Oct 07 2008

Terroir: The key to finding your favorite wines

Published by at 1:54 AM under Savvy Sip Tips,Wine Education

When you’re new to wine, “terroir” can sound rather esoteric. It doesn’t help when people who are afraid of wine say the phrase in a faux-haughty tone meant to mock the snobs who give us wine-lovers a bad name.

Really, though, terroir is about as basic as one can get. It’s dirt. Earth. Ground. Rocks, plants, minerals, clay, the stuff we walk on and the stuff in which vines grow.

As grapevines sink their roots into the ground to take in minerals and moisture, they take in the characteristics of that ground. Maybe you’ve heard those characteristics applied to a wine: Chalky. Loamy. Salty. Grassy. Floral. Dusty. It only stands to reason that a plant grown in soil salted by the nearby sea, for instance, would carry through some of that to its fruit.

Terroir also can include the climate in which the grape is grown. It might be a patch of land exposed to warm sunshine all afternoon, wonderful for ripening the grapes growing there. It might be a cool region where ripening is more difficult, changing the balance of sugar and flavor in the fruit that grows there.

Often, the concept of terroir can be expanded to include what a grower does to his or her patch of land and even the grapes that come off of it. Organic or biodynamic practices will result in fruit different from the grapes produced by traditional farming methods that include fertilizers and pesticides.  A winemaker might preserve more of the fruit flavor of the harvest by putting it in steel tanks, or she might change the flavor by storing a wine in American oak barrels or French oak barrels.

The key for you, as a wine lover and wine drinker, is to identify the terroir of your favorite wine. With this knowledge, you can assume that a wine from a similar terroir might have similar characteristics. There are no guarantees, of course–the influence of the winemaker alone can make grapes from the same plot of land taste as different as night and day.

But becoming familiar with which kind of earth grows your favorite flavors can help you choose something new to suit your tastes. Or it can guide you to something entirely different–perhaps you like your loamy reds, but you know a white with a high degree of minerality will go far better with that seafood dish you’re preparing.

The next time you buy a bottle, talk to your retailer about its terroir. Most wine specialists are fairly jazzed about far-off and interesting places and will be more than happy to offer you a tourist/agricultural picture of the region. And if you want to sample an example of terroir, check out this organic and biodynamic Riesling from Alsace at Just Grapes earning raves from Robert Parker. Jean-Michel Deiss considers the personality of his wines, which is a fairly apt way to describe terroir. And it sounds as if his 2005 bottling had a happy home life!

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