Terroir Is Not A Small Dog!
But its je ne sais quoi is highly desired by winemakers
Sometimes the French give us a wine word that is so appealing, so easy to pronounce, that we can't help ourselves; we must have it. Burgundy is such a term. "We love this word," we think to ourselves; "in fact, we love it so much we'll just make it our own. Let's stick it on any bottle of red plonk that has a jug handle and a screw cap, and confuse consumers for all eternity!" Voilà! Generics are born.
Then again, sometimes the French give us a word that no one can pronounce, like Fenouilledes. So we just gargle our way through it and put an "eh" at the end, like Canadians, hoping no one will notice and it will just go away. And it does. When was the last time the spouse sent you down to the corner for a bottle of Fenouilledes?
But sometimes, those wily French give us a word that no one understands, no one can pronounce, and no one can come up with anything better for. That word is terroir.
Terroir, as anyone who reads the back labels of wine bottles will attest, is as common as, well, dirt. Some people think it is dirt, or the flavors that a wine picks up from dirt, or the "murmuring of the earth," as one writer has rhapsodized. Whatever it is, grape growers and winemakers all seem to agree that it's highly desirable, and therefore they are all pretty sure that they have it.
To simplify, let's call terroir the expression, through the grapes grown in a specific location, of the soil, climate, weather, elevation, latitude and orientation of that place. It is the unique stamp of that particular site. If you apply that definition in the most generous and generic way, it's pretty clear that terroir in fact does exist everywhere. We all have terroir. Your garage has terroir.
The top 10 vineyards
Ciel du Cheval
But a grape-growing site whose terroir imparts extraordinary flavors and longevity to the wines it generates is rare indeed. Only the truly great vineyards, in truly extraordinary grape-growing regions, measure up to that standard. You'll get no argument from me that terroir is the foundation for all of the world's great wines, whether they are grand cru Burgundies, first-growth Bordeaux, old-vine Priorats, single-vineyard Barolos or Grosses Gewachs rieslings.
Therefore, the search for its own unique terroir(s) is an essential and defining attribute of an emerging wine region. Washington state vintners have already, in a very short time, begun to find it. Granted, many are called and few are chosen. All too often I come across a claim such as the following, taken directly from a bottle of Washington wine: "Our belief, a constant for all great wines around the world, is that quality starts in the vineyard. Through attentive viticulture management and passionate winemaking our goal is to create wines that are true to our vineyards terrior (sic)."
I've lost count of the number of back labels, press releases and technical tasting sheets from wineries claiming to have found their "terrior" (sic) here in Washington. A good rule of thumb is, if they think they have terrior, it's probably tied up in back barking at the barrels rather than lurking in the vineyard.
Apart from the inherent ability of the soil and site to potentially express terroir, the winemaking must be sensitive and extremely non-interventionist if the subtle scents and flavors of true terroir are to remain evident. Wines that are ripened to "hedonistic" jamminess, marinated in 200 percent new oak barrels and finished at 15.5 or 16 (or 17!) percent alcohol cannot rationally be expected to display tender nuances of site and soil. The sniffs and streaks of mineral, metal, rock, underbrush, herb, leaf and spice that combine to create layers of flavor in great wines do not survive the sensory overload from fruit ripened to 27 or 28 brix, flavored with roasted barrels and finished at liquorous, throat-burning levels of alcohol.
Washington vineyards profiled in this chapter have demonstrated that they ripen fruit that creates distinctive, characterful wines. Most of these vineyards are fought over. Their owners all tell the same story of having to choose from among dozens of winemakers eager for their fruit. When several of the state's best winemakers make a vineyard-designate from the same site, it's a pretty clear indication that something special is there.
Certainly, stylistic differences exist in any lineup of wines, no matter how similar the source. Yet for these top sites a consistent thread can be found throughout: unique, site-specific flavors that speak volumes about the quality of the vineyard. Most of these vineyards have stood the test of time; they have proven over decades that they are special. Sometimes it is apparent when you walk the rows, and sometimes not. But it always comes through where it counts most — in the bottle.