Terroir of a Napa Cab

Posted by The Wine Whore |

Terroir - Originally a French term in wine, coffee and tea used to denote the special characteristics that geography bestowed upon particular varieties. Agricultural sites in the same region share similar soil, weather conditions, and farming techniques, which all contribute to the unique qualities of the crop. It can be very loosely translated as "a sense of place," which is embodied in certain characteristic qualities, the sum of the effects that the local environment has had on the manufacture of the product.

Rather than bore you with a wine review flavored with repetitive rhetoric of cherries, red currants, and other not so descriptive wine bullshit, I figured I would try something new. This time, I would like to discover the ancestry of a particular bottle of wine: its terroir.

I learned something very important while cruising the Crus of Bordeaux. When it comes to French red wines three things are important: the landscape, the age of the vines, and the aging/fermenting techniques (i.e. barrel types and duration). Despite the fact that vines and technique are important, the French seem to believe that terroir has the most weight amongst the three. Whenever I would ask about different vintages or techniques or even winemakers, I was constantly reminded that it is the terroir that makes the wine. In other words, while vines and wine making techniques influence the process, ultimately the landscape determines taste of the wine. The French firmly believe in this philosophy. In fact, terroir is the reason for the strict division of land into appellations or regions. Instead of making wine from the land, it is the land that makes the wine.

This got me thinking... why shouldn't the same philosophy be true in the United States. Although we don't have strict regulations around wine regions like the French do, we should still be able to taste the influence of the terroir on the wine.

I thought about this as I drank a bottle of the newest release of Cabernet from Napa Valley made by X Winery. While I have to admit that I enjoyed the wine and found it priced fairly (~$25/bottle), I still wondered about its roots, its heritage, its terroir...

  • What makes the landscape of this bottle of wine unique and/or special?

  • What was X Winery's thought process around constructing this Cabernet when it came to choosing the grapes or even the final blend?

  • What's the typical age of the vines used to make this bottle of wine?

  • What else went into this bottle of wine that I would never even think to ask about?

Like many other wine lovers, my search for answers began by sifting through the various marketing materials available from the winery. I found a lot of good info but nothing that really answered these questions... at least not to the depth that I was looking for.

Here's what I found...

The following video does describe the vineyard's location but aside from stating that it is "well drained" leaves much to the imagination:

In another technical spec sheet, I found some additional info:

    The valley is divided up into 14 sub-appellations. Each area has distinct microclimates that range from cool mountain - influenced temperatures to moderately warm temperatures (90 degrees or above). These sub-appellations have unique soils that vary from volcanic to alluvial, in turn creating special growing environments for this King of grapes.

I am writing this post to bridge the gap. So many wine blogs feature the opinion of wine bloggers without input or answers from the winery. These same wine blogs fail to solicit questions and truly engaging comments from their readers.

I would like to use this post to change this scenario once and for all... after all the benefit of blogs is that people can interact, ask questions, and really learn about their favorite topics. That's what makes blogs better than a publication like Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast which just feed you tasting notes and scores.

Here's your chance to get involved and even learn something new. Using the comment form below, ask questions about anything that is important to you concerning this newest vintage from X Winery. This post is also an experiment to see how much attention wineries are paying towards blog posts featuring their wine. Hopefully I am not deluding myself and someone from X Winery will actually leave some helpful, interesting, and informative comments.

Check back to see the results of my experiment and the answers your questions...

Cheers and don't forget to enjoy what you drink and drink what you enjoy!

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Evan Dawson said...

Randy -

Welcome back (first interaction since the trip!) I like where you're going with this post. I have an upcoming post for Palate Press that trends toward similar terrain.

I would ask this winery's winemaker whether they believe the mineral components of the soil show up in the finished wine. On top of that, I wonder if there is a need to add acid in such a warm climate.


Joeshico said...

Randy, You have come a long way since your first post. Great article.
Now my question: Over the past two years, I have learned a little about terrior and how it affects wine. One area I still have problem's with is soil and minerals. How does minerals like slate and soil like sandy, loamy or rocky affect wine?

The Wine Whore said...

Hello Evan!

Thank you for the welcome back! My trip really changed the way I see wine, or at least made me start thinking about things differently. I look forward to reading your article in Palate Press.

Both are great questions... I am looking forward to their answers. I think I really have neglected in the past how much soil and climate play a role in the final product of a bottle of wine... both are factors that can't be overlooked.


Tom Johnson said...

My suspicion has always been that terroir has as much to do with the French cultural tendency to elevate an aristocracy as it does actual differences in the wine.

Long before there was even rudimentary understanding of the science of winemaking, certain fortuitous combinations of soil and climate made the wine from particular places (Chateau Haut-Brion was one of the first to be recognized) better and more consistent than wine from other places. Those blessed plots became the standard against which other wines were judged.

Rules and regulations then evolved to make wines from nearby areas taste like the wines of those aristocratic vineyards, making terroir something of a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Recently, scientists studying minerality in wine -- one of the lynchpins of terroir -- determined that there is no measurable transfer of minerals from soil to wine. The stony expression familiar in, for example, Chateauneuf-du-Pape has little to do with the region's stony soil and everything to do with the combination of grapes and vinification techniques required of AC Chateauneuf wines. Those wines evolved as an entirely human expression of the stony soil, even if nothing of the stony soil is actually a part of the wines.

The Wine Whore said...


Wow! Excellent comment... you make a great point.

Anyone else care to refute this argument?

steven Campbell said...

Tom you need to spend some time reading about the history of wine.

Haut Brion became famous in England not due to the quality of the wine but due to the fact that the owner was smart enough to send his chef to London and start a restaurant where he served his wine. There was no competition and the chef was great.

St Emilion is a much older wine growing area where vines were cultivated by the Romans.

Medoc was not planted until the Dutch came and drained the swamp.

As for minerals in wine what the scientist discovered was that the concentration of minerals in wine is below the threshold of human detection. Not that there are not minerals in the wine. Also they did not comment on the potential impact of the minerals on the taste of the wine.

Having traveled across the globe and witnessed multiple examples of the impact of soil on the taste of wine I can assure you that Terroir is more than just a French notion.

Perhaps my greatest expeince in tasting terroir was in the Chave cellars in Hermitage. Hermitage is only a few hundred acres and amazingly enough has multiple soil types. Chave has 8 vineyards across the hill and vinifies them separately. 8 vineyards, all 100% syrah, same winemaker and the difference was obvious.

You can see the same thing in California at Diamond Creek one of the most unique vineyard sites in the world.

In a bigger scale you can see it in Napa where Stags Leap wines are soft and supple especially when compared to Howell Mountain.

So terroir exists you just have to do the exploration, the travel and seek with an open mind.

If you read the whole article on minerals in wine you would have also seen the comment that 50% of vines are planted on the wrong soil. That does not help.

Ed Thralls said...

I have heard the same thing that Tom describes regarding soil. Characteristics directly in the soil (i.e. rocks, mineral, earth) do not get transferred directly into the vine and subsequently in the fruit and wine. Rather, it's the water-holding capacity, which is driven by type of soil as well as slope, that can result in the fruit developing certain characteristics among other things.

However, I DO BELIEVE in the terroir concept as it relates to each site (the aspect, altitude, latitude, slope, spacing, vine balance, etc.) and don't agree that in all cases wines "evolved as an entirely human expression."

Unfortunately, that is case in some places, but I see a trend to get back to the practice of allowing the wine to express where it is from (see natural wine movement) and you will see a difference in wine from different locations and from vintage to vintage.

Tom Johnson said...

Steve, I'm going to use you in tonight's argument with my wife. When she says, "Put down that book and take out the trash," I'm going to respond, "I can't. I need to spend more time reading about the history of wine. Steve said." So thanks for that. I'd appreciate it if you'd tell me I need to play more golf, too.

I live in Kentucky, where winemakers work really hard using the most modern techniques and technology and the wine still sucks, so I would never argue that terroir is irrelevant or non-existent. What I think I said was that the effects of terroir, particularly in the technological present, tend to be overstated. (I took a snotty swipe at the French because hey, a guy's got to have a hobby.) There are lots of reasons for that overstatement -- self-aggrandizement and product differentiation being two. I'm by nature suspicious of hard-to-prove things strongly advocated by people with something to gain in their advocacy. Call me cynical.

Even after absorbing the fire of your withering condescension, I continue to believe that terroir is less important than a lot of wine spectators and enthusiasts and advocates think it is. That a key element of terroir (the transfer of minerals from soil to wine in meaningful quantities) seems not to actually happen bolsters my case, but is certainly not conclusive, I admit.

And, again, I'm not trying to claim that terroir doesn't exist, just that its importance in overstated and may be enhanced by human intervention. There is certainly a difference between plots of ground -- beyond mineral composition of the soil, all the attributes Ed lists and more. (The eucalyptus grove adjacent to Martha's Vineyard being an obvious example.) I cite as my last evidence the fact that terroir-oriented winemakers spend so much effort tweaking their processes to express and amplify the unique aspect of their plot of ground. I'm guessing the grapes from the eight vineyards of Chave Hermitage do not lead identical lives. That would be decidedly un-French. I'd bet the winemaker treats the grapes from each plot differently in subtle ways to help "express" the terroir. If the difference between the plots were profound, the winemaker wouldn't have to go to so much trouble.

Ed Thralls said...

Here's a timely post by Dr. Vino on the same subject: http://www.drvino.com/2009/10/28/geologists-terroir-minerality-maltman-greg-jones/

Anonymous said...

Thanks Randy, Evan & Joeshico for the inquisitive questions. Hopefully the X Team will be able to answer them all.

Anonymous said...

Q1: This is mostly Estate Fruit.
Q2: We work closely with Clark Vineyard Management to make sure that this ultra premium vineyard, in the premier St. Helena appellation, delivers wines that are exceptional and balanced.
Q3: Majority of the vineyard was planted in 2001 but 10% of it is over 40 years old.
Q4: Pecxtinase and Grape tannin are two tools that we use in limited supply at the winery. However, the most of what you taste comes from painstaking attention to detail in the vineyards, as well as the use of detailed analysis and the most important tool in the winery (glass).

Evan�s & Joeshico�s Q: This site has beautiful rocky, well- drained soil that are ideal for growing ultra premium Napa Valley grapes. Mild pre-veraision deficit irrigation allows for smaller more concentrated berries. Post-veraision heavy deficit irrigation is used allowing for richer more concentrated flavors. The temperatures in St. Helena are regulated by the cool ocean winds that come down off of Spring Mountain each evening. Occasionally there are warm days, these are regulated by a modified frost protection system which brings cool water from a nearby well and cool�s the plants on days that are over 100 degrees. Each year post harvest the vines are watered to encourage continued root growth to expand each plants ability to source new micro-elements in the soil which assist with improving the complexity of the wine each year.

Ed Thralls said...

Yet another timely article that refers to some recent session on the topic at the Geological Society of America: http://greeninc.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/28/the-fanciful-notion-of-minerality-in-wine/

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