It seems that every era has a word or a phrase that gets used to the point of cliché. Today in the wine world it’s all about “terroir,” a term linked to items as disparate as tour companies, gin, coffee and seeds.
Terroir loosely translates from French as “a sense of place,” but more pointedly refers to the specific combination of soil, weather conditions and farming techniques that contribute to the uniqueness of a product, in most cases wine.
To understand terroir in the wine context is to understand history. For centuries in France, the church had control of vast areas of land, and monks were able to observe the influences of various parcels on the wine they produced from the grapes growing there. Over time, the vintner monks compiled their observations and began to establish the boundaries of different terroirs, many of which still exist.
We haven’t earned the right to terroir
These days terroir is commonly used as a descriptor for a wine on its label or website, which, as a winemaker, concerns me. New world wine growing regions are called new world for a reason: We have yet to accumulate the information that centuries of living and working with our soils can provide. As a result we’ve yet to define our terroir enough to use it as a selling point.
In old world winemaking regions, by contrast, winemakers rely on information culled from generations upon generations of watching the response of vines to various weather patterns, soil conditions and growing techniques. When they use the term “terroir,” it means something. We in the new world bat the word around, I believe, because it is (a) French and (b) a concept so elusive few know what it means. Both factors work well when it comes to wine sales.
As the winemaker at Anne Amie vineyards in the Willamette Valley in Oregon, I decided to explore the variables of our estate vineyard’s terroir. In order to get an idea of how our site is unique, I enlisted two other vintners in a project that compares the Pinot Noir growing on our three sites, which are located within a 900-mile span of the West Coast from north to south.
The Cube Project
Our experiment has a few guidelines. Because we all know our own sites best, each winemaker would make the picking decision at their own vineyard. We would each pick six tons of Pommard-clone Pinot Noir, keep two tons for the home vineyard and give two tons each to the other wineries. Once we all had six tons of the same grapes, all winemaking decisions would be left to the individual winemakers: myself, Andrew Brooks at Bouchaine Vineyards in Carneros and Leslie Renaud at Lincourt in Santa Rita Hills, just north of Santa Barbara.
We launched The Cube Project in the fall of 2010: three winemakers, three vineyards, three years of experimenting with each others’ grapes. We now have nine wines from our three vineyard sites, three “expressions” of each vineyard.
In 2010 it was a cool season for us in Oregon, and harvest was still at least a month away when our two tons of Bouchaine Vineyards Pinot noir arrived. Leslie sent her grapes a few weeks later. When it came time for me to send our Pinot Noir to Leslie and Andrew in late October, Andrew was entirely finished with harvest, and had to get equipment out of storage to accommodate our fruit.
We showed the 2010 wines to the public for the first time during a seminar this March at the World of Pinot Noir just outside Pismo Beach, Calif. When we asked who thought the vineyards were the driving force in the wines tasted, and who thought it was the winemakers’ styles, it was clear the winemaker’s hand trumped the vineyard at that early stage. But my guess is that over time, as the wines evolve and the fruit characters fade, the vineyards and regions — the terroir — will catch up with, if not surpass the winemaking as the dominant trait.
The variables become familiar
With our 2011 wines, we were more familiar with the grapes from the others’ vineyards. The vineyard site seems to have more impact on our second attempt. As we head into our third, and final vintage of the Cube Project, I know my familiarity with the flavors and the uniqueness of each of the other two vineyard sites has changed not only my ideas about the other regions as a whole, but about my approach to winemaking. What works for Oregon Pinot Noir does not necessarily translate to the same clone of Pinot Noir grown in Carneros or Santa Rita Hills. For example, ripe grapes from California don’t always equate to ripe stems, therefore the use of whole clusters in ferments, which is something I routinely practice in Oregon, may not be a practical decision for fruit from warmer regions. Conversely, Oregon wines are much lighter-bodied, and the structure does not support heavier-toasted barrels, so cooperage decisions had to be adjusted.
As simple as this experiment may seem in its concept and execution, something of this scope has not been attempted before (to my knowledge) in the United States, which is a shame. There is an immense amount of knowledge of site, clone and the interaction thereof that is being treated as proprietary knowledge as many wineries set up internal experiments, which often are not shared with other wineries, let alone the public.
It takes experiments such as ours and, we hope, other wineries who are willing to do a little “thinking outside the box” to gain perspective on what constitutes terroir in America. And, like our experiment, I think it is important to offer the wines to the general public to purchase and taste for themselves exactly what defines the terroir of a place, and the art of the winemaker. It will only be through experiments, trial and error, and ultimately, time, that we will define our American terroir.
Photo: Thomas Houseman. Credit: Foster Ramsey
An ex-modern dancer, Thomas Houseman is the winemaker at Anne Amie Vineyards in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. He is also the founder of The Cube Project, which will show its 2010 wines in a seminar at the International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville, Ore., in July. See “The Cube Project” on Facebook for updates, and contact [email protected] to purchase the wines.