In the world of wine, there’s a lot of mystique surrounding the concept of terroir, which refers to the way environmental factors alter the character of a wine. It’s one of those concepts so imbued with romance and a vague sense of impenetrable mystery that a plain old English word for it just won’t do. For a job like this we English speakers usually demand something in French (flaneur, ennui, etc.). This is another way of saying that in the world of wine a lot of people talk about terroir who don’t actually know what the hell they’re talking about.
Thus, when I had the opportunity to get an explanation of one aspect of terroir simple enough for me to understand but rooted enough in actual science that it doesn’t evoke visions of some New Age starlet prattling on about power crystals, I jumped at the opportunity.
Hal Landvoigt is director of winemaking at Seattle-based Precept Wines, one of the largest wine producers in America with operations centered primarily in the Pacific Northwest. Precept is a private label wine producer for the discount grocery chain Aldi, where 95% of their wines are priced under $10, which nicely sums up what Precept Wines is all about—good, user-friendly wine made and sold unpretentiously for people more interested in enjoying a bottle with friends than impressing them. Visiting a Precept vineyard recently, I asked Landvoigt to explain terroir to me, but, like, really explain it. I get that there are certain minerals in the dirt or whatever, I told him, and the wind in the air, and so on—but what’s really going on at a biological level, I asked? Take the climate, specifically, and the cycle between day and night—what impact does that have on a grape and eventually on a wine?
“In the sun, the plant’s photosynthesizing and generating sugars, and those sugars are what give you those sweet ripe flavors in the grape. At night when everything cools back down, that’s when the plant develops the acids,” he said, which lend wine that same “tartness you get out of a Granny Smith apple.”
This, Landvoigt explained, is why “Old World wines have more tannin, acid, earthy, structure. That’s what makes rioja rioja. They’re not known to be these super fruity jam-bombs. Whereas if we go to New World wines, in California or Australia, and we talk about shiraz the things we talk about are jammy fruit flavors, we talk about sweetness, we talk about ripeness.”
The key difference is that Old World wines come from places like France, Italy and Spain where it just doesn’t tend to get as hot as it does in places like California and Australia.
“You come to Washington State and you have all of that heat during the day and all of that cooling during the night,” he said, referring to the region’s massive diurnal swing, the temperature extremes that arid parts of eastern Washington can experience in a single day of 40 degree Fahrenheit or more. “Fruit without sweetness is just acid. If you take a piece of fruit and you cook it into jam you’ve cooked all those acids out, so what you have is a concentration of sugars, that cooked, jammy, stewy character. If you take that jamminess and you take that acid and put them back together, which is what you’ve got here in Washington State as a result of the diurnal swing, you get that really pure natural fruit expression.”
So there, you’re welcome. Next time you’re picking a bottle of wine you’ll have some actual, usable information to impress your date with, without sounding like a fruitcake.