Messages In a Bottle: Trying to Taste a Place

It’s Spring now in the vineyards of Northern California. The mustard blossoms yellow between the rows of newly budded vines and the vineyards which were, in some places, underwater just a few weeks ago now resemble their normal selves. Where there is not mustard there are tall green grasses waving in the same rhythms as the apple blossoms, which too are bursting forth with the warming weather. The trees do not yet have many leaves, however, and the green on the vines remains just small sprouts and sprigs, both of which provide the acute observer with an opportunity to see ” better than most other times ” the lay of the land.

Standing out in the vineyards, as I was just last week, with the last bits of the coastal fog disappearing from the bottoms of the valleys, it’s not hard to wonder aloud, “OK, this is beautiful, but what does this particular spot taste like?”

This may not be the first thing that comes to mind for most people appreciating a vineyard vista. Certainly most of the steadily increasing tourist traffic on the wine roads of Napa and Sonoma doesn’t even bother to look at the vineyards on their dash across the parking lot from the car to the tasting room. But increasingly, especially here in the United States, this question preoccupies a certain portion of the wine world:- marketing organizations, journalists, wine lovers and winemakers alike. It is a question tangled up with debates over the meaning and cultural ownership of the word terroir as well as with the pride and identity of wineries in both New and Old world.

Most discussions of this topic rarely progress beyond a combination of rhetoric and hearsay (if by individuals) or marketing spin (if by wineries), no matter how well-informed and well-meaning the parties. I’m a fan of none of these approaches, and prefer to deal in practicalities. After all, “what does this place taste like” is ultimately a practical inquiry.

In the past six months I’ve had the opportunity to try and answer precisely this question for two specific places and for three specific varietals ” Zinfandel from Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley and both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Sonoma’s Green Valley. The process has been eye opening as well as difficult.

The word terroir is as overused as it is embattled these days. This famously untranslatable French term has become the favorite badminton birdie in arguments about New World versus Old World wines, “authentic wines” versus “industrialized” or “globalized” wines, and it seems to creep into every serious discussion about the use of new technologies in winemaking. Wineries and winemakers employ the term liberally when they attempt to distinguish their wines from everyone else’s, and entire regions take pride and comfort in the term as a precondition for their borders, as if the boundaries of an appellation are an area defined by something other than a successful petitioning followed by a legislative decree.

No matter how each individual chooses to define and relate to their sense of what terroir means, most definitions incorporate the notion that the term describes a relationship between a wine and the place it comes from. Furthermore, nearly everyone speaks of this relationship as one which is (or is not) expressed in the wine in a way that is eminently perceivable. In simpler terms, when talking about terroir everyone implies that a wine’s flavor is at least partially determined by the place in which it is grown. (There are a lot of arguments about what “place” actually means, but climate, soil geology, elevation and weather are some generally accepted components of this definition).

Going further, and to the heart of my point, many people also believe or at least seem to contend that a place can not only be expressed through the flavors of a wine, but that certain places have certain flavors. At one level this is intuitively and undeniably true; most experienced wine drinkers will have tasted enough wines to say definitively that there is a perceivable and predictable difference in the flavors between, for instance, Syrah grown in a warm climate and Syrah grown in a cold climate. However, it seems increasingly common for people to speak of individual regions or appellations in terms of a distinct flavor profile. There’s nothing wrong with this at one level, and I can’t deny even my own tendency to make generalizations in the way I speak about wines from certain places, but at the end of the day, is it really true? While this may seem somewhat of an academic question, assumptions about the answer underpin so many aspects of how wine is marketed and priced that it seems preposterous sometimes that no one has attempted to explore it systematically.

Formed in early 2005, the Appellation America organization attempts to build awareness and champion the uniqueness of the individual wine appellations in the USA. Part of their process in providing information about each appellation involves holding expert tastings of wines from that region in order to deliberately identify the flavor profile of the area. I was lucky and flattered to be involved in one of these tastings last year which focused on Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel. In the course of several hours, I and the other experts (journalists, sommeliers and winemakers) tasted nearly forty Dry Creek Zinfandels in double-blind format in an effort to identify “signature characteristics” of this particular combination of place and grape.

Appellation America may be the most serious and systematic about it, but they aren’t the only people focused on trying to pin down the flavors of specific places. A few weeks ago I attended the Green Valley Symposium, an annual event held for the last few years by a consortium of wineries in the Green Valley AVA, a sub-region within the larger Russian River Valley appellation of Sonoma. This symposium seeks to showcase the uniqueness of the region and specifically how it translates into the character of the wines. In the course of two days I tasted scores of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the 2004 and 2005 vintages in Green Valley.

Both the Dry Creek and Green Valley exercises, though slightly different in format, had similar aims: The organizers wished the attendees to walk away from the experience with a defined sense of specific characteristics and flavors that were unique to the region.

Unfortunately, I didn’t.

Trying to pick out common characteristics between lots of wines is a difficult proposition, and I think even more difficult when those wines are of the same varietal and therefore already share many of the same characteristics. Even with the aid of wines from outside the region as comparisons, trying to identify a shared characteristic within a group of wines that was specific to a place (and not to the varietal, or the oak used, or the harvest date of the grapes) was completely impossible for me.

To a certain extent, this was a bit of a surprise. By this I mean that I hadn’t entirely thought through what it would mean for a region or an appellation to have a specific flavor. I had only dealt, as many do, with the question in the abstract ” piecing together an “intuition” that, sure, it made sense that certain places had certain tastes. But I was wrong; at least as far as believing that I might be able to actually ratify this intuition through careful observation.

To be fair, both the 2003 Dry Creek and the 2004 Green Valley vintages are characterized by local vintners as “non-typical,” and it is possible that my own palate and experience do not give me the ability to perceive the thread that might run through these wines. However, as I found myself in the middle of these tastings with far less clarity than I expected, I came to my own conclusion that they were ultimately flawed exercises based in flawed thinking.

In my opinion it is impossible to come up with accurate, let alone useful, specific characterizations of a region’s flavors (or the differences in flavor from one region to the next) except at the coarsest level. For instance, I don’t believe there is something unique that would allow anyone to consistently pick Green Valley Chardonnays out of a blind tasting if they were grouped with Chardonnays from the Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Coast. However, I do think it’s pretty likely this could be done with Sonoma County Chardonnays and Oregon Chardonnays. Consistent and quantifiable flavor differences, I have come to believe, do not exist at the level of AVAs or appellations. They only exist at a much larger regional level.

It’s important to recognize that in denying there are consistent, observable flavors associated with similar wines within a specific appellation, I am not denying there are significant, even unique differences between different appellations or the wines they produce. Green Valley, for instance, is undeniably the coolest part of the Russian River Valley appellation, and gets far more fog than the rest of region. This allows vintners in the AVA to make different wines than they could elsewhere; but that’s different from having a specific taste which is particular to the region.

So what does some place really “taste” like? Too many people think about terroir as a direct translation between place and flavor, but the reality is much more subtle. I think terroir has a taste, but not a flavor. With experience we can recognize when a wine is expressing something more than the industrial equation fruit x fermentation + oak = flavor. To say a wine has terroir, or that its taste is affected by where it comes from, then, is not necessarily to be able to identify the characteristics of its origin with certainty, but to simply sense as the writer Matt Kramer put it, that the wine has a “somewhereness.”

My point-of-view will no doubt be hotly contested by some wine lovers and nearly every winery marketing staff member, but that doesn’t matter. What matters, really, is that we be able to tell by taste not that a wine comes from within an area defined on some government map, but that it comes from some real place that finds a way to speak to us through the wine. We make this evaluation at the level of a single wine and a single sip; we don’t need to remember the words to the song, we only need to recognize that we’ve heard a similar melody in the past, and be able to sway along with the music.

This article originally appeared in The Gilded Fork.