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More Thoughts on Terroir

What's more important: character or quality?
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Dec 12, 2013 10:27am ET

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.

Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  December 12, 2013 12:20pm ET
Great blog, Harvey. You make a number of interesting, thoughtful points that I will continue to think about. And that's a good thing. Cheers.
Jessica Vega
California —  December 12, 2013 1:23pm ET
When I buy a bottle of Romanee St. Vivant, I buy it for femininity, softness and for light tannins that the soils give in that respective vineyard. Softness is the "CHARACTER" of the vineyard (of the terroir) and the last thing I want is for a Veronique Drouhin from Domaine Drouhin to extract the grapes harder in hopes of adding tannin and grip to the wine so as to please you or the Wine Spectator.

When I buy a bottle of Richebourg, I buy it for masculinity, grip, and for an abundance of tannin and intensity that go along with that vineyard or again, terroir. I don't want Aubert de Villaine from Domaine de la Romanee-Conti to soften the tannins by stomping those grapes easier or gentler so that the wine is softer. It's better for Aubert to celebrate that rougher texture from the terroir than to try and frame the flavors congenially. I also bet most wine drinkers would agree. The tannins should compromise the subtleties of flavor. That's the terroir and what the Wine Spectator or more importantly, you and Laube don't get.

The wine spectator has been writing about wine for 37 years. Romanee St. Vivant and Richebourg have been producing wines from their terroirs for 233 years.

So to answer your point in your title, What's more important: character or quality?

"Knowledge will give you power, but character will give you respect." ~ Bruce Lee

Scott Mitchell
Toronton, Ontario, Canada —  December 12, 2013 2:05pm ET
I've always been of the view that terroir or character is an aspect to be factored into determining quality in a wine. Character and quality are not mutually exclusive.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  December 12, 2013 2:27pm ET
Scott, I agree that character is an aspect of quality. The question any winemaker has to face is what to do and what not to do in the winemaking process to produce the wine that best displays that character. They make what they consider to be the best wine they can. All we do, as critics or wine drinkers, is choose the ones we like best.

Jessica, no one is suggesting that winemakers should trample on the character of a particular site. But I don't believe for a second that winemakers don't think about how much their wines will please those who buy them. I looked up Bruce Sanderson's laudatory reviews of DRC's and Latour's 2010 Romanée-St-Vivants. DRC clearly showed more significant tannins than Latour's. Each winemaker made a choice about what the terroir meant to them. I checked two Richebourg reviews, both highly rated, DRC's described as "sensuous" and Grivot's as "a bit green." I suspect they made different choices about when to pick (and clearly Aubert de Villaine would disagree about the tannins you want to find in that wine). Which choices best reflect terroir? Which wine is better to drink? That's a matter of taste, not anything to get didactic about.

The point is, what terroir means for wine isn't about one thing. It's about what best expresses what the site can deliver, and it has to be balanced against making wines that are pleasing.
Jeffrey D Travis
Sarasota, FL —  December 12, 2013 3:03pm ET
To borrow your analogy Harvey, no matter who you get to play it, no one would ever favorably compare "my" Fifth Symphony to Beethoven's. Put another way, Beethoven defines the "Fifth Symphony".
Similarly, terroir may not be the be all, end all, if the winemakers don't deliver. But it comes close. Real close.
Austin Beeman
Maumee, Ohio —  December 12, 2013 6:41pm ET
4 questions for Harvey and the Group:

1. Does a higher numerical rating mean higher quality in ALL cases?

2. Do all wines have to be pleasant? Or all novels? Or all music? Or all paintings?

3. Why isn't the first order of wine to express site, and then be pleasing if possible?

4. What establishes quality? Score? Sales? Historical reputation?

Nice thought provoking article.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  December 12, 2013 8:17pm ET
Thanks, Austin. Each of your excellent questions could make a blog on its own, but for a concise response:

1. The way we do it, the higher the rating, the better we believe the wine is, irrespective of who made it, or where, from what grapes or at what price.

2. I love Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, but not while I'm eating dinner. And while I enjoy bitter or sour flavors in the context of a meal (or in a drink), I don't necessarily want them to be the most prominent characteristics. It's a matter of balance, and that's a judgment call for all of us.

3. Why isn't the first order of wine to express site, and then be pleasing if possible? An out-of-tune performance does not do a composer justice. Pleasing, by the way, is not a synonym for delicious, the word I used. Delicious can mean thought-provoking or challenging. Delicious can also take time to happen, as in tannins softening over time in the cellar.

4. Quality is the experience you get from what you taste in the glass. The score reflects how good the reviewer thinks it is. Sales and historical reputation only enter into it if you're influenced by those elements, and that's why I prefer to review wines in blind tastings.
Steve Roberts
SLC, UT —  December 13, 2013 1:44pm ET
With regards to Austin's question # 3, if it's not possible for a pleasing wine to be made while expressing the terroir of a particular site, then the terroir may be better suited to growing award winning leeks or cabbage rather than fine wine grapes. Personally I'm not interested in drinking wines that I don't find pleasing.
Claude Kaber
Luxembourg —  December 14, 2013 7:49am ET
There are lots of mediocre composers out there, not many Beethovens.
Music from a mediocre composer, when played by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, would result in a technically perfect
performance, a technical quality that couldn't make up for the missing depth of the score.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  December 14, 2013 11:38am ET
Absolutely right, Claude. That's why terroir matters. But I would say that applies within a set of wines made by the same producer, not to deciding on which wine we might want to choose from a wider selection.

Just as we probably would want to hear a great orchestra play Beethoven rather than a mediocre composer, we likely would prefer drinking a great vintner's Grand Cru rather than her generic regional blend. On the other hand that orchestra would probably make Salieri more interesting to hear than a mediocre orchestra's Mozart, just as Domaine Leflaive's Bourgogne Blanc might be more satisfying to drink than a mediocre vintner's Puligny.
Austin Beeman
Maumee, Ohio —  December 15, 2013 1:13pm ET
Thank you very much for your response, Harvey, and for engaging with comments section here.

Q5. How does a blind taster interact with a wine that is markedly different from its peers.

Example: Irancy - Pinot Noir. Does the blind taster know that it is Irancy and take that into consideration? Does s/he just know it is Burgundy? Or just know Pinot Noir.

Such things might influence what the reviewer perceived in the wine. Example: a wonderful Irancy would be a horrible wine if made in Sonoma.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  December 16, 2013 11:33am ET
Austin, another excellent point. It brings up two thoughts:

1. Tasting blind removes the possibility that the producer's name and price will affect my evaluation. I do know the wine type and vintage. So I would expect a 2011 Oregon Pinot to be on the lighter side.

2. In blind tastings, wines that are outside the middle of the bell curve tend to stand out, both for extra-light styles and extra-rich bottlings. My job as a critic is to recognize what these outliers have to offer. Does the extra-light wine have the flavor and complexity? Does the very rich wine strike a deft balance? If they display unique characteristics, that could be the terroir talking.
Sven Bruchfeld
Chile —  December 16, 2013 3:57pm ET
What pleases a winedrinker (or not!!) is a complex mistery. Imposible to understand.

The wine industry is unique. We have thousands of options. Having the funky wines right next to the fruit bombs makes it all more interesting. The sole fact of having all those options I find fascinating. With or without pleasure.

Maybe one day, oak and pure fruit flavors will be considered "off flavors" as well. Who knows...
Austin Beeman
Maumee, Ohio —  December 18, 2013 12:21pm ET
How specific is the taster's knowledge of place and does that affect the taster based on either price or terroir?

EX: Knowing a wine was '2010 Pomerol' would imply a higher price while knowing '2011 Bordeaux Superieur' would imply a lower price. Knowing only '2010 Bordeaux' would disguise pricing, but also hamper a blind taster's ability to investigate (or account for) terroir.

Thanks again Harvey.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  December 18, 2013 1:36pm ET
Austin, it can be tricky to decide how to handle appellations that could be too narrow. There are plenty of mediocre Pomerols so that isn't an issue. But if the appellation would easily identify the wine, my tasting coordinator knows to list it on my tasting sheet by the next broader category.
Chris Bradford
Los Angeles, CA, USA —  December 24, 2013 5:57pm ET
"But if the appellation would easily identify the wine, my tasting coordinator knows to list it on my tasting sheet by the next broader category."

Dear Santa,

I know it's Christmas Eve already, but if it's not too late, please bring me my own Tasting Coordinator.



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