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Drinking distinction

It’s nature vs. nurture, in liquid form

from Grapes, by Thor Iverson

Interesting wines have personality. I don’t mean the anthropomorphized sort of thing that shows up in overwritten tasting notes (“this merlot is a pretentious little social climber, each sip a craven display of braggadocio”), but rather something more inherent. A point of view. Something to say.

Of course, most wines aren’t that interesting. They’re mass-produced beverages fine-tuned for the widest possible appeal, the vinous equivalent of anonymous radio-friendly pop. There’s a purpose and an obvious market for that sort of wine, but no one needs a wine columnist to point out brands that are on every supermarket and liquor store shelf.

So: back to the interesting bottles, the ones that have a certain je ne sais quoi that makes them unique, or at least different. Something that goes beyond pedestrian hedonics and brings meaning to the table. After all, there’s a reason that wine draws the vast majority of literary and socio-historical shout-outs. It’s not just another alcoholic beverage; beer’s cheaper, and as we all know, liquor’s quicker. There’s something unique about wine itself, something that goes beyond simple matters of pleasure.

So where does this personality come from? Simple: the land or the hand. (It sounds like a porn title for fans of farm discipline.)

“The hand” is the winemaker, or more precisely the long list of people in the vineyard and in the cellar who bring a signature style to their products. Some prefer a non-interventionist, do-as-little-as-possible approach. Others follow practices, like biodynamics or cosmoculture, that seem more akin to spirituality than agriculture. Still others work their voodoo towards a particular organoleptic goal, often a style intended (successfully or not) to appeal specifically to high-end consumers and high-profile critics. Many wineries hire well-known consultants to craft wines of this type, and the most successful consultants may be in contact with hundreds of clients in a given year, leaving their stylistic fingerprints at each property. (Given this, it is any wonder that a lot of consultant-influenced wine ends up tasting pretty much the same?)

“The land” is a little more difficult concept to embrace. Put simply, the conditions specific to a particular geography will influence products grown on that site. Those conditions include soil and subsoil types, exposure to sun and wind, rainfall, drainage, humidity retention, temperature, and other factors. This is true of any site, whether what’s growing on it is grass, asparagus, peaches or grapes. With experience, the characteristics of one site’s products can be differentiated from another’s.

The French have a word for this: terroir, which can be (somewhat awkwardly) translated as “placeness.” The European system of assigning place names to agricultural products – everything from Parmigiano Reggiano to jamón Ibérico to Sancerre – stems directly from this concept. It’s not just Europe, either. Right here in the U.S., we’ve got Vidalia onions, Napa Valley cabernet, Texas tea…. But we don’t take the notion nearly as far as the Europeans, who sometimes label hundreds of tiny vineyards with distinct names. Which means that they all produce wines that taste different from one another, right?

Well, maybe not. It takes a deep understanding of a site’s physical characteristics, plus broad tasting experience with the wines in question, to judge whether or not a site actually has a signature worth disambiguating. Even then, it really does come down to “the hand.” Actions can be taken in the vineyard or the winemaker’s cellar to preserve or obscure any site’s signature. And it’s worth noting that “different” is not a synonym for “better.”

Ultimately, the source of a wine’s personality is a matter of much debate and controversy among the grape’s chattering classes, and while science has helped focus the discussion, there’s much we don’t fully understand. Yet there are very few who question that wines do have distinct differences, that they’re often derived from the place in which their constituent grapes are grown, and that grape growers and winemakers also play an essential role. In other words, we’re sure wines have personalities, but we’re not entirely sure how and why. Maybe the oeno-mystics are on to something…

In the interim, here’s a pair of recently-tasted wines that exhibit very distinct personalities. They highlight the concept of terroir: they’re from (essentially) the same grapes and identically vinified. The only difference? Different sites.

Clivi 2002 Galea Collio Orientali del Friuli – Dusty shells after a rain, with hazelnuts and marshy green hues. It moves from lightness to greater weight as it airs, building up a spicy complexity, then narrows again to an extremely long, focused and balanced finish that’s bright with acidity. Terrific and eminently ageable.

Clivi 2002 Brazan Collio Goriziano – Austere when first opened, showing subtle mineral salts, hyssop, and exquisite balance. Pure refinement and elegance. The Galea will benefit from aging; this needs it. (Both wines are carried by Adonna Imports of Waltham; check with your local retailer for availability.)

(First published in stuff@night, 2007.)


Copyright © Thor Iverson.