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The Dirt on Terroir
By Robert Whitley
Oct 5, 2010
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Our good friend W. Blake Gray brings a refreshing sense of humor to the serious task of wine journalism. This was most evident in a recent posting, “Freeloading from Robert Mondavi Winery,” on his quirky wine blog, The Gray Market Report.

Yes, Blake thoroughly enjoyed his $98 prix fixe lunch at a tony San Francisco restaurant, and he even finished his ice cream. But he left just as thoroughly confused about the meaning of terroir, despite the ambitious efforts of the Mondavi crowd to explain it.

Terroir is one of those slippery words uttered throughout the wine industry, including wine journalism, that everyone seems to understand but no one can explain. Not satisfactorily, anyway.

This much I know.

The Chardonnays from Corton-Charlemagne will bowl you over with their power and structure – every vintage, every producer, every wine.

Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon exhibits a menthol/eucalyptus character that was identifiable over decades of production, a signature marker for an iconic Napa Valley Cabernet.

The Syrah from Hermitage hill will always be more refined and long-lived than Syrah from nearby Cote-Rotie, or the Cornas district across the river.

Monterey County’s vast Sleepy Hollow Vineyard will deliver a fat, oily Chardonnay with surprisingly firm acidity no matter the vintage, no matter the winemaker.

The structure and elegance of Biondi-Santi Brunello di Montalcino is unqiue among Brunellos, and found only at the famed Il Greppo estate of Biondi-Santi.

There are four separate vineyard parcels at the stellar Napa Valley winery, Diamond Creek. Each is distinct despite the fact one is within spitting distance of the other.

The Cote de Nuits and Cote de Beaune fit snugly within Burgundy’s Cote d’Or. You wouldn’t plant Chardonnay in the Cote de Nuits, nor would you plant Pinot Noir in most of the Cote de Beaune (there are a few notable exceptions).

Puligny, Chassagne and Meursault are three of the Cote de Beaune’s most famous villages. They are close together. The Chardonnay from each is prized the world over. Yet they are very different, each in its own way.

Barolo and Barbaresco are the most noble wines of northern Italy’s Piedmont district. Both are made from the Nebbiolo grape. The two villages and environs together are but a blip on the map of Piedmont. Their vineyards are not that far apart. But Barolo is a bold, powerful wine revered for its longevity; Barbaresco is softer, more approachable and, some would say, feminine.

The explanation, of course, is terroir, that which no one can explain. It is most often described as the combination of soils, climate, exposition to the sun, available water – fodder for wine geeks ad nauseum.

This was precisely what Blake encountered at the Mondavi soiree, where the soils of the To-Kalon vineyard were on display. They were there to be sniffed and tasted, along with the wines that had been spawned from To-Kalon grapes. A reasonable person would taste the connection between soil and wine, no?

Our Blake simply didn’t get it. No kidding, no one does.

Winemakers have been attempting to explain terroir through similar exhibitions ever since someone, obviously French, coined the term. I remember standing with Giampaolo Motta in his vineyard near Panzano, in Tuscany’s famed Conca d’Oro, when he scooped a handful of dirt and proclaimed, “This is what my wines taste like.”

With all due respect to Giampaolo, the wines of La Massa do reflect the terroir of the Conca d’Oro, but I couldn’t honestly say I detected any aroma that even faintly resembled his dirt in the great Chianti, Georgio Primo.

I am now convinced that all attempts to establish a sensory connection between the land and the wine will fail. The only connections that work are wine to wine.

We know that wines made from the same vineyard by different winemakers can have hauntingly similar characteristics. We know that wines made from the same vineyard by the same winemaker, but over a number of different vintages, also can have striking similarities.

We attribute this to terroir, whether we can explain it or not. We also know the human factor can screw it up.

I remember a long-ago discussion with Michel Chapoutier, the great winemaker from France’s Rhone Valley. We were discussing the telltale mineral notes apparent in the M. Chapoutier wines, almost across the board. This nuance had not been quite so dramatic during his father’s reign over the vineyards.

It was always there, Michel said, but the heavier crop loads that were the tendency of post-World War II Europe masked the magic that was hidden in the soils.

Ever since my understanding of terroir has been colored by the Chapoutier story. Yes, there is such a thing as terroir. But it is only as good as those who watch over the land.

(Email comments to whitleyonwine@yahoo.com)