Luck or Cunning?

Warning: This one’s mainly for passionate wine geeks.

Michael Apstein is a man of many qualities: friend, fellow wine writer, medical doctor, boon companion – but most of all, he is an agent provocateur. He sent this innocent-sounding question in a comment on my October 4 Barbera posting:

Can you generalize about the differences between Barbera d’Alba and d’Asti or does the producer’s hand trump geographic differences?

That seems straightforward – but the good doctor is really asking the King Kong of wine questions, one that pretty much divides the wine world: What carries the most weight, terroir or technology? Viticulture or viniculture? Geography or cellar savvy? Nature or nurture? Luck or cunning?

LUCK . . . ?

Let’s start with some facts about human ingenuity. There is probably no harvest so bountiful, so perfect, so overflowing with vinous potential that some winemaker can’t screw it up through sheer wrong-headedness and stubbornness. Our world could not have achieved half its astonishing lunacy without an overabundance of that human capacity. So in an absolute sense, in every sphere of life, nurture will beat the hell out of nature every time. In wine terms, there is no terroir, no matter how distinctive, that can’t be bent out of recognition by the devoted application of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of new barriques, concentrators, reverse osmosis procedures, and similar marvels – just as surely as it can be undone by old-fashioned, non-temperature-controlled fermentation, dirty tanks and cellars, excessive oxidation, and so on.

. . . OR CUNNING?

Beyond that lamentable fact, there is a real question about how much terroir we can actually taste in a wine – or what we are in fact tasting that winos call gout de terroir. Some recent studies, as reported by Jon Bonné, seem to show that there is no reflection of a soil’s chemical or mineral composition in the wines ultimately drawn from it – so where does all that Kimmeridgian chalk that generations of Chablis connoisseurs have claimed to taste actually come from? Can it be the effect of vinification procedures rather than the fruit of the sacred terroir? The cunning of the winemakers rather than the luck of the location? Say it ain’t so, Joe!

Alas, it could be. The vast majority of wines in which we discern and revere the gout de terroir are old-world wines – the great Burgundies, Champagne, Savennieres, Barolo and Barbaresco, and even our humble (well, not entirely humble) Barbera. These are all wines that have been grown in the same soils and vinified in more or less the same ways over centuries. During those centuries, field techniques and cellar techniques converged on a norm. The resulting wine gradually embodied what we have come to refer to as gout de terroir – the characteristic taste and style of wines from these places. In other words, gout de terroir is as much cultural as it is natural, a fusion of nature and nurture.

So, can you generalize about the differences between Barbera d’Alba and d’Asti or does the producer’s hand blur or even obliterate geographic differences? Even allowing for the fact that a sufficiently motivated wine manipulator could produce a wine that I wouldn’t even recognize as a Barbera, much less an Asti or an Alba, I would say Yes, we can generalize about those differences. Precisely because these are long-established wine zones, with equally long experience with Barbera, each has evolved its characteristic and recognizable way of making the wine. The winemaker’s hand has learned over the years to supplement or complement the effects of terroir. The producer’s techniques combine with those qualities to make a Barbera properly of Alba or of Asti. Sure, I can conceive of a winemaker in Alba reproducing the bright acidity of Asti, or a winemaker in Asti duplicating the roundness and darker fruit of Alba – but I can’t imagine that they would want to.

The situation changes greatly when you move to new territories, new vineyards, a vinous new world. Does anyone have any clear idea of what, for instance, Napa gout de terroir is? Or Santa Lucia Highlands? Or Russian River? There has not yet been sufficient acculturation, not even sufficient agreement about what grapes to grow, to talk about what best expresses the character of the terroir. In such circumstances, technology reigns supreme, and the appropriate phrase to describe their best products is to talk about a “well-made wine,” because it is the making that defines the wine. Nature needs time to assert itself; technology is immediate.

So – for most established old-world wines, I think we can safely generalize about the characteristics of their growing areas, not because nature strong-arms winemakers into a pattern, but because over time winemakers have acculturated themselves to their terroir and evolved, in partnership with it, a culturally based model of what their region’s wine should look like, smell like, and taste like. That is gout de terroir, and it is as real as anything is.

5 Responses to “Luck or Cunning?”

  1. Ned Says:

    Terroir isn’t only the soil, it is the climate, the microbes in the soil and air,
    the local yeasts, and the total interaction of all those. If it weren’t for commercial
    considerations, most of manipulations would not seem necessary.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      I agree completely, and would only add the factor time to your list — time for a kind of convergent evolution of man and grape and place to happen.

  2. Frank de Falco Says:

    Tom:

    There doesn’t seem to be a section for questions unrelated to your postings, so I’m submitting this question as a comment: Although nice, pleasant and versatile enough, Rioja’s all seem to taste the same regardless of producer or microclimates. Why is that?

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Frank:

      I’m not sure I agree about all Riojas tasting alike, though more and more do, unfortunately — and I think the reason for that has got to be “modern wine making” in thrall to “the international style.” In other words, cunning technology beating down poor Mother Nature once again. But this really deserves a better researched answer than this quickie: a future posting, perhaps.

  3. tom hyland Says:

    Tom:

    Well versed, as always.

    Terroir exists naturally and not through manipulation. Perhaps this is something the scribes at The Wine Spectator should learn!

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