Terroir in California

Which places in California do you feel display terroir and which claim terroir that doesn’t show up in the wine?

Much depends on what you mean by the “T” word.

In Europe it is employed in two slightly different senses, but always includes both the unique flavors of place and the human and historical aspects, combining with innate influences of climate, soil, altitude and other natural features to produce an expected character. Sometimes it refers to regional character, as in Beaujolais, Chablis or Chianti, and is synonymous with regional identity. If you went to Roquefort and made a very unique cheddar-style or camembert-style, it would not be considered to reflect terroir. It must be bleu and from sheep’s milk.

Sometimes to the distinctions within a particular appellation hat reflect the distinctive character of a single chateau or clos, such as the pumpkin character of La Gaffaliere (largely from Brett), the chocolate-mint aromas of Lynch-Bages, or the complex elaborations of Krug champagnes. Again, these mix traditional practices with nature’s unique contributions.

In la Rioja, Cabernet Sauvignon was experimented with and rejected, not because it made poor or even uncharacteristic wine (it’s fabulous), but because the Iberian varietals are so genetically distant from Bordeaux varieties that the Spanish wanted to maintain their unique heritage. Ergo, you can use the Cabernet from the experiment, but you are forbidden to mention it on the label.

In America, we hold this characteristic as an ideal without making much of an attempt to define it. I myself try to avoid this word because it’s so confusing and also because the New World interpretations are based on what I consider to be questionable premises.

My six years of surveying regional character with AppellationAmerica.com are adequate testimony to my belief in regional character. If you smell lemons in a Petite Sirah, it’s probably from Livermore, while Paso Robles will give you orange peel and cocoa (Tootsie-roll) aromas every time. Who knows why every red variety in the Russian River is sure to smell of black cherries, be it on the Region 1 cool end or the Region 4 end up by Healdsburg, and its Chardonnays reliably supply Meyer lemon no matter who is making them.

Where these fruit characters come from, the link to nature, has not yet been very well studied. We know more about the aromatics which are in the air and dissolve in the wax cuticle. These include local herbs, trees and flowers, particularly in small, isolated vineyards. The best known are eucalyptus and smoke, but Howell Mountain will always give you sage and bay laurel, San Antonio Valley has its gunpowder green tea from tarweed, the redwood cloud forest around Highway 17 in the Santa Cruz Mountains is always marked by juniper and cypress, and the wines of the State of Georgia always seem redolent of summer meadows.

Some regions have expected styles for which they are known: the high alcohol, oaky, toasty butterbombs of Napa and the raisiny Zins of Amador come to mind. These do not much reflect regional grape flavors, but are clearly reliable regional profiles absent which consumers might justly complain.

There are regions in California with a great deal of variability from site to site. These include Southern Humboldt, West Side Paso Robles and Fairplay. The principle charm of many of the Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnays, which often combine odd characters like bow rosin, tamarind, mustard and peat smoke, is that they could not have come from any other place.

There is considerable debate about whether a wine has more terroir when it displays these regional flavors in a pure form or when it is fermented on indigenous microbes.

One is tempted to conclude that for the giant brands that inhabit Safeway, terroir is regional authenticity, but for the 99% of brands below 10,000 cases, terroir is distinctive character of that single producer, unique among its neighbors.