One of the first questions that anyone looking to explore wine beyond a casual glass at a cocktail party will ask is, “what is terroir?” and “does it really matter?” Now there are entire books devoted to this subject, and there are people on both sides of the argument but the short answers are “terroir is everything” and “maybe, maybe not.” Sounds a bit confusing, no?
Let’s start at the beginning:
Terroir is a French word which does not have a direct translation into English. In short, terroir encompasses everything that affects how a vine grows, produces fruit, hibernates and repeats this annual cycle.
Primarily, it’s the soil and the sun; these two factors have the greatest impact on the ripeness and the success of the vine’s fruit. Beyond soil and sun it’s about the other aspects of the vineyard, the altitude, the weather patterns, the underground water, the wind, the microbiotics in and around the vineyard, the indigenous yeasts… you see, it really picks up everything in such a short little word. And of course, tradition.
Soil & Sun:
Let me explain. In Chablis, the kimmeridgian clay, replete with fossilized oyster shells and limestone, and the marginal climate, provides the right conditions for grapes that are high in acidity and express the minerality, and this is why Chardonnay grown here is less fruity than grapes from other climates and soil types. In Pomerol the iron rich soils, or crasse de fer, retain moisture while being tempered by the Atlantic Ocean about 50 miles to the west, which allows for sturdy, structured Merlot that make some of the most collectible and expensive wines on the planet (hello, Petrus!)
Certainly imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and there are winemakers (primarily in the New World) that want to replicate the style and success of the prestigious, terroir-driven regions (Old World), however many of these regions were slowly evolved over hundreds, if not thousands of years, with vineyards being planted and pulled up after decades of harvests. That’s not a terribly great proposition for modern-day wineries and investors, so it’s been a bit more of a “throwing darts” philosophy in places like the US, Australia, Argentina, and Chile. Even 150 years in, these regions are just getting started compared to the European model. Also, these newer countries entered the marketplace quickly and tended to emphasize volume first, quality second.
Now that many countries are maturing in their wine production business, they are turning their focus to where the grapes are grown. More studies are being done to look for limestone soils similar to that of Burgundy and Chablis and similar climate conditions. Regions like Carneros Sonoma Coast and Chalone in California are leading the pack. Check our our Schug Pinot Noir and the Carneros Chardonnay as a great examples!
Chardonnay - Schug, Sonoma (Carneros)
A wine that is both rich and powerful, while refreshing and elegant on the finish. It has a ripe, spicy tropical bouquet with flavors that suggest citrus, pear and spiced apples. Well-balanced acidity gives it a crisp, clean finish, making it an excellent wine with food.
Cabernet Sauvignon does well in the warmer, gravelly soils of Pauillac and St-Estephe in Bordeaux, so regions like Howell Mountain, Rutherford and Red Mountain with warmer climate and well-drained soils are competing for some of the best wines produced in the United States. Hedges Family Estate from Red Mountain is one of the pioneers and we’re excited to have them on board! Also check out Round Pond’s Kith and Kin!
Cabernet Sauvignon - Round Pond, Kith and Kin, Napa (Rutherford)
Beautifully balanced, this Cabernet Sauvignon makes its intentions known with aromas of fresh red berries, complemented by subtle leather, floral notes, and sweet French oak. The sweet supple entry teases the mouth with bing cherry, plum, and rhubarb. Adding complexity, the palate rounds out into a creamy cherry pie a la mode with notes of violets, thyme, and nutmeg. A lingering full finish pleases the end palate, balanced by fresh acidity and earthy notes with caramel and cocoa.
Merlot is a fan of somewhat wetter soils and a cooler climate than Cabernet, thriving in places like Sonoma County and Maule Valley in Chile. The Clos Pegase Merlot is a great example.
Merlot - Clos Pegase, Napa Valley (Los Carneros)
Mitsuko’s Vineyard Merlot is an exotic and complex wine possessing aromas of blackberry liqueur, cherry pie and wild violets enhanced by nuances of fresh pipe tobacco, incense, cinnamon spice and slate. The wine fills the mouth with broad and complex fruit flavors counterbalanced by a round structure, substantial mid-palate volume and a lengthy mineral-driven finish.
It will continue to be an evolution as the wine industry keeps learning more and more about the longer-term tendencies of wine regions and vineyards, but for now, while it might be a bit confusing on the surface, it’s a great time to explore as many different terroirs as possible and see for yourself what makes a wine region so special!