Monday, November 21, 2005

The Confluence (a 2nd thought)
Terroir, the Role of the Winemaker, and the Label

I am still intrigued as to how the idea of terroir is rejected by many (most?) New World winemakers. Mr. Stehbens of Katnook was no different (see previous post). So what replaces the terroir model in terms of a unifying force amongst this school of vignerons? In his analysis of the direction of Australian winemaking, he repeatedly emphasized the need for his winemaking brethren to be true to the character of the grape, or ‘varietal integrity.’ The danger as he sees it is that if the trend continues, Australian wines will no longer need to be identified by cépage, rather they will be simply labeled ‘Big Aussie Red.’ His fidelity to the cépage is so strong that he excludes even the idea of blending (even if grapes like Petit Verdot can be used to supplant some of the usage of tartaric acid).

So if varietal distinction is important, and terroir is not, then that leaves human intervention as the defining influence on the eventual character of any bottling. There is no denying that wine is a human construct, however, here is where the most important distinction lies between the ’terroirists,’ and those who deny its importance. For winemakers like Stehbens, it is he who ultimately defines the character of his wine while the terroirists believe that it is the temperature, soil, indigenous yeasts and other classic terroir influences. They are simply there to coax the whole process along, limiting in fact as much as possible the influences of human intervention.

Stehbens and his compatriots are part technicians, part artists, part scientists and 100% god. Any and all interventions are ok as long they approach their personal model of what they want their wine to be, even if it means the negation of the influences of growing conditions inherent in the use of acids, commercial tannins and yeasts. He even maintained that he often describes the final product to his winemakers even before the grapes are picked.

Both of these approaches can make good, distinctive, personalized wines. But as a consumer, I would like to know more about what goes in to making the wine that I am drinking. If I want to know what was used to make my Doritos and Coke, I just have to look at the package. Is it not time for the wine industry to do the same? I would love to know not just about the chemical interventions and exact sulfite content, but also the exact blend, both by the grape of by millisème. I would make a nice change from the three paragraph blurb on the back label that tells me what I should smell and taste, and whether or not some Gomer believes that this bottle is really a great ‘chicken wine.’

I can figure that one out for myself.


beau said...

I've often wondered why there is no requirement to indicate ingredients in wine. I for one, would like to know what chemicals have been added.

Additionally, how exactly does one stay true to a varietal characteristic by manipulating the hell out of a wine? That doesn't seem logical to me. Compare grape kool aid with fresh grape juice: Sure kool aid is theorectically 'varietally' true to grape flavors, but it sure aint grape juice.

Mithrandir said...

This is a very interesting discussion. If I might weigh in:

In that a winemaker is a craftsman, he must respect the boundaries of his craft. I think the practice of adding things other than grapes, yeast and oak to wine is somehow cheating.

A camera and an ink jet printer can produce a portrait in minutes by depositing pigment on paper, but is it a painting? No.

Similarly, one can produce a beverage in many different ways, but only a tiny subset of those methods may be termed winemaking.

To the extent that a winemaker is an artist, he should have vision. He should know what he wants to produce, and use the tools of his craft to achieve his goals.

I also support strict labeling laws. If you put a varietal on the front, it should be nothing but that. Same for vintage and region. If you feel the need to bend these rules, you should state the percentage composition on the label.

And if you insist on adding sugar, water, acid, tannin, or anything else, you should list the ingredients.

caveman said...

nice comments guys,
I think the time has come for more informative labelling but considering the growing public penchant for 'natural' products, this could hurt a number of wine producers (even if the chemicals are not noxious). I wonder what fermenting Tom would think about that.
One thing that I still don't understand is this concept of mono-cépage wine.. why the resistance to blending in Cali and Australia..

Lenn said...

Got your comment on my contributing columnist's post...crazy that we're on the same wavelength like that!

I can tell you for sure that Richard isn't alone in his dedication to LI's terroir. I'd go so far as to say that a majority talk about it at the very least--even if some of the wines don't reflect it. Richard's definitely do.

Tom Wark said...


Great post.

To me, the idea of being true to the terroir is a little tricky and only applies in any meaningful way if you are making wine from a specific vineyard. Yet still, a wine from that vineyard can be radically differnet depending on how the grapes are cultivated, how long they sit on the vine, how the canopy is managed, the weight of grapes allowed to be hung, and we aren't even in the winery yet where issues of maceration, oak aging, filtering, fining and more have their effect on the wine.

That said, I've always viewed terroir as much a construct of tradition as it is a directive from nature.

In the end, the winemaker works with nature to create the wine, but the winemaker is, in my mind, fully in charge here with nature playing a fundemental, yet secondary role. This means you need to find a winemaker whose wines match your palate.


caveman said...

Thanks for your comments.

Vineyard management is where both terroir and anti-terroir proponents agree on the role of the winemaker. However,it is in the chai that there is fundamental difference the two 'schools of thought.' I would go so far as to say that by using interventions
such as tartaric acid chapitalization, comercial tanins and aromatic yeasts, winemakers are in fact negating the effects of 'terroir' (particularily climate) and thus are correct
in saying that nature is subjegated by the will of the winemaker (ie. terroir is less important than the will of the winemaker).

I would love to have your thoughts on the following questions
1- How prevalent (and-or necessary) are these type of interventions in California? .. I am speaking specifically of acidification, the use of commercial tannins and aromatic yeasts.
2- Should consumers be informed (ie. the labelling question) about both the above interventions, and also the exact blends used in the wine (grapes and millisemes).
3- As a marketting person,do you believe that if this type of labelling was the rule, that consumers would ultimately move towards those wines that have suffered fewer interventions (considering how the whole organic sector is exploding)..

Tom Wark said...

My understanding is that acidification is pretty common in the CA wine industry. However, it seems that the better growers/winemakers needn't do as much in the winery if they start their quest for balance in the vineyard and even in the planting stages.

As for informing the consumer, if there is something added to the wine during the production process that has been shown to readily and adversely affect those who ingest it (assuming enough is left in the wine to have an effect, then sure...put it on the label.

As for the marketing of wine once ingredients are listed, I can tell you this, a list of ingredients will not help the sales of wines if only because most cosumers will leap to conclusions. Consider some of the fining agents that are used. They are harmless but, they sound...well, yucky.

Is anyone being hurt in any way right now without listing ingredients in wine? I don't think so.