Have you ever said that you hate to drink a Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Chardonnay? You’re not alone. Many people have had bad experiences with certain wines. We actually applaud you for drinking what you like (that’s kind of our thing!). But you know how you always hated that one vegetable until you had an amazing dish that showcased it? Same thing. Just as food is influenced by the chef, wine takes on a totally different personality depending on where it’s grown. In the wine world, we call this terroir. An elusive subject, terroir is a culmination of site, weather, soil and tradition that signifies a wine’s uniqueness.
Cistercian monks sectioned Burgundy into vineyards through the careful research in the 12th-15th Centuries; they recognized the subtle differences in the wine from different parts of the land, sometimes even within the same hill! Their experiments still to this day lead the conversation. While these vineyards may be divided by microclimates and the subtle differences in flavors that they create, the style of Pinot Noir made in Burgundy compared to that of California is comparing apples and oranges. We must consider the place of a wine even more than the grape while learning our own preferences.
Climate is perhaps the most obvious factor of terroir. For example, Pinot Noir grown in California experiences very sunny days with little rainfall, which causes the grapes to push ripeness and sugar levels. The grapes become even more fruity and dense because growers often leave them on the vine longer to emphasize this fruity style. Compare this to the grapes that are grown in Burgundy, which have much less sun during the growing season and are typically picked earlier to avoid harvest rainfall. The grapes cannot get nearly as ripe or fruity, so they tend to be much more earthy & savory. The intensity of wind greatly affects the final texture of the wine. Strong winds lead to thick grape skins and dense tannin, or may act as an air conditioner in hot climates that would otherwise become overripe. While climate reflects the overall behavior in a region, weather influences the wine with short-term conditions. Overall this is more important in comparing vintages of a wine from the same place. If a vintage is extremely rainy, the flavor of the grapes may appear diluted. Hot vintages can lead to riper fruit, although perhaps at the sacrifice of less structure and acidity.
The monks who divided the vineyards in Burgundy viewed soil as a leading factor in vineyard separation. Still today, some suggest that the wine can taste like the soil in which it’s grown. Although scientists have long argued against the probability of this notion, winemakers and sommeliers nonetheless simultaneously agree on a consistent mineral presence in wines from specific aresas (of the most famous examples is Chardonnay from Chablis, which famously tastes of chalk and oyster shell- similar to the Kimmeridgian limestone in which it’s grown). What we do know is that certain grapes perform better in certain soils, with consideration to the climate. The prized limestone soils of Burgundy’s Cote d’Or are alkaline, which is preferred for grapes that are high in acidity (such as the region’s signature grape-Pinot Noir). There is also a considerable amount of chalk in the soils, which is a special free-draining type of limestone that lends itself to wetter environments. Within the same commune in Burgundy, grapes grown at the more sand- and clay- dominate lower slopes tend to be broader and with less finesse. It’s worth noting that most the Grand Crus in Burgundy lie mid-slope on limestone and marl soils with good drainage and sun exposure for ideal ripening.
Climate and soil inevitably influence the style of wine from a given area. Terroir, however, is not exclusive to the the land. Winemaking decisions are often cultural and traditional. The human factor expresses place nearly as much as the weather. Consider the style of oaked, concentrated, dense Cabernet Sauvignons from Napa Valley. Sun and rainfall affect the classic style of the area, but it is also a common stylistic choice made amongst the majority of winemakers in California. Compare California Cabernet to the Cabernet Sauvignon from Bordeaux. There may still be a heavy hand on new oak, but the growers also are picking earlier. They opt for a leaner, more elegant style, although in warm vintages it is possible to make the juicy, ripe style made famous in California. Most wine lovers who like one style avoid the other.
Through an understanding of terroir and its effects, the dialogue changes with wine. Consider why you do or don’t like a certain grape. The answer will depend on the wine’s origin. One Pinot Noir lover may love the grape for its earthy, ethereal flavors, while another may love it for its fruit. This concept opens the world to a wine lover- a grape that you hated before may be your new favorite. The next time you shop for wine, consider your choices. The notion of terroir begs wine lovers to stop asking “what” and to begin asking “where.” -AT