I just read a very well written article by Erika Szymanski that was posted on Palate Press. It is of course about terroir. Now I’m reasonably sure when the French came up with this word, they were not interested in the scientific breakdown for the meaning of terroir. Those damn scientists…They’re always nosing around in anything to do with the earth or plants. Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of science and all it has done to improve our lives. However, when it comes to wine I lean towards the romantic, mystical side of things.

It is probably incorrect to say the French came up with the word terroir. It is actually derived from the medieval Latin word terratorium which basically is translated “land”. Now the French of course took the word to a different level by applying it to different areas of grape cultivation. They developed Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC) which has become the model for the appellation system all over the globe. The French feel strongly that the place from which the grapes are grown (the land) strongly influences the character of the wines.

However, what was once a firmly held truism has been analyzed and re-analyzed by scientists and doubters. Scientists of course, just want to determine if they can find solid evidence that the fruit transfers qualities from the dirt from which it is grown into the final product of the wine. There are also wine writers (a few were mentioned in Erika’s article) that argue against the idea of terroir and its effect on a wine, not to mention (and this is rare), some wine makers.

I understand the position of the scientist. It is their nature to be inquisitive, and the jury is still out for a lot of them about the affects of the soil on the fruit of the vine and finally on the wine. It is the wine writer that I find suspect. Why do they doubt the concept of the earth affecting the wine? This is one of my theories.
I believe that there are wine writers out there that fear the term “terroir“. What do I mean? One of the most difficult things to do as a wine critic or anyone for that matter, is to try to determine where a wine came from or what varietal it is in a blind format. There are not a whole lot of wine folks out there that can do it accurately on a consistent basis. I know that I can’t.

I believe that the doubters, are merely wine writers who do not want to admit that they cannot determine the differences in terroir, because they do not possess the ability to do it. Some of the writers that Erika mentioned don’t even believe in extensive tasting notes. It makes me wonder if they have difficulty identifying different elements in a wine. I of course cannot confirm any of these conclusions, but it certainly gives room for thought.

Why do apples from New Zealand taste so much better (in my opinion) then apples from Washington State? Why are coffee beans from central America or Hawaii more sought after then other sources? The answer is quite simple…The land from which they come, and the climate affects the quality of the product. The same is true of grapes. Just think about it. Wine makers (most that is) will swear on their mother’s grave that the Pinot Noir grape can only achieve it’s fullest potential in the land of Burgundy, with Oregon coming in a close second. Why? The dirt and environment from which it is nurtured.

Other examples abound. Syrah for instance, thrives in both Northern Rhone and Southern Rhone, as well as Washington State. Some areas of California achieve better results with syrah then others. Merlot is another classic example. Merlot grown on the right bank of Bordeaux is the stuff of legend… Think ’47 Petrus. Washington State is also known for producing some outstanding wines from this varietal. That being said, the central coast appellation in California should never even attempt to grow and produce wines from the Merlot grape. Why? They are insipid, lack complexity, and are one of the reasons Merlot has received such a bum rap (besides the movie) over the last fifteen years.

I was interviewing a wine maker for my blog a couple of weeks ago, and we talked a bit about terroir. He stated quite simply that there is a reason that wine makers seek out certain appellations and vineyards within those appellations. The fruit is better! He said that he recently sourced fruit from a different appellation in Washington and has noticed a marked improvement in the quality of his wines. Hmm…Dare we say it’s the dirt?

The real problem with identifying the uniqueness of different appellations falls squarely on the wine maker. Why do I say that? Example: Let’s say it is a stellar harvest year in appellation A. Everything about the fruit is right, great concentration with good acidity and ph levels. Now, what does the wine maker do with the fruit? Wine maker B takes the fruit from appellation A and uses 100% new oak (maybe more, because “hey”, the fruit can handle it), adds yeast strains designed to give the wine certain flavor profiles and then uses a touch of micro-oxygenation to ensure a creamy texture. I could actually go on and on with the various techniques used to manipulate a wine, but I will spare you the details. The end result is a wine with so much make-up that if it were your daughter, you may have a hard time recognizing her. Bam! Just like that, terroir is stripped from the wine.

The other thing (and there is nothing wrong with this) that can effect the identity of terroir, is sourcing fruit from many sub-appellations within a much larger appellation, and blending them all together in the wine. A classic example of this is the massive appellation Columbia Valley in Washington State. Many wineries will put Columbia Valley as the appellation for the wine on their label. They may have sourced fruit from Horse Heaven Hills, Yakima Valley, Rattlesnake Ridge and Wahluke Slope. Although fermented and barrel aged separately, in the end they will blend them together to come up with the desired wine. From this example, it is obvious that a unique terrior could not be identified in these wines.

So from a purely non-scientific approach, there are definite reasons why certain wines do not have terroir definition whether it’s make-up or the blending of many appellations together. I say non-scientific, because I did not come to these conclusions in a lab environment…It’s my opinion based on observations I have made. However, I am convinced that the dirt matters, and the examples given above seem to support that conclusion. If I were to taste in a blind format a line-up of Chardonnay, I would hope that my palate could discern a Chablis from a Napa Valley version.

I like the idea of dirt having an influence on the grapes and in the end on the wine. I love wines that are made from the grapes of the Red Mountain appellation in Washington State. I love Chardonnay from Chablis, I love Pinot Noir from Burgundy and I love Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand and Sancerre. I love talking about their uniqueness and the terrior from which they come. I don’t care if I can pick them out in a blind format, but I love the challenge of trying. Wine is magical and many times mysterious. It has a life of it’s own and in each bottle there is a story. Dirt has a lot to do with that story, and even though the debate rages on, I will continue to defend terrior and it’s influence on wine. Cheers!

About Stan The Wine Man

I am a blue collar wine guy who has been in the biz for over twenty years. I work at a store in a tourist destination stop. I work hard at finding the best wine for the money. I love the challenge of learning my customer's palate so I can find the best wine for them, whether it is Petrus or white zinfandel. Cheers!
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