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Nature or Nurture?

by David on December 17, 2006

Of course, there’s been enough written about terroir to overload a landfill and permanently blur the vision. Soil, climate and whatever else you choose to include in your personal definition of terroir are obviously going to be the single biggest influence on the wine’s character and quality.

But, as we know very well, you can give a winemaker great fruit and he can still manage to produce a stunningly offensive bottle of wine. The winemaker is a V.V.I.I.P.P. in the process.

Since Champagne and sparkling wine are my favorite weaknesses (see Napa Valley Wine Radio, episode 31), I was fascinated by this article by Jon Bonne in the San Francisco Chronicle. He concludes that for sparkling wine, technique trumps terroir. My limited experience makes me tend to agree. I remember back in the 80s, when domestic sparkling wine was really starting to take hold, my wine buddies and I would hold blind tastings as frequently as our pocketbooks would allow. Part of the routine was to guess if the wine was California or French. Pas de problème! ;) These tastings always made an inexperienced taster like me feel like a genius! The California wines always seemed sweeter, simpler and fruitier than Champagne and were ridiculously easy to identify.

Lots has happened since then and there are some wonderful California-style sparklers that aren’t so simple now. They’re absolutely lovely, and identifiably not Champagne. But there are some real ringers out there too. My favorite domestic bubbly is Roederer Anderson Valley, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought it’s French when it’s served blind, especially the L’Ermitage. A few other local bubblies have tripped me up too.

Last year I was fortunate to attend a Champagne/sparkling wine seminar with Karen MacNeil, and part of our experience was a blind tasting in which we ranked the wines most to least favorite and with the “name the origin” game thrown in too. Out of six wines, my 1 and 2 rankings were Roederer Brut Premier Champagne and Roederer Anderson Valley Brut. I though they were both Champagne. I think the terroir for me, in this case, is Roederer! But, I have to say that most of the group thought the Anderson Valley was Champers too. Somehow Roederer has figured out how to get that toasty, biscuit-like nose and what Ms. MacNeil refers to as an enticing “contrapuntal tension” between the creamy richness and the bracing acidity from two very different “terroirs”.

I don’t know if our cheeks were a little warm and pink from the wine or from our embarrassment (it’s so hard to spit Champagne!), but we managed to botch the identity of a few other wines, too, which says something about how techniques have evolved here in California in the last few decades. You may or may not feel that the growing similarity between Champagne and local bubblies is a good thing, but since I can often get the Anderson Valley Brut on sale at Safeway for $16.99 vs. $40.00 for the Brut Premier, I’m grateful for these advances in technique!

When Colleen, our proprietor, and I were in Provence awhile back (see post called Culinary Getaways a la Provencal) one of the winery owners we met commented that he thinks too much emphasis is placed on terroir and not enough credit is given to the winemaker. He went on to regale us with a story about how a group of Master Sommeliers held a tasting of Merlot from several continents with a common denominator of Michel Rolland, the famous wine consultant, as the consulting winemaker (my apologies to those who’ve heard me tell this story before). These highly experienced tasters got it all wrong. They thought the Chilean wine was Bordeaux and the Italian wine was from Napa Valley. Their terroir was Rolland.

Maybe some styles of wine are more about technique than others. Sparkling wine has sooooo many steps compared to still wine production, I don’t understand why anyone makes it (but I’m infinitely grateful they do!). Also, the grapes are significantly less mature at harvest, so perhaps some sense of terroir is lost there too. But that doesn’t explain the Rolland story above. Guess we’ll have to keep drinking and thinking! Cheers!

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