Finding My Place | July 2003

Does terroir exist in the East? Of course it does, but expressing it and understanding it takes more time than most of us will spend on this earth. Over the last 7 or 8 years I have been fairly consumed with the expression of terroir in my wines. I feel as though I have made some good progress, but have a lot to learn. France is my model, but I don’t like to use the term terroir only because of the snob factor. I prefer to use “place” but I use the two interchangeably. I would like to share what I have uncovered and where my focus will be in the future.

Place vs. Grape

The French view the grape as only a vehicle to express the place. In fact they consider their lesser wines to be vins de cepage (varietal wines). It would be an insult to tell a Burgundian producer that his wines had good varietal character. Over the past several years my staff and I have done focused blind tastings that have confirmed to us that in many cases place is of greater importance than grape. Examples of wines that taste like the place regardless of the grape have included Tuscan Cab/Merlot blends, Rheinpfaltz Chardonnays, and Napa Zindandels.

Because the grape variety has become the premier wine marketing tool in America, we producers have not given much effort to understanding our own terroir. I define terroir as a unique character or style coming from a specific place that persists from vintage to vintage and often from grape variety to grape variety. This is not to be confused with a “house style” where the signature is coming from the winemaking.

The Vineyard

I have problems with the dominance of varietal wine labeling and marketing in America. That being said, we in the East still have a tremendous amount of work to do in finding the most appropriate grapes for our places. When I first got into this business in the early 80’s it seemed that every vineyard had 20 to 30 varieties ranging from Delaware to Cabernet. That actually made sense then, as we were all totally clueless. Twenty years later things have changed somewhat. We know that early ripening, cool climate, thin skinned varieties don’t fair consistently well in Virginia and that late ripening varieties are perhaps pushing the envelope a bit too far in the Northeast. We are narrowing the field, but it is premature for most of use to hang our hats on one or two grape varieties. At Linden I have a couple of acres of Riesling. I have to admit that this grape is not the most appropriate variety for this place. I am not trying to make a vin de terroir with it, and the style, price, and production reflect this.

In a practical sense there are several things that I am doing in the vineyard to intensify the terroir character. Low yields, I have found are critical. For my red grapes 3 to 3.5 tons per acre seem to be about the maximum for vins de terroir. Any more than that they seem to become more innocuous varietal wines. The same is true with young vines. They produce big alcoholic fruit driven wines but lack depth, longevity and a sense of place. The French are converting rapidly to organic vineyard practices. Probably the most common reason given for this is that “dead soils” lose their ability to produce vins de terroir. This, along with high density plantings (less yield per vine) are two areas that I am now exploring, but am years away from coming to any conclusions as to whether these concepts are fact or myth.

Picking strategies have enormous influence on the evolution of terroir on wine. I used to pick each variety at one time and all those grapes were efficiently processed as one “lot.” Today, weather withstanding, we may pick a single variety over a two-week period. We pick according to vine age, soil type, slope, and canopy side. Recently we have started making several picking passes through each vineyard picking those clusters that visually exhibit greater ripeness.

The Winery

We do all this meticulous picking because I know that not all lots will qualify for our vins de terroir. Our best lots that express the vineyard site go into our single vineyard programs. These are the wines that are the best example of their place. We have three vineyards at Linden. I am slowly beginning to understand each place as it is expressed in the bottle. The Hardscrabble Vineyard is tight and closed when young, very structured, and layered and needs significant bottle aging. The Glen Manor Vineyard is fruit driven, hedonistic, supple, low acid and ripe. The Avenius Vineyard is focused, mineral, racy and sinewy. These characteristics can be found in both reds and whites. In some years we do not make these bottlings because the wines simply do not reflect place in that vintage.

It is one thing to taste and learn from aging lots separately in the barrel, but the true test is in the bottle. How else are we going to know how a specific site will age. For most of the greatest wines produced, ageing potential is one of the most important attributes. Most great wines do not express their terroir until they have had many years of bottle age. I feel that this is an area where eastern wines may have an advantage over our West Coast colleagues. I have tasted many older eastern wines that have evolved beautifully in the bottle and have evolved with time from simple vins de cepage into complex vins de terroir. I feel that when a wine is released is a winemaking decision. I’m sure that we have all been pleasantly disappointed when a wine that was uninspiring at release blossomed into an exciting wine, after it was sold out.

Another winemaking decision that has been said to enhance the vineyard influence on wines is uninnoculated (native yeast) fermentation. Although I remain skeptical that this will enhance the terroir signature in my wines, I have found that the wines gain greater complexity and suppleness.

AVAs and Terroir

I believe that AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) in the Eastern US have no correlation to terroir. They could end up having a detrimental affect. It is a chicken/egg syndrome. AVA establishment is too soon for most of the Eastern US. They are not based on wine characteristics, and certainly not on terroir influences. They are an extension of some marketing plan that desperately tries to demonstrate a cohesiveness of soil, microclimate, and topography for a large region that usually has no history of winemaking. We can ignore this myopia now, but if we are successful in establishing a solid winegrowing region in the future it will make life complicated for our heirs. I liken today’s new AVAs to what happened in central Africa when the European colonialists drew lines on a map without knowing anything about the people, geography, or local politics. One hundred years later it has become impossible to redraw the lines to reflect a more sensible delineation.

I truly believe that we can make great wine in the East. In most circles great wines are defined as vins de terroir. We need to take ourselves more seriously. Too often I talk to Eastern winegrowers who are apologetic or dismissive of these possibilities. We all need to continue to set the bar higher.

Wine East, July 2003

Jim Law