‘Terroir’- The Most Important Word in Wine
The French word terroir has no direct translation in English, but I am going to try. Terroir is the amalgam of soil, slope, the aspect of the slope, climate, wind direction, humidity, and drainage that produces the true character of a wine. This also includes the effects that the people that live on the land create. In Burgundy, terroir is treated like a religion, a connectivity with the land that produces no less than a direct conversation with God (and really great wine). It is not my intention to promote the French way of wine making, but instead to promote an ideology by which wine should be produced.
One of my favorite lines in the world of wine is the French saying, "the grape is a voice through which the land speaks." Take Cabernet Sauvignon for example. This grape is produced throughout the world. A sturdy vine equipped to handle a plethora of climactic conditions; cabernet sauvignon thrives in almost all wine producing regions throughout the world. It thrives in old world regions, like Bordeaux and Navarra, as well as new world regions such as Napa Valley and Argentina. The same grape in different regions produces totally different wines. This is the result of terroir. The soil, the climate, the slope of the land, as well as the people that cultivate it all contribute to the complexities of the final product.
There are two basic theories in winemaking. One says that average fruit and mass produced grapes can be converted into great wine by using technology in the winery. The other says that reducing the damage to the purity of great grapes by doing as little to it as possible during the vinicultural, or winemaking processes produces great wine. The former puts emphases on the winemaker’s ability to alter the grape’s state into a polished and drinkable wine, whereas the latter emphasizes the farmer’s ability to produce a great fruit. In France there is no word for winemaker, instead they use the modest term "vigneron", which simply means grape grower.
The true beauty of a wine is in its ability to express the land from which it grows. In the Priorat region of Spain, wine is grown on rocky, craggy, and rough terrain. The vines of Priorat are said to have the ability to suck water out of stone. As a result the wines are big, tannic, and sometimes abrasive. The wines of the Rhone Valley in France are subject to the mistral, a Mediterranean wind that can blow up to 90 mph. As a result these wines have structure, backbone, elegance, and finesse that no other wines share. As consumers, we should seek out wines that are challenging and unusual. We should expect our wines to express the land from which they hail. In a world where everything is mass-produced and hermetically sealed for service, maybe we can find some terrior within our wines.
Zev Rovine is the sommelier and resident cheese monger at the Spotted Frog Bookstore Cafe and Wine Bar where he teaches weekly wine classes. His wine education comes from the American Sommelier Association in NYC and he tries his very best not to spill the Pinot on the bestseller section. If you have any wine queeries or comments he is easily contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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