On Terroir

Romanée-Conti – Burgundy, FR
Image: richardhaughton.com

“…What is honor? A word. What is in that word honor? what is that honor?…”

– Wm. Shakespeare, I Henry IV, Part V, Scene 1

Replace ‘honor’ in the quote above with ‘terroir’ and you have the beginnings of an entire new ‘catechism,’ and the crux of  today’s Terroirist Tuesday.

To begin at the beginning. ‘Terroir,” according to  The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia: “…literally means “soil”, but in a viticultural sense terroir refers in a more general way to a vineyard’s whole growing environment, which also includes altitude, aspect, climate, and any other significant factors that may affects the life of a vine, and thereby the quality of the grapes it produces.”

Recently, Oregon wine maker Ken Wright riffed on terroir to a group of  2012 WBC’ers lucky enough to catch the Carlton bus. Like any true Willamette Valley vigneron, he noted the unique ‘responsiveness’ of Pinot Noir  towards its environment, but also the importance of terroir in winemaking. Likening the making of a great wine with a symphonic creation, Wright waxed on/waxed off about the interplay of  soils and seasons and stresses in creating nuanced wines of resonance and balance. This attention to terroir transmutes not just through the soils, but the souls, of  great winemakers universally.

And universally, the heart of terroir begins with the French. Karen McNeil observes in her  The Wine Bible : “It was in France that the fundamental concept of terroir (the idea that site determines the quality of the wine) became pervasive and flourished.”

Indeed, France’s esteemed Burgundian vigneron Aubert de Villaine of famed Domaine Romanée-Conti speaks eloquently of the winemaker’s role in relation to terroir:

The role of the winemaker is to enable the terroir to be in the best condition possible–to help bring forward (like a mid-wife) the product of the exceptional land. The role is to listen to the terroir.

-Aubert de Villaine, D. Romanée-Conti

Thus, one may argue that vignerons translate the terroir – giving the vine voice through the wine. And for those of you who consider wine an art, not just a beverage  – well worth a listen. Santé.

Copyrighted 2012. All Rights Reserved. 

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