terroir: your wine’s sense of place

Let’s take some time to talk terroir.  This is a French term with no direct English translation, although it derives from the word for land.  At its core, terroir speaks to the essence of a place where wine grapes are grown.  That essence is broken down into numerous distinguishable features including geographical location, features of the terrain, soil, climate; it even carries over into the unique viticultural approach to growing grapes.  Experienced wine tasters generally speak of a wine’s ability to communicate the characteristics of its place of origin by how well it captures that location’s terroir.  I think the idea can be taken a step further.  I think terroir is perceived uniquely and subjectively by wine drinkers, regardless of their knowledge of wine, as it evokes images and feelings related to its place of origin.  A person who loves reds from Spain’s Rioja region may not be able to describe the complexities of the wine’s taste and smell and relate them to a specific growing region, but they may love how those unique qualities consistently remind them of a summer spent in Madrid.  To me, that person has an appreciation of Rioja’s terroir, whether they know it or not.

Wine-producing regions around the world tend to have rules/laws that govern the extent to which a wine can claim a specific origin.  In France, certain regions can put only certain varietals into bottles labeled with that region’s name.  A French red wine from the Northern Rhone Valley may only contain Syrah, while a Southern Rhone may contain Syrah and only a few others, notably Grenache and Mourvedre.  A red from Bordeaux (aka “claret” in the UK) is likely anchored in Cabernet Sauvignon, mixed with one or several of the other five varietals permitted to be bottled as Bordeaux, notably Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc.

The United States has American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), which designate the appellation of origin.  These are designated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau within the US Department of the Treasury.  AVAs do not restrict which grapes may be bottled under which appellation, but they do ensure that the consumer knows the origin of the grapes that went into his or her glass – at least 85% of the wine in the bottle must have come from the appellation on the label.  Some AVAs are states themselves (California, Washington), and some are quite small (one can drive from the southern boundary to the northern boundary of Oakville in a couple of minutes).  AVAs are distinguished by specific characteristics – think elevation changes/weather patterns/types of soil/geographic features – that create microclimates.  The same varietal made of grapes from different AVAs will exhibit different, if not often subtle, qualities.  AVAs help the consumer track down a silky, elegant Pinot Noir from the suitably cool climate of the Russian River Valley, where the Pacific fog rolling through the Petaluma Wind Gap keeps temperatures in check.  The Stags Leap rock outcropping pictured below captures and retains the sun’s heat throughout the day, and radiates that heat throughout the night to keep nearby temperatures, and vineyards, slightly warmer.  This helps ripen the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes that create the famous wines of the Stags Leap District AVA of the Napa Valley.

Stags Leap outcropping - photo by brian smith

As Kate and I have spent more time in California’s wine country, we have come to appreciate the terroir of the Rutherford AVA in Napa Valley.  These 6,650 acres offer stunning landscapes, sweeping views of the valley floor, artistic and historic landmarks, and culinary delights that make this gem a place to visit over and over.  The list of Rutherford wineries is a roll-call of famous names that helped place, and maintains, California wine on the world stage: Beaulieu Vineyards, Caymus, Inglenook (known today as Rubicon Estate), Quintessa, Hall, Honig, Grgich Hills, Cakebread.

I encourage wine drinkers who are interested in taking their knowledge to the next level to consider the places where their favorite wines originate.  You can replace your abstract notion of origin by learning about the area’s history, geography, and climate, looking at pictures, and hopefully making it there in person.  I’ve never felt so in touch with a vineyard’s terroir as when I’m walking past the vines sipping on the wine they produced.  That experience goes beyond currant, blackberries, vanilla, and oak; it is a melding of earth and sky, a recognition that nature crafted my favorite wine on this very spot.  Once you feel that connection to a place’s terroir, you will open an entirely new dimension on your enjoyment of wine.

I’ll leave you with several pictures Kate and I have taken in Rutherford.  As usual, the pictures don’t quite do justice to the real thing.  But they are a wonderful reminder of the beauty of the place that produces so many outstanding wines.

historic Inglenook Estate

organic farming at Frog's Leap

row of vines at Grgich Hills

Rubicon Estate vineyard



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