Sommelier columnists talks ‘Terroir’
June 9, 2007
Terroir is the wine industry’s biggest catchword. It is also the most frequently misunderstood and therefore the most controversial. Terroir is basically the combination of a piece of land’s climatic conditions, its aspect, its soil composition, and all of the other natural factors that contribute to its ability to grow vines and the grapes they produce.
The controversy lies in the extent to which these elements affect the final result of the wine. The terroirists believe that a wine’s intrinsic quality is limited by the quality of its terroir and the distinction of character is defined by it, whereas the opposing point of view states that a wine’s quality is based largely what happens during production. The reality is that both are true. It is this wine guy’s opinion that a winemaker’s primary job is to preserve the character of terroir to the best of his or her ability.
I guess that the first question in reference to this quandary is, what makes a great wine? A good wine is one that has balance between its basic components. The tannins in a red wine are not harsh — there is essentially no bitter flavor. The wine is intense both on the nose and on the palate, and the finish is ling and develops into an array of flavors that one wouldn’t expect. A great wine shares these attributes, but also has a character and distinction that is unique due to a reflection of terroir. Without the second quality a wine is merely a well-made product; it lacks the romance and magic that makes us want to taste through the wines of the world.
Burgundy is the region that is most frequently related to the concept of terroir. This is so for a few reasons. First, wines are first named by their appellation. That is, Burgundy is broken up into smaller regions by which the wines are named and thus gives the impression that a wine with the spicy and deep character of typical Nuits St. George wines could only be made in the area defined by Nuits St. Georges. This is only partially true. Wines in Nuits St. George are made differently than any other appellation in Burgundy. They often use barrels that are toasted more heavily than other regions of Burgundy and the variance of quality from producer to producer is huge. Therefore it is true that even in Burgundy, character is hugely affected by the actions of the winemaker. Alternatively, in the case of Louis Jadot, Burgundy’s largest negociant who makes wine in dozens of Burgundy appellations using similar winemaking techniques throughout them produces wines of greatly varying character. It is therefore evident that terroir does indeed effect the style and character of a wine.
Great terroir is a very delicate tool and the achievement of the use of this tool is a very difficult task. A wine that expresses this character must come from grapes that are produced as naturally as possible without the use of chemicals in the vineyard. In the winery the process must be as hands-off as possible. Sulfites should be used as sparingly as possible, fining and filtering must not be employed, and the winemaker must go to every length to let the wine make itself. In Domaine de la Romanée Conti’s vineyard Romanée-Conti, horse-and-buggy is used to prevent any pollution from a tractor affecting the quality of the grapes. I guess that one of the big drawbacks of terroir is that it’ll cost you.
Drink well, be merry.
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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 N.Y.C. and he tries his very best not to spill the Pinot on the bestseller section. If you have any wine queries or comments he is easily contacted via e-mail at email@example.com .