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Terroir: When making wine, it’s where everything begins


Terroir, or not terroir? That is the question. Is it much ado about nothing, an idea that exists only in the minds of connoisseurs? Or is it that certain elusive something, a primal force that makes each bottle unique?

The word raises more questions than it answers. There are differences of opinion among winemakers as to exactly what it is, though it’s almost impossible to find anyone who denies that it’s a factor in growing grapes and making wine.

The concept of terroir isn’t new. Farmers a thousand years ago knew that they couldn’t grow a crop just any old place, that the same olive trees or fruits didn’t do as well if they were seeded elsewhere. The importance of terroir, and the definition of it, was promoted by the French, the original “terroiristes.” They originated the system of designating wine not by grape but by its place of origin, its territory.

Nowhere is this more evident than Burgundy, a region exalted for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, even though you won’t see those famous grapes anywhere on the label. What you get is its terroir. A St. Joseph or Crozes-Hermitage are both Pinots, Mersault and Chablis Chardonnays. Pride of place is literally given to where it was grown and produced.

Maybe the best way to unearth an under-standing of terroir is by Q & A that digs deeper into its roots:

What is terroir?
A general description centers on natural conditions such as soil, moisture, humidity, terrain, exposure to sunlight, air currents, altitude, and seasonal climates. Of those, soil is most important. For example, the gelastro soil found along Tuscany’s Conca d’Oro in the heart of Chianti Classico is different than that in other small areas of the same region. Wines from nearby vineyards with varying soil compositions aren’t the same.

Another example is Brunello, the wine that made the hilltop town of Montalcino famous. The wine made from grapes grown north of town and those from the south are strikingly dissimilar, the result of micro-ter-roirs created by subtle changes of climate and elevation. And, yes, you can taste the difference.

Can any grape planted anywhere make good wine?
Yes and no. Adaptable international varieties such as Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet, Pinot Noir, and Syrah do well in varied locations. But there are grapes that don’t travel well, or if they do, won’t get the same results. A great deal of winemaking is trial and error, finding out which grapes can adjust to a specific environment and which are problematic. The common denominator is matching grape and terroir. A wine “expert” (people I try to avoid) once bragged he could make a great wine anywhere with enough money. There are enough instances that show the flaw in that thinking.

Another way of looking at it is that some growers contend that any terroir is enhanced by planting only those vines that take full advantage of the soil and climate in which they are planted. Would Chianti be Chianti or Barolo be as famous as it is if Nebbiolo had been grown in Tuscany instead of Sangiovese, and vice versa? Doubtful.

Can terroir be manipulated?
Of course, there are winemakers in Italy and elsewhere who believe their wine must reflect the best characteristics of place and vineyards. Francesco Botti of Umbria feels that the only way to make his outstanding Sagrantinos is to listen to and learn from nature. Giorgio Rivetti in Piedmont consid-ers being a farmer more important than making wine, citing the fact that the soils that underlie the Langhe hills were formed millions of years ago and his job is to be a caretaker above all. Why then are there wines that seem manufactured and obviously pumped up, that override the partnership of man and nature? Easy answer – follow the money.

Does terroir make a difference?
When I taught wine classes, two Barolo sessions I put together shed light on the topic. The first involved the five towns included in the Barolo DOCG and the terroirs that were identified and mapped by winemaker Renato Ratti in the 1960s. The soil composition of the vineyards depends on which side of a geological fault line they sit. We sampled one bottle from each area, all from the same year, made by wineries dedicated to making Barolo that represents the place they come from. Some were excellent, some outstanding. All were easy to identify as Barolo, yet the aromas, flavors, and sensations were markedly different.

The second was a two-tired approach with wine from just one producer. Corks were unscrewed for what is called a vertical tasting – four bottles from the same vineyard from successive vintages. Each year was marginally different, highlighting the annual changes of a growing season. To wrap it up, we compared four Barolos from the same year grown in separate vineyards owned by the producer. The contrasts were obvious. Seems as if terroir had gotten the last word.

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