The Wine Whisperers
Terroir [tare-wah'], a French concept, translates roughly to the way climate, environment, and geology are expressed through wine.
Terroir is so important to French viniculture that wine is identified by the name of a region—Champagne or Bordeaux—rather than by the name of the grape, as Pinot noir or Cabernet are in the United States.
But here in central California the French aesthetic has recently taken hold. Some local winemakers claim that rainfall, irrigation, the degree and direction of slope, the mineral and biological content of the soil, the agricultural history of the vineyard, the indigenous yeasts, even the number and variety of worms in the soil all impart character to wine. For California’s new “terroirists,” expressing this kind of nuance is the job at hand.
The new terroirists come in a range of ideologies. At the far left of the spectrum are those such as celebrity winemaker Andy Erickson, who co-owns Favia wines and also makes wines for six top wineries. They use no commercial yeasts, which convert the sugar in grapes to alcohol during fermentation, utterly trusting their vintages to the local soils and microbes. The biochemical composition of any vineyard’s grapes can vary from harvest to harvest, however, so other devotees of terroir hedge their bets and manipulate the wine’s chemistry, using nutritional additives, for instance, when they feel it necessary to achieve a certain taste. At the other extreme, some large, industrial wineries liberally use trade-secret chemicals to produce entirely predictable, generally palatable, and almost character-free wines, all the while casually bandying about the term “terroir” because—well, these days just about everyone in California does.
I ask Andrew Waterhouse, a chemist at the University of California, Davis, and an expert on the effects of wine chemicals on taste, for his perspective. While he’s as fond as anyone of the honest taste of grape, he judges the whole terroir obsession a bit overblown. “The impact of the site on wine is very important,” he says, “but it’s often overstated.” To him, managing the rich community of microorganisms that colonize grapes during fermentation is more important than focusing on terroir.
Whereas conventional winemakers buy commercial microbes, true terroirists use only local microorganisms in their fermentation tanks. That reliance on nature introduces an element of risk, because the wrong kind of microbe can ruin a wine. In the presence of oxygen, several types of bacteria, along with a few species of yeast, convert glucose or alcohol to acetic acid; too much of that and a winemaker is left with vinegar. Because of this, winemakers need to control exposure of fermenting grapes to oxygen. “The cliché is that wine is God’s gift to man,” Waterhouse says. “But vinegar is the ultimate product of grapes plus yeast. It takes a winemaker to stop the process at wine.”
I set off to several Bay Area vineyards to see firsthand how vintners of differing levels of commitment to the idea of terroir understand the wine-
making process. Two days of exploring the techniques of this new breed of California winemaker will awaken me to tastes I never imagined.
The Foggiest Idea
The summers are dry in Napa Valley, and the days get hot. Then in the evenings, cool Pacific air sweeps over from San Pablo Bay. In the autumn this air brings thick fog to the southern half of Napa Valley.
Greg Allen, a winemaker at the Far Niente Winery off the St. Helena Highway in Oakville, depends on this fog. He’s in charge of Dolce, Far Niente’s highly lauded dessert wine blending sweet Sémillon grapes and aromatic, high-acid sauvignon blancs. The autumn fog brings airborne mold spores that latch on to the Sémillon grapes and break the fruits’ skin, beginning a process of dehydration that allows sugars to concentrate in the grapes.
I place Allen—a former MIT-trained biomedical engineer—somewhere in the middle of the terroirist spectrum. While he relies on the area’s microclimate to produce sweet grapes, he uses commercial yeasts. Allen also takes his wine to the lab to help him understand each barrel’s chemical and biological profile to a fine degree, a high-tech concession that some committed terroirists do not make. But when I ask how he uses that information, he explains that, once fermentation starts, his options are limited.
“I can convince the yeast to stop fermenting by turning off the lights and making it colder,” he grins. “I can give them a blast of sulfur gas, which is an antimicrobial, to ward off interaction with oxygen…” His voice trails off. A shrug hints that he has largely shown his hand, suggesting that even with a world of data, a winemaker who respects what the vineyard has wrought doesn’t have many cards to play.
The Far Niente wine tour should not be missed, if only because the place screams so loudly of fashion and heritage that I expect Alexis Carrington to greet our group. (Remember her? Joan Collins in Dynasty.) My tour ends with a tasting. We drink our Dolce with a light blue cheese. Let me be frank. The earth moves.