Mahler: Terroir: It matters where it’s fromWritten by Adam Mahler | | email@example.com
Terroir. It’s a term used in the wine world that has bled into everyday wine small talk.
It’s a French term that has no direct translation, into most languages, but it’s perhaps at the crux of understanding one of the most important factors in determining a wine’s greatness where it comes from.
Terroir (pronounced ter-wahr) refers to, as you may suspect, the land, but not just the land. It also means the soil, the climate, the altitude, the latitude, the flora and fauna, basically every single variable that makes that piece of land unique.
It applies to everything we grow in or on land. It applies to livestock, their products like cheese and milk, all fruits and vegetables, and most importantly, it applies to wine grapes.
The Europeans got a head start on us. They have been growing grapes and making wine for a very long time, but continuously recorded for about 1,000 years. It’s taken every bit of those 1000-plus years for them to realize and refine what grew best where.
Without historical records, they couldn’t learn from the previous generations. They learned what to plant where, what to cross-breed and the best methods to use. I believe the process is called “unnatural selection,” which is, basically, human-assisted Darwinism.
So where does terroir fit in? Great wine comes from the rarest and most perfect circumstances of grape growing.
The grapes live on a knife’s edge of circumstances. You want factors that include the following: a dormant winter but not too cold, a steady and undramatic flowering season (tornadoes and hail are bad), a long growing season lasting 100-plus days, long warm days and cool dry nights.
When all of these factors line up, you can start to see the reflection of where the grapes come from in the wine.
Terroir is reflected in every wine differently and in every grape. Wine professionals can discern where a wine comes from with just a few clues and a fair amount of experience.
For example, Chablis is chardonnay grown in the northern limits of Burgundy, France, the home of chardonnay, but it tastes unlike chardonnay from anywhere in the world. Chablis is at the 47th parallel, very close to the northernmost growing limit for most wine grapes. Because it’s so far north, the days are longer and the nights are shorter during the growing season.
The soil is called Kimmeridgian which is 180-million-year-old limestone, clay and tiny fossilized shellfish. It’s white, like in the famous White Cliffs of Dover. This extremely rare set of growing circumstances that is materialized in the form of wine with very high minerality and equally high acidity. You can’t make wine like this anywhere else in the world; it took 1,000 years to figure it out, and Chablis is the absolute apex of this type of wine.
Terroir is why you see names of places on the European labels instead of the names of grapes. Calling Chablis chardonnay is like saying The Beatles were a band in the ’60s. You’re leaving a lot of information on the table. When you say Chablis, you impart what that wine will be like regardless of who the producer is (producers are important, but that’s a different discussion).
What about non-European wines? Well, they all have varying degrees of terroir.
In most countries, the place the grapes come from is listed on the label, but there is some confusion in these parts and many people mistakenly believe wine from certain places will be automatically good, like Napa Valley. In reality, the term Napa should really just tell you what that wine will be like, not how good it is.
So we have a ways to go to refine what our terroir means. Not all great wine is a reflection of terroir and not all terroir-driven wines are good, but digging into that concept is a pretty fascinating exercise.
In the meantime, take a chance on some wines “of a place,” ask your wine merchant some good questions and try something new. Always try something new.
Adam Mahler is the founder of Ampelography, a wine sales and marketing company based in Toledo (ampelographywines.com). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.