Digging in the Dirt

Terroir. Let the word unroll slowly, unctuously from the back of your throat. It is literally land in French, but any fan of wine knows its meaning goes far beyond that. This smug little word encapsulates the seriously romantic fervor the French have for the dirt in each distinct wine region of their country, that dirt which infuses in the grapes that special something, that je nu se qua of the appellation.  Allow me to put it in more American terms; in a certain sense, it takes a village…to make it wine. Sure, you can grow grapes just about anywhere… take a little yeast, a little time, and poof! You have your wine. But, what transforms the mere Pinot Noir grape into Echezaux is not good farming or a magical winemaker. It is the essence of history (ergo, the right stuff decaying) in the soil, the balance of rainfall, sun exposure, and frost that is so precisely unique to the 86 acres that make up vineyards in the Burgundian village of Echezaux.  Put all those factors into the equation, and you result with the aromas, flavors, and textures found only in bottles bearing that name. Indeed, a winemaker of much skill and experience is imperative to the process. But he or she is not terroir; they are merely its faithful servant.  So to the grape is linked to the successful expression of terroir. The climates and soil of a region are a crucial determinant in the grapes success or failure. And I don’t mean to merely just survive and bear fruit, but rather to bear a beautiful base for a fine wine.  Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling may both be noble, but they must rule in their proper kingdom, so to speak. In the likes of France, Italy and Spain, centuries of trial and error have determined what grapes do best in the respective soil, and regulations are in place to maintain proper expression of specific, sacred terroir.

As for us in the United States, we are in quite a different world. That is not to say that we don’t have terroir. Winemaking has been pursued for decades, climate patterns observed, soils evaluated, and grapes proven and disproven; we have it. And in spite of what critics may say and cheap wine displays, we respect it, and our wines exhibit it. Many a smile has come to my face from the taste of Dry Creek dirt in a Zinfandel, and Paso Robles has a perfume I recognize the instant I bring a glass of good Cabernet  from the AVA to my nose.  What is exciting is the number of wineries still exploring and experimenting the potential of our varied dirt. We don’t have to limit the expression of said dirt to one grape, or vice versa. Laws and regulations in U.S winemaking are in place more for honest disclosure, not to dictate the recipe.  In this feature I will explore and explain the varying terroirs producing the exciting, unique wines we stock in the Boutique Wine Room. This section will also highlight the innovations and inspirations of our winemakers on the topic of terroir.  

Spain is a great example of how terroir and grapes interact. Tempranillo is the champion grape in Spain, and is the star of many wines from all over the country. I find it fitting that is bears different names in different regions, from cencibel, Ulle de Lebre, Tinto Fino, et al.  Because while it remains the same grape, and the markers of tempranillo  are ultimately distinguishable, Rioja and Toro, and Ribera del Duero are very different wines. Even more fun, throw into the mix a Tempranillo from Amador county, namely that delicious and captivating bottling from Wilderotter Vineyards featured in last month’s shipment. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have visions of Spain the first time I tasted it. That is not because it tasted Spanish, but because my senses have been trained to connect that grape with that place.  MORE TO COME.... - Krista Lark Mason, Sommelier