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Friday, July 19, 2013

Everything Matters When Considering Terroir

I’m going to write some things in this blog post that may bother some of you.  But before you get angry with me for all the wrong reasons, I’d like you to think about why it makes sense.

I suppose I should start by asking if you’d order a salad for dinner at a renowned steakhouse, or chicken parmigiana at a sushi restaurant, or expect a diet coke or a beer at Starbucks - no, right?  Those things would make no sense.  Why would they make no sense?  Such options would be completely out of place.

Ok, now think of it this way - would you expect a Zinfandel to be produced in Mosel?  What about Albarino in Bordeaux?  Or Riesling in Rioja?  Or Blaufrankisch in Mendoza?

Would you blend Pinot Noir and Tannat?  Malbec and Gamay?  Falanghina and Gewurztraminer?

Do you want to know why I didn’t think so?  Because they don’t match.

Look at a basic Bordeaux blend, or a Loire or Alsace white blend, or a “GSM” from Rhone.  How about Super Tuscans?  Meritage?  The blends make sense.  The grapes are grown in regions that are known for those grapes.  But why are Merlot and Cabernet planted in Bordeaux and not in Rheingau?  Why is Sangiovese planted in Tuscany and not in Rias Baixas?  I’ll tell you why.

There’s this concept known as terroir.  It’s a concept labeled by the French, and in some cases, understood and respected by others around the world.  It’s something we believe encompasses the climate and soil and the wine’s overall “place of being” - and terroir plays an important role in the wine.  This is because certain grapes are suited to grow in certain climates and their vines are suited for certain soil types.  Sure, some of them can be pretty versatile, but after centuries, and in some cases millennia, winemakers around the world have been learning which grapes should grow where, and have perfected their craft, and this is what gives each wine producing region its characteristics best associated with their grapes, soil, and climate.

Maybe some regions are too warm to grow particular grapes.  Maybe some are too damp.  Maybe the soil is too rocky or dry for certain vines, but not for others.

But when you taste a wine, it’s that story it tells, that makes it what it is.  What’s its story?  Where’s it from, what grapes were used, what was the weather that year, what’s the soil like?  When tasting, some of those questions can be answered by allowing the wine to tell its own story.

And what happens if the wrong grapes are grown in a region?  Well, the wine won’t be the best possible representation of that grape type.  And it certainly won’t be a proper representation of what we expect from that growing region.

And think of this - what if grapes that have nothing to do with each other are suddenly blended together?  Believe me, the result can be quite awful.  Without mentioning any names, I tasted a few years ago a white blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Pinot Grigio, Riesling, and Gewurztraminer - at least I’m pretty sure that was the blend.  It was among the worst white blends I’ve ever tasted.  And my friend who was with me that evening, who is not in the wine industry and at the time had very little experience, was also very disappointed (read: repulsed) by the wine.

It was at that moment that I explained to someone for the first time why grapes from Bordeaux, Chardonnay, Loire, Rhone, and Alsace probably shouldn’t all be used in the same blend.  Why? she asked - well, they don’t really match.  It’s something that I’m guessing wouldn’t happen very often in the Old World wine regions.  See, the people who produce wine in the Old World regions have learned through generations upon generations of labor and research and dedication that some things work well together and some things don’t.  As James May (see Oz & James’ Big Wine Adventure) would call it - it’s a “wine fact” - and it certainly makes sense to me.

I wouldn’t feel comfortable challenging ancient winemaking rituals and beliefs.  Especially when they’re tried and true.

What I’m saying is - if you see wine grapes from France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, Hungary, etc., all being grown within a few miles of each other, in the same wine region - I think you should be at least a bit suspicious.  Think of it this way - those Old World regions aren’t even divided into countries - they’re divided into regions inside of each country, and each region is divided into subregions, communes, and it even matters which vineyard on a property has been the location for the grapes in question.  It really is that specific, and if you don’t believe me, read up on a place like Burgundy.  It really does matter how the soil drains on that side of the property, or which direction the sunlight comes from, or where breezes come from.  Everything matters when considering terroir.  Don’t take my word for it - take it from the people who have been producing the best wines in the world for centuries.

My advice - if you want a good example of a particular grape, buy from the region where the grape originates.  Odds are, the wine will show best and will be able to tell its story.  You’ll get a better idea of its identity as it was intended.  And you might (read: probably) even pay less than for its counterpart from a place where it shouldn’t be produced.  And another bit of advice is to read up a little on important, major wine producing regions and find out which grapes should be blended together - like Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre or Cabernet/Merlot.  If you see a blend that doesn’t line up with very basic guidelines for grapes that work well together, you might think twice about buying that blend.

I’m not saying that a Riesling vine will shrivel up and die immediately in Rhone, or that Durif won’t survive a day in Burgundy, but it won’t be a proper example of what it is.  Don’t ask the sushi chef for rigatoni alla vodka.  Don’t ask the fish monger for cannoli.  You know why - no one has to tell you.  Do yourself a favor before investing in a wine for the wrong reasons - the right reasons to buy a wine include enjoying it, pairing it with the right dish, and experiencing the grapes from the regions where they grow best.  Read up a bit on traditional wine grapes and their regions.  Don’t just buy wine produced at that place up the road because it’s that place up the road.  Buy what’s good, because you’ll enjoy it.  Understand what you’re drinking and let the wine speak to you.

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