Terroir means something important in wine, but ask a dozen wine aficionados and you will almost certainly get 12 different interpretations. Everyone agrees that geography counts. Where the grapes grow affects the structure and the flavor of a wine, but things get really slippery when you try to pin down just exactly what that means to the finished wine.
I thought of that this week after tasting through a range of Washington reds that included three from Long Shadows, the collection of joint ventures in which famous winemakers from elsewhere see what they can do with Washington fruit.
When he was CEO of Ste. Michelle, Allen Shoup created partnerships with Dr. Loosen of Germany to make Eroica, an off-dry Riesling, and with Marchesi Antinori of Italy to make Col Solare, a hefty red. With Long Shadows, he extended the idea to small-production high-end wines with other winemakers from Germany and Italy, plus a Frenchman, an Aussie and a couple of Californians.
For anyone fascinated with terroir, the wines confirm and confound accepted ideas. My tastings this week brought this home to me vividly. I can't reveal the ratings yet, except to say they all made it into the "outstanding" category, but I can get into the stylistic differences.
Some of those nuances are certainly due to terroir, a French-inspired idea that (by the definition I prefer) encompasses the effects on the wine of the soil, altitude, exposure, climate and seasonal weather pattern of the vineyard or vineyards used. Some would argue that using multiple vineyards muddies terroir because the wines then lack the spirit of specific site, but I believe a duet, a trio or a chorus are just as valid as a single voice, so long as they harmonize.
At Long Shadows, each winemaker selected a vineyard site or sites to use in his wine. So, aside from the fundamental fact that we are in Washington, not California, France, Italy or Australia, we also have the influence of the vineyard sites chosen.
But most striking to me, after tasting the wines from French consulting enologist Michel Rolland and California winemakers Randy Dunn and Philippe Melka, is how much their wines reflect their individual styles.
For example, I described Rolland's wine, Pedestal, a Merlot-based blend, as dense and focused, with a veil of fine tannin around powerful currant and cherry fruit. The specific fruit character is all Washington, but the texture is pretty much what you get from Rolland's Merlots in Pomerol, St. Emilion and elsewhere. It makes for a seductive young wine.
On the other hand, Dunn's Cabernet-based wine, Feather, shows dense tannins pierced by amazingly fresh fruit character, centering on currant and blueberry. And Pirhouette, Melka's blend of Bordeaux varieties (plus a dollop of Syrah), bathes the palate with ripe fruit and plush texture, and it doesn't mind that the alcohol sticks out just a tad. That should have a familiar ring to anyone who know Dunn's epnoymous wine or Melka's wines for Hundred Acre, Bryant Family or Gemstone in Napa Valley.
Among wines not in this tasting, I have found Armin Diehl's Riesling, Poet's Leap, too sweet to show much distinction. Previous vintages of John Duval's Syrah, called Sequel, have the same suppleness and harmony he tries to achieve in his Barossa wines. (I have tried only one vintage of the new Sangiovese-based red made with Folonari, so it's too early to see a pattern there.)
No doubt, these winemakers consciously or unconsciously sought vineyard sources that would give them the kind of grapes they like to work with. So far, though, the wines have some similarities to the wines their winemakers are famous for, although they also show traits unique to Washington. At the same time, they differ from the wines being made by other Washington winemakers, even those using the same vineyards.
It's hard to sort out how much of each wine is Washington's northern latitude and dry climate, or the individual vineyards, or the stylistic flourishes imposed by the winemakers. One thing for sure, though, is that these are distinctive wines, and they add significantly to the state's street cred.
Jason Thompson — Foster City, CA — March 1, 2007 6:25pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — March 1, 2007 7:41pm ET
Todd A Dorman — Oakland, CA — March 2, 2007 6:38pm ET
Michael Tracy — trabuco canyon CA — March 6, 2007 12:00am ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — March 6, 2007 5:05pm ET
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