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by Tom Hill

A self-admitted wine geek, Tom lives in Northern New Mexico and works as a computational physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory doing numerical neutron transport & large scale code development. He has been tasting wines since 1971, participates locally with a couple of large tasting groups in his area, and is practically a fixture at most California wine festivals, such as the Hospice du Rhône, Rhône Rangers, and ZAP. Other interests: Tom is heavily into competitive sport fencing (foil & epee), biking, cooking, basketball, skiing, backpacking, mountain climbing.

Terroir Seminar/SantaFe Wine&Chile Fiesta - September 25, 2008


Terroir Seminar/SantaFe Wine&Chile Fiesta 2008:

This year's most interesting was one on terroir. Moderated by recent/controversial author Alice, the panel was NealRosenthal/Importer, RobertHaas/TablasCreek, and the irrepressible RandallGrahm. The tasting was of 8 wines and the audience was to judge whether the wine in the glass exhibited terroir.

My initial fear that the panel would devolve into a promotion of Alice's book; one that I find one of the most self-indulgent, whiney, bitchey books I ever done read. With her short self-involved pimping of her book at the start and letting us know that RP had labeled her a "terroirist-juhadist"; fortunately Alice did not intrude to the degree I feared and mostly let the very capable panelists speak their mind.

I must say, she did not come off as God's gift to the wine world. Having just finished Neal Rosenthal's book; I felt he did a far/far better job of conveying much the same message that Alice's book failed to communicate. And, best of all, Neal did it whilst mention RP's name only once in the entire book, and then in a rather innocuous fashion. One of the amusing parts was, during the discussion on replanting in Calif due to phylloxera, she kept referring to "riparian rootstock". I kept scratching my head trying to figure out what the heck she was talking about & was prepared to ask her, when it dawned on me she was talking about "rupestris" rootstock, one of the American species that are used for phylloxera-resistant rootstock. Oh...well. But, by and large, I (and a number of others in the audience) felt that Alice was way in over her head in leading this panel and a pretty laughable panel moderator. Fortunately, there were a few rabble-rousers in the audience w/ provocative questions to keep things stirred up.

One of the more amusing facets of the tasting part of the seminar was the "blind" wine. I immediately leaned over to both seatmates LarryArchibald and JoelButler (director of education for Ch.Ste.Michelle Estates and the US MW program) and remarked "classic Oz Shiraz", what with its jammy blackberry/boysenberry fat/flabby character. Alice then revealed that this was her mystery wine and a "perfect example" of a manufactured/industrial wine that displayed no terroir nor varietal character whatsoever. I was puzzled as it spoke strongly of OzShiraz. She then revealed that it was YellowTail Shiraz. That elicited a lot of guffaws and consternation throughout the room as most everybody pegged it as OzShiraz. So much for making her point of no terroir in industrial wines which she so soundly villifies. Certainly it wasn't an exciting or interesting wine, but its terroir came thru loud and clear.

Actually, the seminar was one of the better ones I've attended at SFW&CF. Most of the time was spent by the panelists discussing the subject and only a little on talking about the wines were had in front of us.

After Alice's brief monologue, she launched the discussion with her "highly perceptive" question: "Do you think Calif wines can display terroir??" Well....doh...if you can't taste terroir in some Calif wines, then you're obviously tasting the wrong wines. You can even taste the SanJoaquin terroir in 2$Chuck if you look hard enough. I think all the panelists were in very strong agreement that, of course, Calif wines can display terroir. RobertHaas recounted how he & the Perrins had searched far&wide throughout Calif looking for a unique area they hoped would make terroir-driven wines afore the settled on the very calcerous soil that makes up the TablasCreek vnyd.

One of the panelists (forget which one, believe it was Neal) described/defined terroir as a unique convergence of: soil/climate/variety. The inclusion of variety is something I'd not heard of before. Neal emphasized the association of terroir in wine with traditional practices; variety and winemaking. The inclusion of winemaking as a contributing factor in terroir was a totally new concept to me...not sure if I can agree with that idea or not. He illustrated his point by the Chardonnay (see notes below) that was made in a rather oxidative style. He asserted that this oxidative style was a traditional part of the Jura terrior. Hmmmmm....that's one I gotta think about a bit. By Neal's definition, the only terroir one would get in Priorat wines would be in their rancios, a genre that has been pretty much driven into extinction by the huge scores today's Priorat wines receive. But, to me, these wines display a very distinct terroir character.

But, to me, there was one really important point to come out of this seminar and it came
from Randall. He served his '06 Albarino (with the sensitive crystallization pattern depicted on the label). This came from some 6 different CentralCoast vnyds, from Monterey down to SantaBarbara I believe. Could such a wine show terroir?? Most people would assert not, since it doesn't come from a single vnyd. Randall then went on to reveal that the wine was served not because it displayed terroir, but because it displayed "minerality", something that he very much seeks in his wines. He achieves this by his vnyd practices and his winemaking practices...which maybe ties in with Neal's take on terroir as including traditional winemaking. Now I am hopelessly confused by this terroir concept. When I find that sort of minerality in a wine, I immediately attribute it to terroir. But, what the hey...maybe it's just simply minerality and not terroir. Yoikes...I'm so clueless.

So...onto the wines we tasted:

1. Blind wine/YellowTail SouthAustralia Shiraz '??: Loads of very ripe blackberry/boysenberry Shiraz slight licorice nose; soft/fat no structure big/ripe/jammy boysenberry fruit flavor w/ no structure/tannins or interest; fat goopy blackberry juice.
2. JacquesPuffney Ploussard Arbois/Jura '05: Dark color; rather earthy/dusty slight black cherry fruit very minerally nose; tart rather earthy/dusty very slight licorice/black cherry/ peppery some hard/austere/ lean very minerally flavor; not a lot of fruit but plenty of mineral character; you can see the rough/rustic character of the region in this wine. A classic mountain/Jura red.
3. Domaine Montbourgeau L'Etoile Chardonnay Jura '05: Rather yellow color; somewhat fino sherry/ oxidized some earthy/minerally very complex/exotic nose; very tart/lean/austere some oxidized/fino sherry rather earthy/dusty quite complex flavor; no Chard character that I could identify; much like a fino sherry but rather different; an exotic wine in an oxidative style that most can't appreciate.
4. ChateayPradeaux BandolRouge '02: Very dark color; big pungent licorice slight plummy not particularly classic Mourvedre as I know it rather earthy/smokey very interesting nose; tart big/burly/rough pungent/licorice/smokey rather earthy tannic/structured rather minerally flavor; a big burly wine that needs much age.
5. BonnyDoon Calif Albarino '06: Very perfumed strong minerally bit steely/metallic slight earthy nose; very tart rather spicy very minerally/stoney rather floral/perfumed bit pineapply flavor; lots of that minerally Albarino character that you get in some Spanish versions.
6. BonnyDoon Syrah "LePousseur" '05: Very dark color; quite minerally/earthy some blackberry/Syrah licorice/pungent bit smokey nose; tart bit hard/lean minerally/earthy somewhat licorice/blackberry/Syrah structure some tannic flavor; not your usual CentralCoast Syrah but an earthy & mineral character that make for a very interesting Syrah; some like the AltoAdige Syrahs I've had but w/o the roasted character.
7. TablasCreek Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc PasoRobles (Roussanne/GrenacheBlanc/ Marsanne) '06: Very fragrant/perfumed floral/honeysuckle light oak some stoney/minerally some complex nose; tart rather appley/Marsanne some floral/perfumed somestoney/minerally lovely structured some spicy flavor; lots like SteveEdmunds TablasRoussanne but a bit more
tight and restrained; probably will age for 10+ yrs.
8. TablasCreek Esprit de Beaucastel Rouge PasoRobles '06: Some earthy/dusty rather blackberry/ boysenberry slight toasty/oak slight smokey/plummy/gamey nose; tart big blackberry/plummy/boysenberry light toasty/oak bit stoney/earthy/minerally structure rather tannic bit austere flavor; good complexity and the structure to develop w/ bottle age.

And a wee BloodyPulpit:

1. Most people immediately caught the mispelling of Poulsard, but Neal was quick to point out that Ploussard is an alternative spelling that is used in the Jura. Indeed, Google was quick to confirm that spelling.
2. Chardonnay: I thought it was a pretty gutsy move by Neal to serve this wine. Most everyone was searching for some Chard character in the wine; at least Chard as they knew it. I sure as heck couldn't find it. The oxidative character in this wine was quite evident. And most wine drinkers have been taught by the experts that any oxidation in a white wine is "bad". But if you toss out those prejudices, don't look for classic Chard varietal character; you can appreciate this wine for what it is. It was very exotic and very complex and (dare I say) a great food wine. Cassoulet comes to mind. It illustrated Neal's concept of terroir in wine very well, I thought.
3. TablasCreek: When their first Rhone blends came out, I was pretty underwhelmed by them when I first tasted them. They didn't have that classic lush/blackberry Syrah fruit I usually look for in Calif Rhones. They were a bit like Oakland wines: "There's no there there". And then one night at the Casmalia HitchingPost, BobSenn pulled out the first Tablas Rouge. Wow...had that wine developed into a beautiful perfumed complex red. That was the point that I first understood what JasonHaas was trying to do at TablasCreek. Over the last 4-6 yrs, I think those Tablas wines have just continued to increase in quality. They often don't stand out in tastings, but there's a lot going on in those wines. Definitely one of the best Calif Rhone producers.

There was a lot of questions asked of the panelists, and a lot of discussion amongst the panelists and the audience ensued. I had one (slightly) provacative question I had for Randall: Everyone "knows" that wines are made in the vineyard; that spoofalated and highly manipulated wines are evil. That "natural" (whatever the heck that is) wines that display terroir are "good". So...you take these poor vines and whack off their little footsies and force them to grow on these ugly/American/crude rootstocks. You plant them in these military/ DonaldRumsfeld-precise rows going up-hill and down-dale across the vnyd. You take these poor little vines and cruelly crucify them by tying their spindly/protesting little arms onto these cold/evil metallic/wire trellises. You go thru the vnyd in the heat of summer and whack off a bunch of their poor/baby brothers (green harvesting), leaving them to wreath in pain & agony on the ground for the next several hours, whimpering and crying until they die a slow/painful death.

When the poor vines are out there in the vnyd at the end of summer, dying of thirst; you cruelly cut off their supply of water in order to get them to bloat up their sugar level like the Pillsbury DoughBoy. Now...how the heck can you possibly call a wine made from these highly-manipulated vines a "natural" wine I ask you!!! It seems very counter-intuitive to me. Why are some manipulations regarded as "good" and others as "evil"? How can you tell one from the other? Are the practices of MasanobuFukuoka of any relevance to your growing philosophy?? There are some who believe his practices do much better at displaying the "terroir" than other systems.

I had printed it out ahead of time and when I ran into him afore the seminar in the lobby, passed him a copy of my question (and others). Alas, when I finally got to ask my question, to a smattering of laughter around the room, the moderator deemed it too long to answer and Randall was cut off in the interest in time. I'm hoping Randall will come up with and answer for me eventually.

I was quite disappointed by Randall's performance at the Seminar. When I sit in one of these kind of presentations, I always time Randall to his first use of "counter-intuitive". The record is 6 min 14.7 sec. Alas, he didn't use the term once in his discussions. I hope it's not a sign he's slipping or old age or something. All in all, a very spirited Seminar w/ lots of good ideas tossed out. But, still, I'm not sure if I recognize terroir in a wine. Minerality maybe, but not sure about terroir.

I'm so clueless.


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