jamie goode's wine blog: Talking terroir...

Monday, May 14, 2007

Talking terroir...

Riccardo Cotarella is one of the most famous figures in Italian wine. He's a consulting winemaker to a slew of different estates, many of whom have caught the eye of Robert Parker. But not everyone is a fan of him: like that other famous consultant Michel Rolland, he's been criticised for making wines that taste a bit similar. Wines that impress, but which have been divorced from their origins. He was in London last week presenting many of these wines at a seminar, where he defended himself thus:

'To say that a consulting winemaker will make the same wine using the same grape and vinification techniques in different countries or even different areas of the same country is a complete stupidity. The people making these claims wouldn’t know the difference between a grape vine and a fig tree! In my work with the students at Viterbo University where I am a professor of Oenology we have demonstrated that using the same varietal from the same vineyard with the same treatment in both the vineyard and the winery will produce two very different wines when you vinify the grapes that come from the top of the vineyard on the top of the hill vs. those from the bottom of the same vineyard...90% of the character of a wine comes from the terroir, not the grapes.'
This reads right. Yes, we beleive in terroir, and that it's the way to go for fine wine. But Cotarella fails to acknowldege here that terroir itself is actually quite fragile, and is easily lost - most commonly by picking too ripe and using interventionist winemaking. If you want to bring out terroir - the sense of place in a wine - you have to work hard at your viticulture and take care not to mess up in the winery. It's possible for consultant winemakers to introduce techniques such as extended cold macerations, long hang times, and invasive new oak usage that can obscure origins. And I have to disagree with the last statement. I think the grape variety is very important, otherwise there wouldn't be an insistence that Pinot Noir is the sole red variety in Burgundy, for example. This grape happens to be the best lens through which the Burgundy terroirs can be viewed, if you like. Or, we could say that 90% of the character of a wine can come from the terroir, but only if you let it.
I'm an open minded guy, so I reserve judgement about Cotarella-influenced wines until I've tried enough of them to form an opinion. But I did find this quote interesting, which is why I've commented on it.

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At 6:54 PM, Anonymous Doug said...

Jamie - you're dead right. Cotarella proves the point; the point being that the wines taste of Cotarella technique (as do Rolland's wines). And I strongly believe that these intrusive techniques, whilst garnering a pickled peck of Parkeroni points and Gambero Rosso glasses, are detrimental to the notion of terroir. The use of new oak on his reds, in particular, amounts to abuse: add lashings of sweetness and extraction of colour and you have jam in a glass. Rolland can make the ultimate silk purse out of a sow's ear; from a vineyard which does not yield much terroir character (ie monocultural, heavy soils) he can manufacture a ppp (powerful, precocious, plummy) wine that certain critics seem to get off on.

The grape variety, is the "natural interpreter" of the terroir. You're right of course, about the fragility of terroir and how easily it can be swamped by intervention. The problem is the notion of perfectibility; the idea that you can create some technically correct and filter out nature. This is part of what Paul Draper calls the "zero defect" culture. An Italian grower once said: “We seek to express exactly what the grapes give us, be it power or structure, or finesse and elegance, rather than transform or to impose a style that the wine would not otherwise have had”. Nicely put.

At 7:59 AM, Blogger Summertown said...


I totally agree with your point that terroir is the most fragile of the influences on a wine's quality.

I think Dottore Cotarella has rather over stated his defence. After all why employ a consultant winemaker if it is 90% terroir? His is a style that doesn't appeal to everyone, but then that's the beauty of wine's diversity. You don't have to buy it; if others do well they're not 'wrong' and they are not affecting your ability to buy the wines you like.

I reject this notion that we'll all end up drinking 'Parker wines'. Perhaps at the <£8 bottle supermarket end of the market wines are less 'characterful' (which used to mean they could be utter crap too), but above £8 bottle we are now so lucky to have thousands of wine makers trying to woo us. Some follow Parker's taste (and even the idea that Parker has just one taste is pretty lazy thinking if you've ever read his notes on different styles of wine), but I'd say most don't. Most winemakers I have talked to have their own idea of what they want to achieve. Indeed I would guess there are as many that actively want to make wines that are anti-Parker. Perhaps not so much at the top end in Bordeaux, where they chase the speculator's dollar that follows Parker. Everywhere else there are plenty of new interesting wines being made shuffling all the choices and nuances of the influences of variety, terroir, vintage, viticulture and winemaking.

Rob Malcolm
Summertown Wine Cafe

At 10:18 PM, Blogger Jamie said...

Doug, you've said what I wanted to say but what I didn't have the guts to say...

At 10:18 PM, Blogger Jamie said...

Rob, thanks for the thoughtful comments, as usual


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