Debunking the Terror of Terroir

If you hang around winemakers for very long you will hear them talking about terroir, some may even roll their “r”s in the French tradition.  A direct translation means the earth, or soil, but in the mystery of winemaking “terroir” is akin to magic pixie dust.  So as an amateur what the heck does terroir matter?  Is this just another artful descriptive for selling wine?

No, terroir is important to understanding why wine from one vineyard tastes completely different form a grape vine five miles away.

It is as much about nuance as it is about the chemicals in the soil.  My first experience learning about terroir came form my French wine shop friend, Rene Aversenge, who could talk about the herbs in the fields of the Loire Valley entwining with the grape vines for centuries of pleasure like it was a poem of the gods.  He would transport me to France with his words and I could see the miles of ancient roots picking their way over rocks and under streams collecting a myriad of flavors as they traveled the fertile valleys.  Well, wine can be a poem.

The concept of terroir is defined by the legal parameters for historical winemaking practices and place designations, specific within each region.  So an appellation like Santa Clara or San Benito would have its own characteristics based on climate, soil minerals, the direction the grapes are planted in, and the winemaker and grower having their own vision.

Santa Clara is known for its Mediterranean like climate and that has helped the growers plant sympathetic grapes, but Santa Clara also brings something to the table on its own.  Each winery pairs its grape varietals to create a specific terroir in the bottle.  Not only should a wine taste like the South of France, it should also represent  a specific vineyard in San Benito county that may have more ocean breeze than others; or the mists that cling to the Gabilan mountains in the mornings may create the perfect microclimate for Merlot on one acre of land.

What grows next door, be it lavender or a rose, can influence the taste of the wine in the glass.  A number of wineries in Napa have scent gardens that represent the specific flavors found in a wine, and at COPIA the American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts they have created a series of edible gardens that represent the Californian terroir as well as the culinary matching of herbs and fruit with wine from the vineyards.

The three and one-half acres of landscaped, organic edible gardens are an integral feature of COPIA.  These exquisitely planned gardens are designed to provide hands-on learning about soils, farming and viticulture, furthering COPIA’s mission of contributing to our understanding of American life, culture and heritage. The gardens are divided into 50′ by 50′ beds, which demonstrate a broad range of horticultural styles and types of edible plants.  Jeff Dawson, Curator of Gardens for COPIA, describes the gardens as a place for “higher learning,” where the links between man, the environment and the land are explored.

I will have more in a few weeks on a unique summer festival at COPIA that will give you a hands-on experience with terroir.

Until then take a look at the soil in your own garden, smell the earth and pick up the scents that are carried from miles away.  Watch how the fog changes different parts of your garden, and taste how much flavor there is in your basil, or how the scent of your roses lingers past dusk.  This is your terroir.

And the next time you have a chat with a local winemaker ask him or her about the terroir they live and breathe every day.  Their passion and descriptions will enchant you.


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