Terroir Versus Variety—The Final Answer

By Charles Olken

A couple of learned friends, namely Randy Caparoso of the Sommelier Journal and Steve Heimoff of his eponymously named blog, have recently opined on the subject of context in wine tasting. Randy, it seems, claims to have realized that Pinot Noirs from certain areas are structured differently from his ideal model but can be perfectly good nonetheless.

Friend Heimoff weighs in with the notion that he has always insisted that wine needs to be judged in context, and then twists himself in a pretzel trying to explain how we critics can judge context in blind tastings when all we know is the variety being tasted.

Both of these gentle men, for they are indeed, know the answer to the question of terroir versus variety. They know because they taste California wines and understand, and have understood for decades, that California is not Burgundy, that the Napa Valley is not Pauillac, and if you get right down to it, because they, like your trusty editors here at CGCW, also know that Romanee-Conti is not Savigny even though they are right down the road from each other.

Site matters. Both of these gents have long understood that truism. So why the recent outpouring of “discovery” and explanation. The answer to that question is about as clear to me as the metaphysical reality.

I am going to spare us all lengthy liturgy and state a few simple rules of play.

All varieties have characteristics that come through pretty clearly when well-grown. It matters not whether it is Pinot Noir or Barbera, Riesling or Chardonnay. Each of those grapes has central character and it has a range of interpretations around that central character. At times, the range can be very wide, but no other grape beside Chardonnay can produce Chablis at one end of the spectrum and lush, ripe white wines of immense appley depth when highly ripened at the other end.

Understanding the range of personality of the grapes we review is an integral responsibility of the wine critic. Sure, we can have preferences, but when a critic refuses to accept a recognized style of the grape, then context is tossed out with the bathwater and only personal preference remains. Beware of those critics.

Terroir is one way that site contributes to wine character. So are crop load, trellising, water rationing and picking decision. Still, like grape commonality of character (varietal character), so too is there oftimes recognizable site character. I don’t mean to brag, but I will. It is not unusual in our tastings for Steve Eliot and/or I to pick out mid-valley floor Napa Cabs, Howell Mountain Cabs and Alexander Valley Cabs. And even better examples are Westside Road Pinot Noirs, western Sonoma Coast Pinots, Santa Lucia Highlands Pinots and Sta. Rita Hills Pinots. All quite different and yet all Pinot Noir.

These are parlor tricks of a sort, this kind of blind identification of place and even, at times, of maker, but they are not new parlor tricks. And that is why I must admit to a bit of surprise that two experienced professionals like Randy and Steve would bring this topic back to life. They have known the truth for years—as has any professional critic worth following.


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