The grapes are always greener a few feet away
Uncorked by Thor Iverson
Last week I tasted three zinfandels
from De Loach, a California producer. The
wines were nearly identical -- all from the same
grape, all from the Russian
River Valley, all from the 1996
vintage. Did they taste the same? Not really.
(See my notes at the end of this column.)
What set the wines apart was the vineyards they'd been grown in: Barbieri Ranch,
Papera Ranch, and Gambogi Ranch. These bottlings
are known as single-vineyard wines, and their very existence is a sure
sign that the winemaker at De Loach believes in the idea of terroir,
which I wrote about in my June 18 column.
Most New World winemakers produce wine by blending whatever decent grapes they
can get their hands on. But an increasing number are following the Old World
model and bottling wine from specific places. From these producers, you'll
usually see a low-priced blend, some intermediate-to-high-priced
single-vineyard wines, and an expensive, limited-production "reserve" blend,
made from each vineyard's best grapes.
The reasons you might want to buy the reserve bottling are fairly obvious. But
why should anyone plop down the (not insignificant)
cash for the
Well, wine lovers are, as my editor so endearingly put it, whores for new
experiences. When we're by ourselves or with a few wine-loving friends, we're
always reaching for something new, something different. This is where
terroir and single-vineyard wines enter the picture. Different
different grapes, different wine. That there are differences between sauvignon
blancs grown in New Zealand
and those grown in Oregon
is easy to predict, but
wine lovers in search of the next New Experience get even more jazzed about the
differences between wines that are almost, but not quite, identical.
Try it yourself; buy the three wines listed below and taste them side by side.
If you can't find the De Loach zinfandels, try comparing wines from
Washington's Château Ste.-Michelle, Sterling single-vineyard merlots, or
any other examples you can track down. I picked De Loach because the wines are
reasonably available and not too expensive, though the experiment will
still set you back around $66. Here, then, is a chance to get together with
some of your wine-loving friends and spread the cost -- and the wine -- around.
(Remember, zin goes great with grilled and barbecued stuff.)
Since much of the philosophy of terroir involves the soil -- what it's
made of, how it interacts with water, how that affects a vine's roots -- many
people naturally come to associate terroir with the soil alone.
Sometimes they even go on to use terroir as an adjective covering a
range of tastes
from earthy to mushroomy. This is a mistake; terroir
isn't itself a taste, it's just one of many factors that affect the
taste. A given location's terroir is sometimes expressed by a mineral or
soil character, but it's just as often identifiable by something like the aroma
of orange blossoms or the taste of kiwi.
A particular vineyard or group of vineyards can also be described as
"possessing outstanding terroir." What does that mean? Well, two people
may exhibit identical skill and enthusiasm for basketball, but if one is
taller, quicker, and has a higher vertical jump and better peripheral vision,
one might conclude that that person is better equipped than the other for the
game of basketball. Terroir works the same way: some places are just
better for growing grapes than others.
The Russian River Valley, for example, has, over time, come to yield some of
and zinfandel. When wine lovers rhapsodize about
wines from vineyards like Le Montrachet (in Burgundy), Clos Ste-Hune (in
or Clos de la Coulée-de-Serrant (Savennières in the
Loire Valley), they're swooning over land that has a track record for producing
mind-boggling wines. But a few feet away -- sometimes right across a stream or
a country road -- grapes tended by the same vintners might produce no better
than ordinary wine.
Just to set you up for my
next and final column on this subject (stop
cheering), keep this in mind: understand terroir and you'll understand
the incredibly complex system of
that every major wine-producing
country has developed. You'll learn to differentiate Napa from Sonoma, Cornas
from Côte-Rôtie, Chassagne-Montrachet from Puligny-Montrachet by
sight alone, and you'll know what to expect when you see those names on a
Now isn't that worth another column?
1996 De Loach Zinfandel Barbieri Ranch (Russian River Valley), $21.95.
Very deep red. A bright nose of grape juice and blueberries, with an overlay of
charred oak. The smokiness continues through a berry-fest on the tangy palate
(which is rather light for a zin), but there's some earthy character to the
finish. The oak and the alcohol are fairly upfront, but the refreshing fruit
1996 De Loach Zinfandel Gambogi Ranch (Russian River Valley), $21.95. A
light, cherry-colored wine that reveals an unusual earth, truffle, herb,
boysenberry, and raspberry nose. Meat and mushroom compete with raspberry and
strawberry on the palate, with a strong streak of herbal oak and some white
on the finish. Tasty, if a bit oaky.
1996 De Loach Zinfandel Papera Ranch (Russian River Valley), $21.95.
Deep ruby, with a brooding plum, cassis, meat, tobacco, and chervil nose. Stays
dark throughout with flavors of black cherry, cooked strawberry and apple, and
a hint of stemmy tannin
on the finish. Seductively truffled and earthy, with spicy herbs and a good
acidic structure soaking up the mild oak.
Thor Iverson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Uncorked archive