Oh, the terroir

Get a true taste of place with single-vineyard wines

A selection of single-vineyard wines at Creekside Cellars in Chico.

A selection of single-vineyard wines at Creekside Cellars in Chico.

photo by jason cassidy

Even in the Napa Valley, where Cab is king, there are winemakers who want Forest Ranch farmer Phil LaRocca’s grapes. LaRocca’s organic hillside-grown Cab vines, 41 years old and farmed on rich volcanic soil, produce exceptionally intense fruit, he says—and LaRocca believes that there may be no better way to express the potential of this 23-acre patch of earth than by making a single-vineyard wine.

Also called vineyard designates, single-vineyard wines are made using grapes harvested from just one site.

“The tradition really goes back to the French and their word terroir, which describes the soil, climate and elevation that make a certain site so impressive,” said LaRocca, who sells much of his annual grape tonnage but also makes his own line of estate wines at his LaRocca Vineyards and Winery.

To Joel Peterson, founder and winemaker at Ravenswood Winery in Sonoma, single-vineyard wines provide those who taste them with a sort of virtual travel experience.

“You can’t usually take a glass of milk back to the cow that made it, but single-vineyard wines can take you right back to a specific time and place,” said Peterson, whose winemaking career has long focused on showcasing some of California’s best Zinfandel vineyards—including the Old Hill Vineyard, of Sonoma Valley, which was planted in the 1880s and produces a distinctly dark and spicy wine. “It’s like a fingerprint of the land.”

Most wines today are blends of multiple wines, often grown hundreds of miles apart. Blending can round out rough edges and soften charismatic wines into more enjoyable—and more marketable—products. Though good winemaking often depends on blending, the process can steal a wine’s unique characteristics while muffling idiosyncrasies of terroir. Marco Cappelli, a winemaker and grape grower in the Sierra foothills, notes that many blended wines may taste, more or less, the same.

“Most wine on the market is homogenized by blending different vineyards and/or appellations together,” wrote Cappelli in an email. Cappelli owns the Herbert Vineyard, an esteemed Zinfandel block in El Dorado County used for several labels as a vineyard designate. The grapes, Cappelli says, are unique and charismatic enough to stand alone in a bottle, but he concedes that “business reasons” can also play a role in whether or not one makes a vineyard designate. The Herbert Vineyard, for example, is a respected name among winemakers.

“When I bought my property … I knew that its reputation would allow me to get a higher price for the fruit, and that my customers would be able to sell their wine at a higher price because of the designation,” Cappelli wrote.

Adam Lee of Siduri Wines, in Santa Rosa, makes more than a dozen single-vineyard Pinot Noirs from Oregon and California. Lee, like many winemakers, feels that Pinot Noir, among all varieties, best reflects a location’s soil chemistry, sunlight intensity, temperature and precipitation. Last year, for example, was a cold and difficult growing season, and in the Pinot Noir crop of Oregon, according to Lee, it shows.

“We decided that for 2011, none of our Oregon vineyards were worthy of vineyard designation,” said Lee. “So we blended them as ‘Willamette Valley’ wines.”

But blending is not necessarily a task reserved for lesser-grade vineyards and can be an art form in itself. Many winemakers blend “within the vineyard,” selecting grapes from different corners of the property and later portioning them into the same tank. Newton Vineyard in Napa Valley recently released an example of this style called The Puzzle—a 2008 blend of four red grapes grown on one 120-acre vineyard. Technically still a single-vineyard wine, The Puzzle simultaneously showcases location, vintage and winemaker whimsy.

But LaRocca warns that even blending within a vineyard can blur away fine distinctions that could be most profitably marketed on their own. During a recent private tour of the famed Chateau d’Yquem vineyard in southern Bordeaux, the owner of the property pointed to two adjacent blocks of grapes.

“They were 20 feet apart on the same vineyard,” LaRocca says. “But he told me, ‘That section is for my $30 bottles, and right over there, that’s for my $500 bottles.’”

Which one might take for a lesson in the value of terroir—or just of marketing.