Heidi Peterson, Richard Sanford, Michel Rolland or a host of
others, we slavishly applaud winemakers for their talent in crafting
So is it the land? Or is it the hand? What makes a superlative wine?
Right about now, you’re probably saying, â€œWell, duh, both!â€ And
of course you’re right. This was driven home last week at a fascinating
tasting conducted at the International Pinot Noir Celebration in
McMinnville, Oregon, in the heart of the Willamette-rhymes-with-dammit
Valley. The IPNC, a weekend bacchanal in its 23rd year,
focused this year on â€œOregon dirt.â€ The main seminar tasting
featured five Willamette Valley winemakers who have been conducting an
intriguing exploration of â€œland or handâ€ since the 2006 harvest.
The winemakers are Lynn Penner-Ash of Penner-Ash Wine Cellars, Ken
Wright of Ken Wright Cellars, Ted Casteel of Bethel Heights, Laurent
Montalieu of Solena Cellars, and Steve Doerner of Cristom Vineyards.
They each contributed grapes to the others from one of their vineyards,
with each winemaker given free wine on making the resulting wine. The
project is â€œfive by five,â€ or 25 wines each vintage.
For logistics’ sake, the IPNC tasting included wines from only two of
the vineyards from the unusually hot 2006 vintage â€“ so we had 10
wines to taste in two flights of five each. Ken Wright explained his
theory that the geology â€“ the land â€“ would give essential
characteristics to the wine grown there. The â€œparent material,â€ the
underlying rock rather than the top soil of a vineyard, is the deciding
factor, he explained.
In Oregon, that means either marine sedimentary soil deposited after
the great Missoula glacier hissy fit hundreds of thousands of years ago
(my notes are a bit indistinct at this point) or volcanic soils that
thrust upward a few eons later when the Cascade Mountains (think Mount
Saint Helens, Mount Hood, Mount Rainier, etc.) were formed. The two soil
types form a patchwork throughout the Willamette Valley, sometimes even
within the same vineyard, though at different points on a slope.
Two things stood out about the 10 wines presented at the IPNC. It
became quite apparent as we tasted that the wines were arranged by
winemaker â€“ the first wine in each of the two flights was made by the
same hand, and so on. So the hand of the winemaker seemed to be the
dominant factor â€“ Wright’s were the darkest, most primordial, with a
lot going on in the glass and not quite settled into a groove just yet.
Penner-Ash’s were also dark and almost brooding, while Doerner’s were
more tannic (a factor of whole-cluster pressing, it was explained),
Bethel Heights were spicy and the Solena wines more delicate.
Yet there was also a continuity among the flights, showing the
influence of the vineyards. The first flight, wines from a
marine-sediment vineyard, featured black fruit flavors, such as
blackberry, and some brown-sugar sweetness. They were also quite heavy,
which was perhaps a factor of the unusual vintage. The second flight of
wines, while still not shy, were brighter in their flavors â€“ more on
the red fruit side that reflected their origin in volcanic soils.
So yes, the answer to the â€œland or handâ€ question is both. But as
a â€œterroirist,â€ I have to admit that the hand often makes the most
noticeable difference â€“ for better or worse, the winemaker’s decision
of when to pick, how long to soak the grapes on the skins or leave the
wine in barrel, make the most easily apparent differences in a wine.
Perhaps that’s why we celebrate winemakers. And perhaps it’s best to
leave it up to them to decipher the nuances of the land.