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by Fred McMillin
for April 2005

Wine

 

What On Earth Is...TERROIR?

Prologue

The Schoonmaker Encyclopedia of Wine, 1955 Edition:

Terrior (tear-wahr) means earth or soil in French. Certain wines have a persistent earthy flavor, called goût de terroir [taste of terroir]. Superior wines rarely if ever have any of this.

1988 Edition:

In addition to meaning earth or soil, terroir is also now being used to describe not only the soil but rather the entire climatic conditions of a vineyard [usually associated with superior wines].

Terrior in California

So TERROIR has two meanings, an ominous earthy flavor (a little can be an asset), or it can refer to the total natural physical environment of a winegrowing area, usually as an indication of superiority.

First, let's talk "earthy" flavors. My students usually can spot it in wines from the MOURVÈDRE (also called MATARO). Their favorites, with just enough earth to be an asset, were produced by:

• DEAVER
• ROSENBLUM
• SOBON

Now to the second meaning of TERROIR. The French created it, and here is how a French vintner describes it in The Vintner's Art by ]ohnson and Halliday:

"Terroir looks at all of the natural conditions which influence the biology of the vinestock and thus the composition of the grape itself. It is the coming together of the climate, the soil and the landscape. It is the combination of an infinite number of factors: hours of sunlight, slope and drainage, rainfall distribution, etc."

—Bruno Prats, Proprietor of Chateau Cos d' Estournel, St. Estephè

While Bordeaux has had centuries to identify, and now promote, areas of superior terrior, California is just starting (somewhat skeptically?) to promote the concept in the Golden State. The Rutherford Bench in the central Napa Valley is a good example.

No district in the New World has a better reputation, or may we say, a better TERROIR, thanks to its remarkable Cabernet Sauvignons. Many of its wines even have a distinctive earthy flavor known as the Rutherford Dust...may we call it a goût de terroir? The best Rutherfords my students have tasted recently were produced by:

• BEAULIEU
• STAGLIN
• PROVENANCE
• SULLIVAN VINEYARDS
• PEJU
• FLORA SPRINGS
• NIEBAUM-COPPOLA

Conclusion

The term TERROIR with several meanings is going to appear more and more in California wine literature. We'll see if it helps all of us with the difficulty of turning wine into words.

Epilogue

Andre Tchelistcheff, California's greatest enologist, drew this praise from the San Francisco Chronicle, "He could tell by taste whether a wine came from Rutherford dust, Oakville dirt or a furrow in between."

 
Further Reading—Highly Recommended

1. Great Wine Terroirs, Jacques Fanet, U. California Press
2. The Winemaker's Dance, Exploring Terroir in the Napa Valley, Swinchatt & Howell, U. Cal. Press

 
 
About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. For information about the wine courses he teaches every month at either San Francisco State University or San Francisco City College (Fort Mason Division), please fax him at (415) 567-4468.

 


 

 
 

This page created April 2005

Copyright © 2005
electronic Gourmet Guide, Inc.

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