1990 Tertre-Rôteboeuf (St.-Emilion)
1990 Sandrone Barolo Boschis
1989 Clinet (Pomerol)
1991 Dominus Proprietary Red Wine Napa
1994 Colgin Cabernet Sauvignon Napa
1992 Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon Private Reserve Napa
1982 Mouton-Rothschild (Pauillac)
1986 Château Margaux (Margaux)
1996 Lafite-Rothschild (Pauillac)
MAKING SENSE OF TERROIR
"Knowing in part may make a fine tale, but wisdom comes from
seeing the whole." -- An Asian proverb
And so it is with the concept of "terroir," that hazy,
intellectually appealing notion that a plot of soil plays the determining
factor in a wine's character. The French are the world's most obsessed
people regarding the issue of terroir. And why not? Many of that
country's most renowned vineyards are part of an elaborate hierarchy
of quality based on their soil and exposition. And the French would
have everyone believe that no one on planet Earth can equal the
quality of their Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet, Syrah, etc.,
because their privileged terroir is unequaled. One of France's most
celebrated wine regions, Burgundy, is often cited as the best place
to search for the fullest expression of terroir. Proponents of terroir
(the terroirists) argue that a particular piece of ground and its
contribution to what is grown there give its product a character
distinctive and apart from that same product grown on different
soils and slopes. Burgundy, with its classifications of grand cru
and premier cru vineyards, village vineyards, and generic viticultural
areas, is the terroirists' "raison d'être."
Lamentably, terroir has become such a politically correct buzzword
that in some circles it is an egregious error not to utter some
profound comments about finding "a sense of somewhereness"
when tasting a Vosne-Romanée Les Malconsorts or a Latricières-Chambertin.
Leading terroirists such as wine producer Lalou Bize-Leroy, Burgundy
wine broker Becky Wasserman, and author Matt Kramer make a persuasive
and often eloquent case about the necessity of finding, as Kramer
puts it, "the true voice of the land" in order for a wine
to be legitimized.
Yet like so many things about wine, especially tasting it, there
is no scientific basis for anything Bize, Wasserman, or Kramer propose.
What they argue is what most Burgundians and owners of France's
finest vineyards give lip service to -- that for a wine to be authentic
and noble it must speak of its terroir.
On the other side of this issue are the "realists," or
should I call them modernists. They suggest that terroir is merely
one of many factors that influence the style of a wine. The realists
argue that a multitude of factors determine a wine's style, quality,
and character. Soil, exposition, and microclimate (terroir) most
certainly impart an influence, but so do the following:
1. Rootstock -- Is it designed to produce prolific or small crop
2. Yeasts -- Does the wine-maker use the vineyard's wild yeasts
or are commercial yeasts employed? Every yeast, wild or commercial,
will give a wine a different set of aromatics, flavor, and texture.
3. Yields and vine age -- High yields from perennial overcroppers
result in diluted wine. Low yields, usually less than two tons per
acre or 35-40 hectoliters per hectare, result in wines with much
more concentration and personality. Additionally, young vines have
a tendency to overproduce, whereas old vines produce small berries
and less wine. Crop thinning is often employed with younger vineyards
to increase the level of concentration.
4. Harvest philosophy -- Is the fruit picked underripe to preserve
more acidity, or fully ripe to emphasize the lushness and opulence
of a given varietal?
5. Vinification techniques and equipment -- There are an amazing
number of techniques that can change the wine's aromas and flavors.
Moreover, equipment choice (different presses, destemmers, etc.)
can have a profound influence on the final wine.
6. élevage (or the wine's upbringing) -- Is the wine brought
up in oak barrels, concrete vats, stainless steel, or large oak
vats (which the French call foudres)? What is the percentage of
new oak? What is the type of oak (French, Russian, American, etc.)?
All of these elements exert a strong influence on the wine's character.
Additionally, transferring wine (racking) from one container to
another has an immense impact on a wine's bouquet and flavor. Is
the wine allowed to remain in long contact with its lees (believed
to give the wine more aromatic complexity and fullness)? Or is it
racked frequently for fear of picking up an undesirable lees smell?
7. Fining and filtration -- Even the most concentrated and profound
wines that terroirists consider quintessential examples of the soil
can be eviscerated and stripped of their personality and richness
by excessive fining and filtering. Does the wine-maker treat the
wine with kid gloves, or is the wine-maker a manufacturer/processor
bent on sculpturing the wine?
8. Bottling date -- Does the wine-maker bottle early to preserve
as much fruit as possible, or does he bottle later to give the wine
a more mellow, aged character? Undoubtedly, the philosophy of when
to bottle can radically alter the character of a wine.
9. Cellar temperature and sanitary conditions -- Some wine cellars
are cold and others are warm. Different wines emerge from cold cellars
(development is slower and the wines are less prone to oxidation)
than from warm cellars (the maturation of aromas and flavors is
more rapid and the wines are quicker to oxidize). Additionally,
are the wine cellars clean or dirty?
These are just a handful of factors that can have extraordinary
impact on the style, quality, and personality of a wine. As the
modernists claim, the choices that man himself makes, even when
they are unquestionably in pursuit of the highest quality, can contribute
far more to a wine's character than the vineyard's terroir.
If one listens to Robert Kacher, a realist, or to Matt Kramer,
a terroirist, it is easy to conclude that they inhabit different
worlds. But the irony is that in most cases, they tend to agree
as to the producers making the finest wines.
If you are wondering where I stand on terroir, I do believe it
is an important component in the production of fine wine. If one
is going to argue terroir, the wine has to be made from exceptionally
low yields, fermented with only the wild yeasts that inhabit the
vineyard, brought up in a neutral medium such as old barrels, cement
tanks, or stainless steel, given minimal cellar treatment, and bottled
with little or no fining or filtration. However, I would argue that
the most persuasive examples of terroir arise not from Burgundy
but, rather, from Alsace or Austria.
If I were to take up the cause of the terroirists, I would use
one of Alsace's greatest domaines, that of Leonard and Olivier Humbrecht,
to make a modest case for terroir. The Humbrechts do everything
to emphasize the differences in their vineyard holdings. Yet, why
is it so easy to identify the wines of Zind-Humbrecht in a blind
tasting? Certainly their Hengst-Riesling tastes different from their
Riesling from Clos St.-Urbain. The question is, is one tasting the
terroir or the wine-maker's signature? Zind-Humbrecht's wines, when
matched against other Alsatian wines, are more powerful, rich, and
intense. Zind-Humbrecht's yields are lower and they do not filter
the wine at bottling. These wines possess not only an identifiable
wine-maker's signature but also a distinctive vineyard character.
Terroir, as used by many of its proponents, is often a convenient
excuse for upholding the status quo. If one accepts that terroir
is everything, and is essential to legitimize a wine, how should
consumers evaluate the wines from Burgundy's most famous grand cru
vineyard, Chambertin? This 32-acre vineyard boasts 23 different
proprietors. But only a handful of them appear committed to producing
an extraordinary wine. Everyone agrees this is a hallowed piece
of ground, but I can think of only a few -- Domaine Leroy, Domaine
Domaine Rousseau, and Trapet -- producing wines that merit the
stratospheric reputation of this vineyard. Yet the Chambertins of
these producers are completely different in style. The Trapet wine
is the most elegant, supple, and round, Leroy's is the most tannic,
backward, concentrated, and meaty, and Rousseau's is the darkest-colored,
most dominated by new oak, and most modern in style, taste, and
texture. Among the other 18 or 20 producers (and I am not even thinking
about the various négociant offerings), what Burgundy wine
enthusiasts are likely to encounter on retailers' shelves ranges
from mediocre to appallingly thin and insipid. What wine, may I
ask, speaks for the soil of Chambertin? Is it the wine of Leroy,
the wine of Trapet, or the wine of Rousseau? Arguments such as this
can be made with virtually any significant Bordeaux or Burgundy
vineyard. Which has that notion of "somewhereness" that
is raised by the terroirists to validate the quality of a vineyard?
Are terroirists kindergarten intellectuals who should be doing
more tasting and less talking? Of course not. But they can be accused
of naively swallowing the tallest tale in Burgundy. On the other
hand, the realists should recognize that no matter how intense and
concentrated a wine can be from a modest vineyard in Givry, it will
never have the sheer complexity and class of a Vosne-Romanée
grand cru from a conscientious producer.
In conclusion, think of terroir as you do salt, pepper, and garlic.
In many dishes they can represent an invaluable component, imparting
wonderful aromas and flavors, yet alone, they do not make the dish.
Moreover, all the hyperventilation over terroir obscures the most
important issue of all -- identifying and discovering those producers
who make wines worth drinking and savoring!
THE WINE WORLD'S BIGGEST LIES
15. The reason the price is so high is because the wine is rare
14. You probably had a "corked" bottle.
13. It is going through a dumb period.
12. We ship and store all our wines in temperature-controlled containers.
11. You didn't let it breathe long enough.
10. You let it breathe too long.
9. Sediment is a sign of a badly made wine.
8. Boy, are you lucky -- this is my last bottle (case).
7. Just give it a few years.
6. We picked before the rains.
5. The rain was highly localized; we were lucky it missed our vineyard.
4. There's a lot more to the wine business than just moving boxes.
3. Parker (or The Wine Spectator) is going to give it a 94 in the
2. This is the greatest wine we have ever made and, coincidentally,
it is the only wine we now have to sell.
1. It's supposed to smell and taste like that.
A TONGUE-IN-CHEEK GUIDE TO UNDERSTANDING THE LANGUAGE OF THE WINE-MAKER
What They Say in the Vineyard/Winery
What They Really Mean in Plain English
1. This is a classic vintage for cellaring!
The wine is excessively tannic, and it will undoubtedly lose most
of its fruit long before the tannin melts away.
2. This is a supple, fruity wine that is very commercial.
This is a thin, diluted, watery wine made from a vineyard that
was atrociously overcropped. It should have a shelf life of 1-4
3. One can sense the nobility of terroir in the aromas and taste
of this wine.
The weather during the growing season and harvest was so cold and
wet that the grapes never matured, some even rotted, and the wine
tastes only of acidity, tannin, wood, alcohol, and copious quantities
of damp earth -- terroir triumphs again.
4. We were fortunate enough to harvest before the rain.
We harvested before the last deluge (and we forgot to inform you
that prior to the last inundation it had rained heavily for the
previous 5-10 days).
5. This is a classic vintage in the style of the great traditional
years of the region.
Once again we did not have enough sunshine and heat to ripen the
grapes, thus we produced wines that are hard, acidic, angular, compact,
and tannic from underripe fruit. Only a fool would buy this.
6. Do you want to taste my wines?
I actually have one or two barrels of exquisite cuvée vieilles
vignes made from exceptionally ripe fruit that I set aside for all
my importers, clients, and those nosy, obtrusive wine writers in
order to give them an impression of what I am capable of achieving.
7. Those people who follow organic or biodynamic farming in the
vineyard are phony, pseudoviticulturists.
We use every chemical treatment known to man -- insecticides, herbicides,
tons of nitrogen and other fertilizers, including Miracle-Gro, in
an effort to kill everything in the vineyard, except of course,
8. Mr. Parker knows nothing.
We cannot influence him, nor can we bribe him. A shameful man,
he doesn't even write in his publication what we tell him to. Why
can't we go back to the old days when we could stuff a trunkful
of samples into a wine critic's car and get the reviews we desired?
9. This is the greatest wine I have ever made in my life.
This is the only wine we have to sell.
10. This wine is closed and needs time because it has just been
The malady of the bottling is a myth because anybody who bottles
naturally, with very low SO2 and no fining or filtering, knows perfectly
well that the wine tastes just as good in the bottle as it did in
the cask. However, we are modern-day industrialists or, as we say,
"wine processors." We utilize large quantities of sulfur,
and, in addition, we eviscerate our wines by abusive fining and
filtering. Thus we use the "maladie à la mise"
excuse to justify the poor performance of our wines. If the truth
be known, our wines have been stripped, nuked, and denuded, and
they are incapable of improvement in the future. (Amazingly, writers
and buyers have been swallowing this B.S. for at least the last
11. Parker (or any other wine critic/writer) never tasted my wine!
I did not get a 90-point score.
12. Parker (or any other wine critic/writer) likes only heavily
oaked, internationally styled fruit bombs.
I did not get a 90-point score.
WINE ON THE INTERNET
While the Internet has not proven to be as valuable for wine consumers
as I had anticipated, there are some sites with strong followings
that offer important consumer feedback. The problem with these sites
is that participants have to be careful of misinformation being
spread by cyberterrorists who represent competing wines or have
malicious hidden agendas and do not reveal their connections to
the wine trade or personal bias. Nevertheless, there are numerous
fine sources for wine-buying information as well as travel tips.
Following is a list of the best of these.
www.wineloverspage.com: A popular and comprehensive Internet site
run by Robin Garr. It has a strong following and dynamic, active
message board with good postings by an enthusiastic membership.
www.marksquires'E-Zineonwine.com: The most civilized wine discussion
board on the Internet. Lawyer Mark Squires keeps the rantings, whinings,
and misinformation levels at a minimum, and thus the discussions
tend to be well focused, intense, and informative. For me, this
is the most serious of the wine discussion boards.
www.winespectator.com: This popular site offers subscription-only
access to the Spectator's database, along with free daily news articles
that are of considerable interest. Aesthetically, it is one of the
most attractive wine sites. The discussion forums have never captured
www.decanter.com: This site should be better than it is, but it
is often worth checking out for news items and that quirky British
point of view.
www.magnumvinum.fr: This French site actually sells wine but also
incorporates a message board for members of The Revue du Vin de
France magazine. It is in French, but for those who read this language,
it is worthwhile.
www.westcoastwine.net: Brad Harrington runs this excellent site,
which, along with Mark Squires's, is one of the purist sites for
wine-tasting notes and interesting thoughts from the membership.
Like the Squires site, there is rarely much whining, and the tasting
notes are candid, honest, and for the most part reliable. A lot
of top palates inhabit this site and generously share their thoughts
on the world's wines. This is one of my favorite sites to surf.
Another terrific place to find well-reasoned tasting notes, this
site leans toward the great wines of Bordeaux. Neither extreme egos
nor taste bashers are tolerated, thus the name-calling and rants
common on many sites are not found on this serious, highly informative
site. It is available in many languages.
www.wine-pages.com: This superb site focuses on the UK wine scene.
It is an all-inclusive site with excellent postings as well as a
British perspective. It is a friendly, easily navigated site with
plenty of bells and whistles.
www.jancisrobinson.com: Jancis Robinson is one of Britain's leading
ladies of wine. Her Web site is basic, but she charges a subscription
fee for access to her "purple pages." It seems overpriced
for the material offered, but no one should ignore the musings of
the chatty Jancis.
www.wineanorak.com: This excellent site, run by Jamie Goode, is
very British/Euro focused, and thus may be of less interest to North
Americans. Nevertheless, it offers considerable value. The attention
to wine novices is a particularly useful attraction.
www.wine-people.com: A user-friendly site, with excellent tasting
notes and commentary from one of the most reliable but underrated
sources for wine information, Arthur Johnson.
www.eRobertParker.com: This site is by subscription only (at the
lofty price of $100 per year), but readers have access to over a
decade's worth of Wine Advocate tasting notes, as well as never-released
tasting and dining commentaries by two very serious eaters and imbibers
-- Pierre Rovani and Robert Parker. In addition to the enormous
amount of resource material available, it is an extremely fast site