Declaring War On Wine Terroirists

Roberto Viernes
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Wednesday - April 04, 2007
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Wine with terroir: 2005 William Fevre Chablis Champs Royaux
Wine with terroir: 2005
William Fevre Chablis
Champs Royaux

I went into my closet the other day and grabbed a pair of shoes I wore on a recent trip to California wine country. It had rained during my visit, and the shoes were still caked with vineyard dirt and soil. It got me wondering, with all this “terroir” business in wine, why do some wine connoisseurs think that California has no terroir?

In her definitive tome, The Oxford Companion to Wine, Jancis Robinson defines terroir as “the total natural environment of any viticultural site.” So by taking this definition of it, technically, every wine must have terroir. All wines are made from grapes grown in soil, nourished by the sun and nutrients found in the soils and substrata, below the surface and the water it finds therein. All vineyards are affected by their exposure to the elements and the climate of the area.

But wine geeks and writers also like to use the term interchangeably with “earthiness” when describing a wine. It is a component that they find in the character of a wine whether it smells like a certain type of mineral, stone or soil. This smell and taste remind them of a particular plot of earth in the world grown to specific grapes that ultimately express themselves in the wine. This is what most people consider terroir. Most wines that people would consider having terroir are from the Old World (read Europe). Wines from the New World seem not to have the same earthy characteristics.

Let’s turn the lense around for just a minute. When people knock New World wines for not having terroir, it is usually because the wine is intensely fruity, and that the mineral and earthy components take a back seat or are almost nonexistent in the wine. What if people started to think that Old World wines have too much earthiness, or just too much terroir? Have you had some wines that were just too earthy, with not enough fruit flavor in it? I certainly have, and I’ll bet you have too.

I’ve also noticed that many of these Old World bastions of terroir seem to be getting more fruity and “international” in style. Just take a look at Bordeaux, and even Burgundy to a lesser extent. The wines are fruitier, higher in alcohol, more easily drunk young and more lacking in earthiness than ever before. People have already started thinking about wines that do not have terroir without the pejorative light. There must be a reason why New World wines account for close to 90 percent of all the wine sold in Hawaii.

I’ve heard more than a few New World winemakers say that “Terroir in a wine is only an excuse for bad or dirty wine-making.” But I must say that I’ve also tasted more and more New World wines that have a distinctive earthiness to them. They remind me very much of the Old World.

The distinctive lines of terroir are being blurred, and it seems that each world is reaching out to the other’s. Perhaps not out of friendship, but they are reaching for each other’s market share. And I think that is what will ultimately drive terroir into the ground.

Wines with terroir: 2005 William Fevre Chablis Champs Royaux ($20) Wet stone and seashells with white fruits and flowers. It has almost crackling acidity and just a wonderfully satisfying aftertaste. 2005 Brewer-Clifton Mt. Carmel Pinot Noir ($50) Almost stony in character with copious amounts of luscious red fruit and spice. Deep and complex with plenty of staying power.

Roberto Viernes is a master sommelier. E-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
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