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Is The Reign of Terroir Over? The Pinot Cubed Experiment

Is the Reign of Terroir over?

The Old World staked its reputation on the sanctity of the plot of earth in which the grapes were grown – Lafite’s piece of Pauillac, the elevated gravel pit that is Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the southeastern-facing hillside of Romanée-Conti north of Beaune.  And since the higher prices these wines could garner financed stringent vineyard practices and meticulous winery standards, their quality in most cases has been outstanding for a century or more.

But “terroir” left New World winemakers holding the bag.  They could transfer rootstock and winegrowing experience to other hemispheres, but they couldn’t transplant Europe’s fabled terroirs to California, Clare Valley or Chile.  So the New Worlders adopted the “wine is made in the vineyard” mantra – take a reasonably situated hunk of property, plant the right clones, add some water and tough love, and you could get good, even excellent, grapes.

However, a new experiment with Pinot Noir on the West Coast indicates that the taste of the wine that comes out of the bottle may depend most on – surprise! – the person who makes the wine.  “I think what we did shows that winemaking trumps terroir,” says Bouchaine’s Michael Richmond, one of three winemakers who took part in what could be called the “Pinot Cubed Experiment.”

“It was all Thomas’ idea,” Richmond says.

Thomas is Thomas Houseman, a Pinot freak who makes wine at Anne Amie in Carlton, Oregon.  “We were all sitting around at a Pinot Noir workshop in Steamboat Springs, talking about how our Pommard clones were performing differently in our vineyards in different states,” he says.  “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if some of us could share fruit?’”

And so they did.  Houseman enlisted Richmond, who probably knows more about growing Pinot in the Carneros (Acacia, Bouchaine) than anyone else, and Leslie Mead Renaud, winemaker at Lincourt in Santa Barbara County and chairperson of the World of Pinot Noir, the annual Central Coast bash that brings in professional and amateur Pinot fanciers from around the world.

The plan was simple.  Each winery would pick 6 tons of grapes from one of its blocks during the 2010 harvest, keep 2 tons and send 2 tons each to the other 2 wineries.  Each winery would control its own harvest regardless of where the grapes were going, and each winemaker would make his 3 cuvées according to his own style.

Growing conditions and picking time varied greatly.  For example, Houseman finally took his late-ripeners off the vine October 27, about a month after Richmond picked his.  The soils varied greatly as well – Willakenzie (volcanic ash over various other types) for Anne Amie; clay, loam and sand from Lincourt’s source vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills, and silt over fossil beds at Bouchaine.  Each winemaker followed his or her protocols, with Renaud and Richmond being more-uniform among their three treatments than Houseman, who decided to make all three wines somewhat differently due to their ripeness and chemical profiles.

A few weeks ago, they took samples of their wines, fully expecting that the grapes and the soil that produced them would dominate, no matter who made the wine.  Wrong.  All three agreed that the most distinctive element in all their wines was the winemaker.  “All of mine tasted differently,” Richmond laughed, “but they all tasted like Bouchaine Pinot Noirs!”

“It’s still very early on,” cautions Renaud, “and the vineyards may assert themselves later.”  Houseman agrees.  “The winemaking is definitely more distinct than the soil.  We’ll see if that changes.”

The Pinot Cubed wines-in-progress will have their professional debut at a winemaker’s seminar at the World of Pinot Noir the first week of March in Shell Beach.  Consumers will have to wait until the wines are released.

“Each winery will have a block of each vineyard (3 pack) created by each winery,” Houseman says, “a block that each winery will have of their interpretation of all three vineyards, and the cube of all nine wines.  I believe we are looking at 16 months in barrel and about a year in bottle, much like our ‘reserve’ designation wines.”

Everyone agrees that certain areas are more friendly to growing certain grapes and that vineyard management is very important as to whether those grapes are merely OK or outstanding.  But what Pinot Cubed seems to be saying is that the stamp of the winemaker can be as distinctive as the soil that grows the grape or as vineyard management.

Maybe the wine is really made in the cellar after all.


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