Winemaker terroir: Does it exist?

Do winemakers bring a sense of Photo: Duane Pemberton

WASHINGTON, DC, March 13, 2013 - I’ve got to admit that one of the trends in the wine industry that concerns me is when a certain winemaker ends-up making wine for scores of brands (labels). At a certain point, doesn’t that mean consumers are drinking the same stuff with just a different label on it?

“Winemaker Terroir” is my half-joking way of bringing up a winemaker’s style and/or influence.

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It can easily go both ways, as you’ll see outlined by experts in the field. The bottom-line here is that it shouldn’t make a difference, assuming that the winemaker is getting out of the way of the grapes and letting the various vineyards come through. Unfortunately, however, there are also too many variables that make that a difficult challenge.

To get some feedback on this, I got some quotes from experts in the Washington wine industry:

Undoubtedly, though this is in no way “terroir” in the traditional sense. Rather, it’s a style of winemaking for each winemaker.

Consider these factors:

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– Barrel sources (American, French, Hungarian, Russian, etc.).
Barrel treatment (heavy toast, toasted heads, etc.).
– Cold soaking.
Yeast strains.
– Caves vs. non-caves.
– Humidity of the cellar.
Ability to recognize issues.
– Barrels vs. staves.
– New oak vs. neutral oak.
– Tannin control.
Acidity levels (and acid aditions).
– Stainless steel vs. poly tanks.
Decisions on when to pick.
– House palates (for example, some winemakers love brett or don’t recognize it).

I’m just touching the surface here. There are thousands of decisions a winemaker goes through before the product hits the shelves. Yes, winemaking starts in the vineyard (the very essence of “terroir”), but the decisions made after the grapes are picked – especially the first 10 days or so after harvest.”

Andy Perdue
WinePress NW Magazine

“Yes. And it is a destructive sickness. New oak, designer yeast, and scores sadly remove the subtlety of place so that the under capitalized wine maker can create what is known as market driven plonk.”

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Christophe Hedges
National Sales Director
Hedges Estate Winery

“The winemaker can play an enormous role in final wine character through harvest decisions, fermentation techniques, maceration intensity and length, cooperage/storage decisions, blending, etc. Wines that reflect the consistent and predictable character typically associated with a region, appellation or vineyard site are wines that reflect a certain degree of terroir. It doesn’t refer to the misconception of “taste of the earth.”

Bob Betz (Ed note: a.k.a. Yoda)
Betz Family Winery

“Good question! My first thought is somewhat purest, I would hope that the terroir of the vineyard would show through, however, I also think that the way a viticulturist manages a vineyard also has an effect on the wine. Along the same line I think that the winemaker has a responsibility to make wines that honor the terrior, and if all the wines from the winemaker taste the same I think that is a good indication that they are not doing a good job and doing that. But, I see your point, I think there is no way that the winemakers voice does not come through when they make wine.”

Brennon Leighton
Charles Smith Wines / K Vintners

“Winemakers do put their mark on anything make. They, along with the entire human element, including vineyard management, create what you could call cultural or professional or human terroir or whatever.

“Terrior” has always been over over simplified. From the moment a piece of ground is selected, every decision made effects the outcome of the wine. Call it what you want, but it is not just dirt and climate.”

Ron Coleman
Tamarack Cellars

Personally, I’d like to see us get to a sense of celebrating the region rather than a winemaker – like they do it in France. I realize that there are many winemakers out there who love the “rock star” status (and those who don’t like it) but did you know the word, winemaker, doesn’t even exist in the French language? They use the word, vigneron - a person who cultivates grapes for winemaking. Over there, it’s all about the place, the chateau and region - the vigneron is simply the caretaker of the vineyard.

I’m a huge fan of mixing it up and encourage people to drink wine from as many regions as they can. In that spirit, I’d also like to encourage you to mix-up the winemakers you drink from – it’s a great way to expand your palate and also the palate of all too many heavy-handed winemakers. If, on the other hand, you like what they do – then drink away.

Let Duane Pemberton be your guide in Trekking Down the Wine Lifestyle

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Duane Pemberton

Duane Pemberton is a food and wine writer who is also the owner of Pemberton is also a well read automobile reviewer and critic, all of which incorporates into his travel, wine and food reviews.

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