The Cube Project Demonstrates the Fragility of Terroir

Cube-Image-Three-Bottles1 Having just defended the idea of terroir in my last post, let me add some complexity to the issue. Terroir refers to the influence of soil and climate on what you taste in the glass. No doubt climate, soil, and geological features such as aspect and elevation influence the taste of wine grapes. But are these factors more important than the machinations of the winemaker?

The Cube Project is designed to answer that question.

The Cube Project involves three winemakers from three vineyards with distinctly different terroirs–Oregon, Napa, and Santa Barbara. Grapes from each property were divided into three parts and given to each of the winemakers who turned the grapes into wine. The grapes were all of the same variety and clone—Pommard Pinot Noir. The winemakers decided when to pick their own grapes and that entire lot was picked on the same day so each winemaker received identical grapes from each vineyard site. Each winemaker created wine from the other vineyards using the same techniques as the wine from their own vineyard. The experiment took place over three vintages—2010, 2011, 2012. (Three vineyards, three winemakers, and three vintages is a cube, hence the name)

Will the wines from one vineyard site made by three winemakers be so similar we must conclude it’s the terroir speaking? Or will they be so different we must conclude it’s the winemaker’s influence that makes the difference? The results? Writes winemaker Thomas Houseman who set up the experiment:

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.

Although Houseman introduces a caveat:

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.

When I first heard about this experiment I was skeptical. It is after all easy for winemakers to overwhelm the taste of terroir if they have a heavy hand in the winery, especially with oak. But another winemaker involved in the project, Leslie Mead Renault of Foley Estates and Lincourt in Santa Barbara insisted this was not a factor, as reported by the Wine Spectator.

People that have read about the project but are not intimate with it immediately say it is the heavy hand of the winemaker,” said Renaud. Not so. The wines made at Anne Amie and Lincourt were the closest in terms of winemaking-small fermentation tanks, no yeast inoculations, punch downs rather than pump-overs, yet the results were notably different.

Renaud goes on to make what I think is the essential takeaway point from the experiment.

“I guess I am shocked by how subtle things like temperature and skin contact time make such a big difference,” Renaud said after the tasting.

Renaud’s point was backed up by Houseman. “It has made me more sensitive than ever, that every winemaking decision, no matter how trivial, nudges the wine in a direction that might not be intended,” said Houseman.

The comments of these winemakers suggest that terroir is fragile. Wine is extraordinarily malleable—anything the winemaker does will produce significant changes in the final product. Thus, although terroir is not a myth, this experiment suggests it is a will o’ the wisp,  a flickering ghost light, easily extinguished by even modest interventions in the winery.

Perhaps there is something to the almost religious devotion to non-intervention advocated by some proponents of so-called “natural wine”. Terroir is such a fragile thing that its preservation requires the utmost care and restraint.

 

2 comments

  1. Totally fascinating.

    But I agree with what Rowan Jacobsen seems to be saying in his book, American Terroir (or maybe I agree with my own interpretation of what he’s saying…) —

    that terroir is not merely the geographic features of landscape and climate, but also the human cultural and historical interaction with a place. Possibly, the notion of “terroir” was eradicated the moment the grapes were shipped out to be manipulated by someone who has no real connection to the place where they were grown. Maybe…

    I enjoy your posts.

    1. Thanks Tracy. I go back and forth about the proper definition of terroir. Certainly the influence of climate and soil cannot be entirely disentagled from the influence of culture, especially decisions regarding which grapes to plant where. But if you include “human and cultural and historical interaction” you risk eviscerating the concept by including everything that goes into making a wine. But you’re right that a winemaker who had limited historical connection with a vineyard may be unable to grasp the signal of terroir regardless of how careful they are.

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