Terroir: The Dividing Line in Wine

We are very fortunate to live in a time when most of the wine produced in the world is good. Good in the sense of being correctly made, and palatable. For many consumers, that is just fine. I understand the sentiment. I want to own a car that is generally thought to be safe and reliable. My eyes glaze over when I am being told the technical reasons that my car is safe and reliable. So it must be for the casual wine drinker who just wants something pleasant to end the work day, or to wash down their meal. The choices for the casual wine drinker are not really a gut-wrenching decision. Hit the right category -- red, white, or sparkling -- and open the bottle.

For those of us whose passion for wine is far greater than casual, technically-correct wine is okay, but hardly exciting. Exciting wine, which really is the dividing line, needs personality and charm. Personality and charm start with something that makes one wine unique from another.

France's Burgundy region, in the Cote D'Or, originated the thought process of identifying terroir, a critical term in the understanding and evaluating of wine. Terroir, according to Frank Schoonmacher's New Encyclopedia of Wine that was revised by Alexis Bespaloff, states;

French for 'soil' or 'earth', used in a very special sense in the phrase gout de terroir, or, taste of the soil... The word terroir is also used in an extended sense to describe the soil together with the associated climatic conditions of a district or a vineyard; the English equivalent might be microclimate.

Most high-quality wine producers proudly have something in the taste profile of their wine that tells you where it is from. For the uninitiated, this might sound a little like the story of the emperor's new clothes, but fine wine should be identifiable by where it is produced. Regional cuisines are easily identified by their ingredients and techniques. So too, are fine wines. This uniqueness of a particular wine because of the terroir is a defining point between whether it is truly a special wine, or just nice flavors from somewhere.

One example of a traditionalist winemaker would be wines of Lopez de Heredia in Rioja, where very little in either the grape-growing or the wine-making tradition has changed since they were founded in 1877. They make very distinctive "old school" wines that have a cult following, but are probably not wines for everyone. That's okay, as their wines are revered for demonstrating both the white wine and red wine traditions of Rioja.

Yet, in the same region, Palacios Remondo has also made outstanding wine, with a more modern approach. Both are considered great wineries, looking to express different technical philosophies of production, that show off the grapes and the land they are from. They use different techniques and tools; where for example Lopez de Heredia is so meticulous in their overseeing of production, that they are the only bodega in Spain to handcraft their own barrels from the traditional American oak. This is an example of the extreme they go to, to control the production process.

Alvaro Palacios, originally from Rioja, created highly-prized wines in the Priorato and Bierzo, before returning to his family's winery after his father's death in 2000. His concentration has been on his La Montesa, Crianza wine, which because of soil types, clay and pebbles, and a southern-facing sloped vineyard, is based with Garnacha. In the finest years, rather than bottle his wines in the traditional Reserva or Gran Reserva, Alvaro has chosen to make a proprietary name, Propiedad, which has modern labeling, and a modern philosophy. He has lowered grape yields, a key element in producing more intense wine, and modernized the cellar practices. The results are wines that are very identifiable as Rioja wines, but at the same time show an individual personality that shows off the land he works from, and modern cellar practices. He beautifully carries on a philosophy of making wines in a modern way, that carry on the an identifiable tradition.

Wine, like food, can also be traditional, experimental, commercial, or one-of-a-kind. Ingredients and technique tell the story of the producer's intentions. In wine, the two processes, grape growing and winemaking should have a philosophic harmony that are overseen by the producer in all aspects. One of the telltale signs of a decent-tasting wine without terroir, or soul, is probably found right on the label. California wines, a most popular category of purchase, are identifiable by regions. Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and even some of the sub-appellations such as Stag's Leap and Diamond Mountain. If the appellation on the label is "California," it is a pretty good bet the fruit has been purchased on the commodity market, where the control and the "somewhereness" of the wine has been compromised by the business aspects of producing wine. This is not to say that wine cannot be clean, palatable, and pleasant to drink. This is simply to say the wine will not reveal much more. This difference is true in wine around the world.