by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)
In reading through the week’s wine blogs, I came across this one by Jamie Goode that couldn’t help but catch my attention. And I don’t say that in a good way either:
Grape varieties and the diversity of wine
I don’t know where to begin in my critique of this post. It is full of all kinds of myths concerning wine. In many cases, the myth has some small basis in reality. In others, none at all.
I’m going to start by quoting a part of the post that I just really have a hard time getting my head around: “What makes wine interesting isn’t really the diversity of grape varieties that exists. This is a bit of a sideshow. A grape variety is like a musical instrument: we need a few of them to make a band, but not too many: it’s the score that counts. And the score is terroir.”
Goode goes on to point out that two Syrahs from different environments can, in fact, be different: “I could present you with two Syrahs—say, Alain Graillot Crozes and Clarendon Hills Astralis. Would you be able to recognize these as the same variety?”
Finally, He concludes: “…. it is the geography, not the grapes, that makes wine interesting.”
It almost sounds as though the variety is nothing more than a canvas upon which the artist, in other words, terroir, works its wonders. As far as I am concerned, this is just Looney Tunes.
I have no doubt that the same variety planted into different spots can produce wines that are different. However, there is way more similarity between two wines grown from the same variety grown in two different locations than there is from two different varieties grown in the same location. Think about it for a second. If you plant a Pinot Noir and a Cabernet and a Zinfandel in the same Vineyard, you’re going to get three very very very different wines. If you plant the same variety in two different locations, there will be differences, for sure, but on the whole they will be much less than the difference between varieties. Even if you take Goode’s Syrah example, which is a fairly extreme one (which is no doubt why he chose it), there is more similarity between those two Syrahs than he intimates.
I also take exception to the prominent place that Goode places on soil. I’m not going to say that soil is irrelevant by any means, but when you rank the different factors that influence the final product, soil would not be near the top of my list. That’s not to say that soil is irrelevant. But what soil contributes to the flavor of a grape and the resulting wine is really pretty limited. A vine needs certain nutrients which many, probably most, soils provide in adequate measure. The vine also doesn’t need some things, such as excessive boron, that poison it. Most soils, again, are okay in this regard. Excessive water leads to poor wine quality. So in an area with rain, particularly during the summer, good drainage is important. But that’s about it. Grapes don’t get flavor from the soil. A “steely” soil does not make for a “steely” wine. Yet this myth persists. No amount of evidence seems to dispel it. Jamie Goode is not alone in perpetuating this myth.
Which brings me to the whole concept of terroir. I don’t mind it as a vague concept that where a vine is grown has some bearing on the wine that is produced from it. That’s incontrovertible. But it’s morphed into something romantic that bears little relation to the facts on the ground. The consumer wants to believe that this is at the heart of good wine, so the myth perpetuates itself. It has more to do with the romance of wine than its reality.
And I guess that’s my ultimate peeve. That wine is treated as some sort of elixir instead of just the beverage that it is. A wonderful beverage to be sure. But a beverage, not a fairy tale.