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Terroir Strikes Deep


One of the most difficult bits of wine terminology is terroir . Literally, it's just the French word for soil , but the full sense of the word is far more complicated than that. It means (1) particular flavor elements in wine due to specific soils and climates, and (2) the resulting character you expect in the wine of a given region.

The concept of terroir (pronounced tare-WAHR) is well understood in Europe, where the best wines are not named for the grape variety, as in California, but for where the grapes were grown. Wine lovers know that two fine wines, made the same way and from the same grape variety but using grapes from different soils, may be totally unlike each other. We know, for example, that a Burgundy from the village of Volnay will be a lighter wine than one from Corton, though both are Pinot Noirs. Generally, the smaller the region, the more precise our expectations about the wine it produces.

Another example is the Sauvignon Blanc grape, which has a grassy, new-mown-hay sort of aroma in the Dry Creek Valley of Sonoma County, but more of a scent of green olives and green peppers when the grape is grown in the Santa Ynez Valley. In the Alexander Valley, its aroma reminds you more of green melons than of green grass. In the Russian River Valley, the grape exhibits both the olive and the hay scents, plus traces not only of melon but of grapefruit.

Sauvignon Blanc reaches its most intense character in the Marlborough region near the northern tip of the South Island of New Zealand, where the green aroma can be like fresh asparagus or Brussel sprouts, but with a pear-like fruit quality in good vintages.

The question of terroir 's meaning was the subject of two debates I witnessed over the last month. The most heated came at the International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville, Ore., where a panel of experts debated the question "somewhereness or someoneness?"

The latter term acknowledged the fact that these days "someones"--that is, winemakers--can make radical changes in the grape juice they have to work with and craft any sort of wine desired, thereby obviating any elements of terroir.

But science has brought radical change to the concept of terroir. Today man's meddling with nature has altered what terroir would give us if the vine and the wine were left unattended. As an example of science's impact, take Monterey County. Once the only Sauvignon Blanc that could be made from Monterey County fruit was so laden with green, stemmy, weedy character it was described in terms such as cooked asparagus, green beans, moldy green pepper and so forth. Not very attractive.

But modern vine trellising systems (in particular those developed by Richard Smart of New Zealand) have given man tools to root out the green, vegetative smells in Sauvignon Blanc, to tame the savage nature of the green aroma, and to permit the making of a more elegant wine.

This development, among others, has turned some marginal growing regions into successful ones--though the terroir of the region is now a product of man, not the soil and climate. One grower uses a trellising system to accent the citrus in his grapes. Another likes more of the olive quality, so he uses a different growing regimen.

It is for this reason that some wine experts now define terroir to mean not only the natural background of soil and weather but the viticultural procedures that develop certain character traits.

Moreover, many winemakers craft wines in their own image. They are using fermentation and aging regimens that further distance the grape from the soil. The current practice of roasting French oak barrels makes for wine with a character far different from oak aging a couple of decades back, when more neutral-flavored barrels were used.

At a wine conference two weeks ago in Seattle, French chateau owner Denis Dubourdieu (Clos Floridene in Graves) summed up modern winemaking's tinkering with the essential terroir- given flavors in fine wine.

Decrying the use of techniques that add "complexity" to Sauvignon Blanc but that rob the wine of its essential character, he said: "That's like cutting off one of the legs of the horse to fit it into the van."

But it was at the Pinot Noir conference that the issue was explored in most depth. Wine importer Dan Kravitz, a believer in terroir , began the Oregon debate by harking back to the presidential race: "It's the soil, stupid." He said the wines from Gevrey-Chambertin in Burgundy come from loose brown dirt and the wines of adjacent Chambertin-Clos de Beze come from hard-packed white soil, and even though the spots are nearly identical in many respects, the wines are hugely different.

Bobby Kacher, another wine importer, took up the challenge: "I can't believe anyone sitting here would believe that soil makes wine. Soil grows fruit. The winemaker makes wine. The element of man is underrated here."

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