Terroir: Huh?

Terroir: A word often bandied about in the wine world to define something that is actually rather difficult to define. I must admit for a long time the term possessed only a vague conceptual meaning to me formed through viticultural writings, mainly from France, but from California, as well. Terroir is generally defined as the sum total of all the natural features of a site – topography, geology, soil depth and type, general climate, and microclimate – that impart a distinctiveness to the wine by influencing the grapevine’s growth and physiological capability to ripen grapes. I understood the concept in an “academic” sense but had not seen any evidence to this phenomenon or had much direct experience in understanding what it actually meant until I worked a harvest in Burgundy. Prior to working in Burgundy, I spent several vintages at various wineries in the Napa Valley and Australia and studied winemaking and grape-growing in Bordeaux. It was becoming evident to me that the general climate and the soil largely influenced the quality of the wine made from the grapes grown in these different areas. I could also see how the different slopes, aspects, and soil layers within a particular vineyard influenced how vines grow and thought that this was the meaning of terroir.

In Burgundy, I worked at a wonderful producer in the Côte-de-Nuits, Domaine Jean Gros in the tiny village of Vosne-Romanée; a place so small that it didn’t have its own grocery store, not even a boulangerie, mon dieu! Instead, a mobile meat and produce market in the form of a flat, panel-sided van rolled through the village once a week selling its wares. Vosne Romanée did, however, have a tabac where you could procure that essential French staple: cigarettes. It also sold a few very old, yellowed, and much handled postcards of the local domaines and places of historical interest like Clos de Vougeot. I wasn’t very interested in buying the postcards-or cigarettes-but I did happen to find on the same rack a map of the region which included all of the vineyards.

Before the actual harvest began at Domaine Jean Gros, I prepared the winery equipment for the onslaught of grapes. This left me a little free time during the day to study the map and tool around on a borrowed tank of a Dutch bicycle in search of the revered vineyards of the Côte d’Or. I was familiar with the vineyards and wines of Domaine Jean Gros: Vosne-Romanée; Clos de Vougeot; Chambolle-Musigny; Echézeaux; Grands-Echézeaux; and Richebourg, and I was able to taste the differences among each of the vineyards from this Domaine. So, one morning I ventured out and visited Domaine Haegelen-Jayer to taste wines from his vineyard holdings of Vosne-Romanée, Clos de Vougeot, and Echézeaux. Later that day I found myself at Domaine Confuron-Cotétidot, discussing with Jean-Pierre such winemaking topics as the extreme methods and ideas of the famed enologist Guy Accad and the soil chemistry of his vineyards. We tasted his Echézeaux and I thought to myself as I smelled the wine, “This reminds me of the Echézeaux I tasted at Haegelen-Jayer earlier today. And, wow, it has the same perfume of Jean Gros’s Echézeaux.”

Suddenly, the proverbial light bulb went off in my head. These wines share the same terroir and though made by different winemakers, reveal a common profile that makes them distinctly Echézeaux. Terroir also makes them different from wines made from other vineyards, even from adjacent plots. Suddenly the meaning of terroir evolved from an academic understanding to a visceral one. This mini-epiphany was a great joy to me. But, of course, I couldn’t very well shout, “Eureka!!!” and dance in the streets as if I had discovered something new. Actually, I just finally understood something very old and already very well known among certain people, like figuring out the Rubik’s cube (something I never did) or finally getting that pun someone told you years ago.

I think about the concept of terroir in relation to our own vineyard and realize that we are at the very beginning of a long time line in discovering how our terroir defines our wines. We already see that our cool climate and our low nutrient soils are quite suitable for growing high quality Pinot noir, for example. But just how this locality expresses its distinct signature on our wines; we are only beginning to gather information.

I can already identify characteristics that are consistent from certain blocks from vintage to vintage. And I can see how they differ from the wines that I make for a neighbor, David Hirsch. It is interesting to see how the different terroir express themselves in the wines, even when the clones are the same and the wine is made by the same winemaker. Or even more interesting, how the same terroir expresses itself similarly in wines made by winemakers who buy our fruit even when the clones are different. These discoveries are what keep me fascinated with winemaking. I feel that it is my job to bring out the signature taste and flavors that link the wine to its terroir. To bring out the wine’s expression of its sense of place; its gôut de terroir!

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