Terroir – Webster Dictionary Definition:
“The combination of factors including soil, climate, and sunlight that gives wine grapes their distinctive character.”
What a simplistic explanation! Does “soil” include proper drainage, or the angle of the grade? Does “climate” include the daily temperature variation? Does “sunlight” include the degree of latitude? All of this and much more make up the definition of Terroir. I can think of other related factors: the altitude of the vineyard, are the vineyards terraced, is the vineyard in full sunlight, or shaded at times, etc…
Is Terroir a Real Concept?
“Terroir” has been one of the most misunderstood and controversial concepts in the wine industry, since vineyards began popping up all over the New World. It has been a critical part of the tradition of European winemaking from it’s very beginnings. European wines have always been more about “Place”, than Varietal. New World skeptics continually site the lack of scientific data that supports the chemical impact of soil composition on flavors developed in wine grapes… completely absurd! Whether, or not the chemistry supports it, your palate can taste it. Most contrary opinions point to the soil component, when Terroir is actually so much more. Soil is just a small piece of the vineyard conditions that impact the character of wine.
A Personal Connection to Terroir
I usually recall most wines by either vineyard, or winery location, or the underlying experience, rather than the flavor. I prefer wines aged in neutral oak, rather than new oak, so the fruit can express itself fully. When I taste acidity, I see morning fog in the vineyards. When I taste savory flavors, I think cooler climate. When I taste concentration, I think small berries and making the vines work hard to ripen… There is more to the impact of Terroir, than just added minerality. Sometimes, when I sit alone enjoying a well made wine, I try to visualize the vineyard from the character of the wine. Focusing on “Place” can truly enhance your enjoyment of wine, if you embrace the idea.
Why Does Terroir Matter?
UC – Davis has added so much to the world of wine in the last decade and it is exactly that influence that has swung the pendulum too far. A scientific approach to wine can foster a dependence on chemistry alone in making decisions impacting the final product. I have been looking at this issue for many years now and have come to the conclusion: the making of wine is definitely equal parts science and art. Two prominent winemakers I interviewed this year (Kathleen Inman and Todd Anderson) embrace this kind of thinking. Their ideas are interesting and worth sharing, because they focus winemaking on the result (not the process). This winemaking strategy requires starting with a vision, even before bud-break. In my experience, this alternative view is more likely to produce balanced and structured wines with a textural component. That last piece is too often missing from wines today.
So, where does this topic fit into the idea of Terroir? Very simple… a poor understanding of the fruit and its influences will cause poor winemaking decisions. Winemakers cannot express the art in their craft, without an understanding of the Terroir that has produced the fruit. I will take this even one step further… Terroir is not a fixed concept. Vintage variation from year-over-year of climate change can influence the sense of “Place” that wine brings. If these ideas are starting to connect, you will realize vintage variation is NOT such a bad thing. It just ties you closer to “Place”. When a winemaker works with climate variation (instead of fighting it), some years the wines are silky instead of velvetty, lighter instead of heavier bodied, or have soft instead of chewy tannins. Personally, I enjoy most wine styles and can really appreciate that diversity, often coming from the same vineyard each year.
Are We All Tired of This Discussion?
Everyone associated with wine in any way has probably had this discussion at one time, or another… and is probably tired of the topic. Please don’t lose your patience, it is much more important than you may realize. It could even hold the key to introducing an appreciation of premium wines to the average consumer. If my introduction to wine was any indication, I was appreciating Terroir long before I even knew the word. I enjoyed wine country vacations for many years, before I understood what I was drinking.
Humor me for a second… visualize:
- sitting in a rocking chair at sunset
- on a porch overlooking row upon row of vineyard
- enjoying a glass of wine
It just sort of warms the soul! I think there are more consumers that would connect with this experience than the industry realizes.
Now stop and ask yourself:
- Did you choose a location for that view?
- Did a specific wine, or style come to mind?
Wine can enrich life, but you must choose the path and open your mind… a few other people through history agree with me:
“If you have to ask if it’s too early to drink wine, you’re an amateur and we can’t be friends.” – Anonymous
- I will have to use this one next time I visit Napa…
“Good company, good wine, good welcome, can make good people.” – Shakespeare
“Wine is more than a beverage, it’s a lifestyle.” – Anonymous
“Wine to me is passion. It’s family and friends. It’s warmth of heart and generosity of spirit. Wine is art. It’s culture. It is the essence of civilization and the art of living.” – Robert Mondavi
- This is a great quote. He was able to put into words the affect wine had on his life.
“Great wine requires a madman to grow the vine, a wise man to watch over it, a lucid poet to make it, and a lover to drink it.” – Salvador Dali
“Wine is sure proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” – Benjamin Franklin