Terroir can be an endlessly entertaining intellectual exercise. There's little denying the role of the winemaker in creating any wine, but how does one measure that against the signature of the site? Here's how a trio of Americans put terroir to a hands-on test.
The ground rules for the Cube Project were simple: three winemakers, three vineyards from three appellations, from three different vintages, 2010 to 2012. Each of the winemakers—Thomas Houseman of Anne Amie in Oregon's Yamhill-Carlton appellation, Andrew Brooks of Bouchaine Vineyards in Carneros and Leslie Mead Renaud of Foley Estate and Lincourt in Santa Barbara—shared 6 tons of grapes (2 tons each) from their respective vineyards, resulting in nine different wines each year. Each winemaker determined the pick date of their vineyard, all from Pommard clones, meaning each winemaker started out with grapes at the same level of ripeness, measured in sugar, or Brix.
From there, each was left to his or her own stylistic choices. They kept track of the winemaking specifics: yeasts, whole clusters, fermentation temperature, punch downs and pump-overs, barrel age, bottling date, etc.
One difference between the end products that immediately jumped out was that while each of the vineyards had identical sugar levels at the outset, the alcohol levels varied in all but two of the finished wines.
Houseman conceived of the idea to explore what exactly is terroir, and what part of what we perceive as terroir is actually the hand of the winemaker. "I know experiments of this sort have been done before," Houseman explained, "but none of them had the scope of this one, with 900 miles between the northernmost and the southernmost vineyards, and three years of varying weather conditions to factor in."
They were curious how I'd fare in this exercise. Tasting the 2010s, it was easy for me to taste and identify similarities in vineyards as well as the individual winemaker's house style, which is what they hoped to demonstrate. But clearly in this exercise, the winemaking style trumped terroir. That is, it was easy to distinguish a Houseman Pinot from a Brooks or Renaud interpretation.
"People that have read about the project but are not intimate with it immediately say it is the heavy hand of the winemaker," said Renaud. Not so. The wines made at Anne Amie and Lincourt were the closest in terms of winemaking-small fermentation tanks, no yeast inoculations, punch downs rather than pump-overs, yet the results were notably different. "I guess I am shocked by how subtle things like temperature and skin contact time make such a big difference," Renaud said after the tasting.
Going in, each had ideas about terroir, based loosely on the Burgundian adage of following the producer, not the vintage. "It seems that we in the New World give a great deal of credit to the idea of terroir as a marketing tool, but base our purchases on vintages," said Houseman. "If the idea that terroir is the defining character in a wine, then why would Burgundians say that a producer has a consistent style despite the influence of vintage? What is the defining character of clone and site?"
Three very different vintages later, Houseman believes his hypothesis is correct. I was able to identify the characteristics of each winemaker in each vineyard, making the case that there is a signature of place, but the decisions employed by the winemaker were the dominant factors, and small decisions can have a huge impact on the final wine.
"It has made me more sensitive than ever, that every winemaking decision, no matter how trivial, nudges the wine in a direction that might not be intended," said Houseman.
In an era where winemakers often make dozens of different wines from different grapes and vineyards each year, who makes those decisions is very much in the driver's seat, and one reason many wine lovers are as apt to follow the winemaker irrespective of terroir.