The proof that terroir does exist in California

The proof that terroir does exist in California

Despite arguments to the contrary, terroir does exist in California, and there is no better proof of that than the Monte Rosso Vineyard in Sonoma Valley.

Critics yammer about the sameness in taste of all too many California wines; they might be well made, yet the sense of place is utterly absent, particularly in $15 and under wines that are sourced from multiple fruit sources. Are these competent wines? Often, yes. Are they complex and compelling? Usually, no.

True, many Americans don’t care a whit whether a wine reflects the place in which the grapes are grown; all they ask is that the wine tastes good, and that it does so consistently. After all, our computer spell-checkers change terroir to ‘terror,’ discouraging potential taste-of-placers from delving into dirt and drainage, exposures and ecosystems, climate and clones.

I propose that folks who enjoy wine, yet are not converts to terroirism, board a hypothetical bus and travel to Monte Rosso Vineyard in the Mayacamas Mountains, 365m above sea level. It’s a 233ha (hectare) property, with 94ha of vines planted mostly to Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, with smatterings of Merlot, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Syrah, Sangiovese, Semillon and Folle Blanche.

Upon arrival, visitors’ glasses would be filled with Louis M. Martini Monte Rosso Cabernet Sauvignon or Gnarly Vines Zinfandel. Guests would put their glass down long enough to run their hands through the iron-rich, decomposed volcanic ash, red ‘rosso’ soils. They’d caress the arthritic, diseased 120-year-old vines that, miraculously, still produce intensely flavoured grapes. They’d inhale the cool ocean breezes that blow unimpeded through mountainous Monte Rosso, slowing ripening and helping to preserve the grapes’ natural acidity; vineyards at lower elevations bake in the Sonoma Valley heat, without much relief.

As Monte Rosso visitors sip their wine and gape at the view of San Francisco some 95km to the south, they would listen to Mike Martini speak passionately about growing up in the Monte Rosso vineyard, learning how to grow grapes and make wine from his forefathers.

As Martini talks and everyone swirls and tastes, the newbies from the bus begin to detect a common thread that runs through Monte Rosso Cabernets – brightness of fruit, chocolate, earth, minerals, brisk acidity and an intriguing dusty/dried brush character. Monte Rosso Zinfandels, made from the very low-yielding ancient vines, show bramble, black pepper and intense wild-berry character, bordering on jamminess, yet not crossing the line into Port-ville.

As longtime Beringer Vineyards winemaker Ed Sbragia (who buys Monte Rosso Cabernet Sauvignon for his own brand, Sbragia Family Vineyards) says, ‘Monte Rosso has elegance, while at the same time showing all the extract and strength of a mountain wine. It’s my favourite wine to just drink.’

Mike Martini is a generous guy. In addition to his own Louis M Martini wines, he sells Monte Rosso grapes to Sbragia and 11 other brands that make Monte Rosso-designated bottlings. (There was a total of 14, except that Ravenswood, a longtime producer of Monte Rosso Zinfandel, lost its contract after E&J Gallo of Modesto purchased Louis M Martini Winery in 2002; Ravenswood is owned by Gallo’s biggest competitor, Constellation Brands.)

‘Everything that is different in these wines is style,’ Martini says as he surveys a table full of Monte Rosso Cabernets, Zinfandels and Syrahs produced by the likes of Arrowood Vineyards & Winery, Charter Oak Winery, Robert Biale Vineyards, Rosenblum Cellars, Stryker Sonoma, Watkins Family Winery and Gallo stablemate Rancho Zabaco. ‘Everything that is the same is terroir.’

By now, the hypothetical busload of visitors to Monte Rosso should come away with some notion that soils, elevation, climate, exposure, history and people have a huge impact on the character of the wine in the bottle.

Monte Rosso is one of America’s great vineyards, first growth in status and making a powerful statement that terroir is important in California winemaking. Let’s hope more wine drinkers can make sense of that.

Linda Murphy is the former wine editor of The San Francisco Chronicle.

What Linda’s Been Drinking this Month

Washington State Reds

When I taste reds from Washington, I ask, ‘Why don’t I drink more of these?’. They have New World ripeness, yet the fruit is pure and defined, not warm and jammy. Bracing acidity comes naturally from the Columbia Valley’s northerly latitude. Prices are very fair compared with California wines of similar quality.

I love DeLille Cellars’ D2 2003 Columbia Valley Bordeaux blend ($35, US markets) for its plump fruit. More French in style is the Pepper Bridge 2003 Merlot from Walla Walla ($45), rich and polished. Columbia Winery’s 2004 Columbia Valley Syrah ($15) is great value.

Written by Linda Murphy