One of the comments on my blog last week about UC Davis' study on microbes and terroir reminded me why this is such a slippery concept. It shouldn't be, but it is.
Some see terroir, the idea that wine profoundly reflects the place where the grapes to make it grew, as wine's be-all and end-all. Some winemakers, and some wine aficionados, are willing to sacrifice quality to achieve that. In my view, that misses the point of wine, which is to make a delicious table companion.
Call me simple-minded, but let's not lose sight of the fact that wine's first duty is to please our taste buds. If it can do that and also express the nuances of flavor and texture of a certain site, all the better.
What if, for example, we know that a certain site produces grapes with formidable tannins but deep flavors? Is it better for the winemaker to celebrate that rough texture or try to tame it to frame the flavors congenially? I vote for polishing those tannins. My guess is that most wine drinkers would agree.
But what if softening the tannins compromises subtleties of flavor? That's one of many choices every winemaker has to make. For some, the mantra is do nothing and let the wine be what it wants to be. That strikes me as disingenuous. Left to their own devices, grapes will ferment their sugars into alcohol and produce vinegar. André Tchelistcheff famously quipped, "Our job is to stop it before it does that."
Stinky, gamy and excessive vegetal flavors most often result from neglect. Or they can be the by-product of intent. Aiming for softer texture, a winemaker may inadvertently encourage organisms that produce these spoilage characteristics.
Spoilage, by the way, need not be bad. Many cheeses get their character from various forms of mold and other organisms thought of as spoilage. Then again, stinky cheese appeals to a relatively narrow percentage of humans. Isn't it the same with wine?
One problem with spoilage and wine is that some people, including a growing number of sommeliers, writers, retailers and wine drinkers, have become accustomed to the extra kick that comes from high levels of these flavors many of us consider "off." They feel like something is missing if they're not there. They want Époisse and disdain a simple mild, creamy goat cheese. And they pity the rest of us who prefer to taste fruit in our wine instead of wet horse.
Let's not confuse these spoilage flavors with terroir. Terroir in wine, at least to me, reflects fruit expression (more red or black?), other flavor characteristics (herbal? mocha? spicy?), levels and types of acid and tannins (tangy or supple?), and other things we can taste and feel that come from the grape and its fermentation.
There's another issue in capturing the essence of terroir while making a delicious wine: when to pick. The trick is to get the grapes ripe enough to express their full range of flavor without getting them so ripe that all you can taste in the wine is dried fruit. Exactly what constitutes "ripe" is a matter of heated debate right now in the wine world, and I can appreciate wines along a wide spectrum of ripeness. I just want to find pleasing flavors in the glass.
There is no doubt that certain sites just seem to produce more complex and inviting wines, and do it more consistently than others. They excel with certain grape varieties. Certain regions and certain grape varieties have a better chance at producing greater wines than others. But even that is changing, or at least the gap is narrowing between the top tier and the best of the rest.
Fact is, smart grapegrowing and modern winemaking can produce appealing wines in places that could not or did not in earlier days. Our recently revealed 2013 Top 100 list brims with wines from regions that got no respect only a generation ago.
Terroir doesn't guarantee quality any more than the score for Beethoven's Fifth Symphony defines how good a performance of it might be. The musicians and the conductor are like the vines and the winemaker. Their ability to articulate the music should sound like Beethoven's Fifth, for sure, but they also need to make it compelling. We can prefer performances that are faster or slower, brighter or more mellow, but playing it out of tune will produce a performance less pleasing than a great performance of a lesser-regarded work might do. Similarly, a great winemaker will make better wine from lesser grapes than an ordinary winemaker would do with Beethoven-esque vineyards.
There's no doubt that many wines made from the same site share characteristics that are different from other sites. Winemakers in Barolo and Barbaresco prize the grapes from the brow of the hill; they simply make more characterful wine, and the growers delineate their individual vineyards accordingly. On a broader scale, it's pretty clear that Riesling in the Mosel has a softer, more floral feel than the same grape variety in the Rheingau. We are beginning to see the outlines of similar distinctions in the New World, too.
Perhaps growers in one region are better than the folks in another, but I'm pretty sure the different environments play a major role. And that's the influence of terroir. It's about qualities, not quality; characteristics, not character.