Terroir: ter-WAHR. Dictionaries say it’s the environment, particularly soil and climate, in which wine grapes are grown. Wine fans insist it’s much broader, much deeper.
True believers call themselves “terroirists,” smiling at the inside joke. Even the more literal-minded say the concept also includes the temperature, wind, nearness to the sea, quality of the air. The more philosophical take it even further, asserting that it has a human element – the culture, the relationship of the farmer to the land.
This column will try to demonstrate the concept with some chardonnays from California – a state that’s big, with a huge variety of terroirs.
The idea is that cool areas like Sonoma’s Russian River Valley preserve natural fruit acids that create crisp, lively chardonnays with intense fruit flavors. Warmer areas like Napa Valley produce richer, softer chardonnays with complex flavors of butter, even caramel.
The French take the concept much further, as you might expect. They find the same terroir-driven differences in cheese, beef, pork, duck paté, apples, even bread. One famous French chef swore he could tell the flavor differences among fish caught between different bridges over the Seine River in Paris.
American winemakers, now that they’ve been in the business for a few decades, are seriously buying into the idea.
In California alone, they have created more than 200 “American Viticultural Areas” – from Sonoma’s “Chalk Hill” to Santa Barbara’s “Sta. Rita Hills.” They’re areas in which they believe grapes take on certain flavors because of the location’s … well … terroir.
Some of it is the weather. But there’s more. At Heitz Cellars’ Martha’s Vineyard in Napa, tall eucalyptus trees surround the vines, and tasters swear they can perceive the minty aroma in the wines. A few years ago northern California was plagued by wildfires, and tasters – including yours truly – could smell it in the wines. It was quite pleasant, luckily, like a wine aged in a well-charred oak barrel.
In California, a quick rule of thumb is that the cooler north makes leaner wines while the warmer south makes richer wines.
But it’s not so simple. Often it’s not how far north or south a grape is grown, but rather the vineyard’s nearness to east-west valleys that carry cold Pacific fogs to the vines.
So vines in Santa Maria Valley down by Santa Barbara, might be cooler than those farther north in the fogless Central Valley. Sonoma’s Russian River Valley and Edna Valley are also cooled by fog, as is the Carneros area at the southern tip of Napa and Sonoma.
Also, even grapes grown in different vineyards can be different from each other, giving rise to “single-vineyard” wines. Growers say the terroir on one side of a hill can be very different from that on the other.
So try to taste some of the wines below – listed roughly from north to south by growing area – and see if, unbeknownst to yourself, you’ve been a “terroirist” all along.
California’s Terroir-Driven Chardonnays:
• 2011 Bonterra Chardonnay, Mendocino County: crisp and fresh, with aromas and flavors of lemons, limes and green apples; $14.
• 2011 Journey Chardonnay, Sonoma County: quite crisp, with complex green apple, pear and mineral aromas and flavors and nutty finish; $75.
• 2014 La Crema Chardonnay, Russian River Valley: crisp and lively, with intense aromas and flavors of apples and peaches, long finish; $30.
• 2011 La Follette Chardonnay, “Sangiacomo Vineyard,” Sonoma Coast: rich and crisp and fruity, with bread dough aromas, complex flavors of lemons, limes and minerals; $38.
• 2011 Gloria Ferrer Chardonnay, Carneros: crisp and lively, with intense apricot and pear aromas and flavors, with crisp green-apple finish; $25.
• 2011 Educated Guess Chardonnay, Napa Valley: toasty aromas, rich cinnamon and vanilla flavors, creamy and full-bodied, crisp; $17.
• Nonvintage Barefoot Bubbly Brut Cuvée Champagne, Calif.: crisp bubbles, with aromas and flavors of lemons and limes; $10.
• 2012 La Crema Chardonnay, Arroyo Seco, Monterey: rich aromas and flavors of ripe mangos and peaches, smooth and creamy; $30.
2012 “True Myth” Chardonnay, Edna Valley: rich and ripe, with mango, per and vanilla aromas and flavors; $15.