Few things make me grumpier than encountering words that have been twisted to mean something other than their original intent. Wine is apparently not immune to this scourge. And I’m not talking about innocent confusions, such as acidic (the tartness of grape acidity) vs. acetic (the flavor of vinegar). Or the wholly unnecessary distinction that wine textbooks make between aroma (that part of a wine’s smell that comes from the grape) and bouquet (from winemaking), a technical nuance useful to winemakers but not really to those of us who just want to drink and enjoy wine.
No, this time my inner curmudgeon has his elbows sticking out over the efforts by some souls to hijack such perfectly innocent words associated with wine as “natural,” “balanced” and “terroir.” Let’s take them one at a time.
There is a war going on among some factions in the wine world over the notion of “natural” wine. There are those who insist that only wines that have seen little or no sulfur dioxide, no cultured yeasts, in fact no chemical additions of any kind, and were grown with similar restrictions, could qualify as natural. The pushback against those who want to use “natural wine” this way, especially among some professional winemakers, has been harsh.
Personally, I admire winemakers who can succeed by going this route, making wine without a safety net in pursuit of something more expressive. And I am happy to know that they have all more or less agreed to call what they do by the same name. Frankly, it warns me that I had better taste their wines before I commit to buying as much as a glass, because the track record so far is that many (if not all) “natural wines” sport egregious flaws, including (but not limited to) brettanomyces, volatile acidity or other undesirable qualities.
I just recoil at the name they chose. Commandeering the term “natural wine” for your wines implies that everyone else makes something unnatural, and therefore less desirable. The great André Tchelistcheff once explained winemaking to me: “God wants to make vinegar. My job is to stop the process when it is wine.” André would never qualify as a natural winemaker. But he sure made some great ones.
Recently I received an invitation to an event called “In Pursuit of Balance,” described as “a dialogue around the meaning and relevance of balance in California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.” The afternoon would include a tasting, and the list of wineries involved was the tipoff of what all the coded language in the group’s manifesto meant when it talked about “subtlety and poise, graceful and transparent expression of the soils and climate in which it is grown ... where no single element dominates the whole.”
I had to travel that day, so I missed the dialogue, but I have tasted many of the wines being poured. I can buy the ideal described in the manifesto: “The resultant wines, moderate in alcohol and flush with acidity, do what great wines do: give a clear translation of time and place.” Italics theirs. The problem is, wines made in that style can just as easily be weak, thin and sharp, in my view just as unbalanced as a broader style in which the alcohol burns.
I happen to like lighter, more delicate wines. I often hang outstanding ratings on Oregon Pinot Noirs and Australian Rieslings built along those lines. But I have no animus toward big, broad styles, either, which can also show balance and reflect their time and place with equal (and often better) precision.
“Balanced,” after all, means that all the wine’s elements mesh so that no one component sticks out—not just alcohol but tannins, acidity, sweetness and elements of the flavor profile, among other things. There’s nothing that says higher alcohol levels can’t balance those other constituents, and indeed I have tasted plenty that do.
If you prefer lighter, more delicate wines and want to promote them, call them that. Don’t appropriate the word “balanced” and tell me styles I might also like are wrong.
The misuse of this word has bugged me for a long time. The concept of terroir is about location, the vineyard or vineyards that grew the grapes for the wine. Each has a unique combination of such factors as soil, climate, exposure and latitude. This can express itself in the wine made from that vineyard in too many ways to count. The French have a name for this expression. They call it goût de terroir, the taste of terroir.
In this context, terroir does not mean “earth.” It more clearly translates to “territory.” Too often, this gets translated as “taste of the earth,” and people look for an earthy taste in the wine as an expression of the terroir. Or minerals, since there is much talk about minerals in the soil and minerality in the wine. Thus, when a winemaker says he makes a “wine of terroir,” most often he means the wine has a distinctive earthy or mineral taste.
But how does terroir actually affect a wine’s character? It involves how easily the grape develops sugar, the natural levels of acidity it attains, how much tannins form, and the basic fruit character, elements that can far outweigh aromatic subtleties. But hardly anyone talks about that.
I think of terroir as a sculptor’s block of marble. Fermentation and aging chip away at it and polish it to make something pleasing. Just as an artist can highlight the veins and colors of the stone, a winemaker can manage the process to bring out aspects of structure and flavor that best reflect the natural propensities of their terroir.
If the terroir wants to make ripe, full-bodied wines and the winemaker picks early to make something more delicate, is that good or bad? See, it’s trickier than it seems.
A highly respected maker of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay once noted that grapes from different vineyards responded differently to their time in oak barrels. Some showed the spice, toast and vanilla, while others simply absorbed those aromatics and focused on the fruit. He argued that the expression of oak is therefore part of terroir.
Somehow I don’t think that’s what those who say they make “wines of terroir” mean. What they mean, most often, is that they want to make delicate wines that don’t taste overtly of fruit. That’s fine. Say so. Don’t co-opt a word that’s much more useful.
Dan Kosta — Sonoma County, CA — May 29, 2012 9:12pm ET
David Rapoport — CA — May 30, 2012 11:40am ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — May 30, 2012 12:25pm ET
Brian Loring — Lompoc, CA — May 30, 2012 12:39pm ET
Aaron Meeker — Kansas City, KS — May 30, 2012 2:38pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — May 30, 2012 3:07pm ET
Ann Vaughan — Wimington, Delaware — May 30, 2012 10:12pm ET
David Rossi — Napa, CA, USA — May 31, 2012 10:40am ET
Paul-kendall De Lancellotti — newberg,oregon — May 31, 2012 1:05pm ET
John Jorgenson — Seattle, — May 31, 2012 2:58pm ET
Don Rauba — Schaumburg, IL — June 1, 2012 1:12am ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — June 1, 2012 3:50am ET
Mark Sinnott — Seattle, WA — June 1, 2012 3:46pm ET
David Rapoport — CA — June 1, 2012 11:48pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — June 2, 2012 2:20am ET
David Rapoport — CA — June 2, 2012 10:29am ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — June 2, 2012 12:24pm ET
Pamela Heiligenthal — Portland, OR — June 3, 2012 3:15pm ET
Troy Peterson — Burbank, CA — June 4, 2012 3:35pm ET
Mark Sinnott — Seattle, WA — June 4, 2012 7:31pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — June 4, 2012 8:00pm ET
Timothy Ramey — Salem Oregon, USA Zenith Vineyard — June 7, 2012 12:42pm ET
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