Terroir is a term used regularly when discussing wine. But it is a term that is also met with controversy and conflict. What is terroir? It is an amorphous term with no clear consensus.
In Burgundy, where they have been carving up land for hundreds of years, perhaps they have a good sense of their “terroir.” But what about in California where the wine industry is younger?
Julia Jackson from Jackson Family Wines hosted a conversation about the terroir of the West Burgundy Group, a portfolio of boutique wineries producing estate-based, site specific wines from Burgundian varieties grown in vineyards across the cool climate regions of California and Oregon.
The conversation included winemakers Erik Johannsen (Champ de Rêves), Eugenia Keegan (Gran Moraine), Adam Lee (Siduri) and Craig McCallister (Wild Ridge), as well as Steve Heimoff, Jackson Family Wines director of wine communications and education, and moderated by Gilian Handelman, Jackson Family Wines director of wine education.
To begin, each person provided their definition of “terroir.” Julia Jackson sees terroir as the “synergy of microclimates, soil, climate, cover crops, perennials, geology and man, to some degree.”
Eugenia Keegan takes a traditional approach to terroir, following a strict interpretation that it is what Mother Nature gives you in a certain spot and then, as a winemaker, “you take the site combined with our evolving knowledge to make the best wine possible.”
Erik Johannsen’s definition is based on a strict modernist interpretation in which the geology, geography, ecology and viticulture make an imprint on the vineyard but the terroir is more than a summation of these parts. He explained, “There are so many interactions going on that there is an unknowable entity in a vineyard.”
Craig McCallister agreed that terroir is the sum of the influence of climate, the environment and geology that “create a fingerprint or marker that ties the wine to the site.” But, as the cynic of the group, he said the term is overused and incorrectly used, especially in the New World.
Adam Lee approaches terroir in a more mystical manner. He is looking for something about the place that is so special that he can’t quite explain it, in other words, terroir is the “soul of the place.”
In conclusion, Steve Heimoff, who agreed that terroir is the sum total of what Mother Nature gives you, sees terroir as “an icebreaker, a common word that is used when people come together,” and so the ice was broken.
The conversation was fascinating, and thoughtful questions were brought up. When talking about site specifics, is that terroir? Or is that a regional, community-driven concept? How does human interaction in the vineyard influence terroir? Once the grapes are picked, does terroir end? Where does terroir end and winemaking start? Is there another word that works better than “terroir”? What about “of place?”
The discussion about terroir is endless. And while it is not expected to resolve the debate about what terroir is, we tasted through some wines to get a sense of how one particular pinot noir clone (clone 777) expresses itself in different “terroirs” and then how it plays its part in the final blend of a wine.
Gran Moraine is located in the Yamhill-Carlton District, the western most AVA in the Willamette Valley in Oregon. The soils are sandy marine sediments, ancient and well-drained and it is a warmish, dry wine grape-growing region.
The pinot noir Dijon clone 777 from the Gran Moraine vineyard has floral, rhubarb and cinnamon notes with lovely salinity. In the 2013 Gran Moraine Pinot Noir, Yamhill-Carlton, the 777 makes up the mid part of the blend, then other clones are blended to add fruit notes on the front and structure in the back. The resulting wine is feminine with aromas of huckleberry, cherry and wild strawberry. On the palate, the wine has flavors of cranberry and spice with soft supple tannins.
Champ de Rêves is located in the Anderson Valley in a remote section of west Mendocino County. It is the most northerly growing region in California, and the vineyard is located 1,300-2,000 feet above the town of Boonville. It is a cool-climate area that is influenced by maritime breezes and nightly fog.
The clone 777 has aromas of huckleberry and brambly fruit but on the palate there is no fruit or brightness. However, when it is blended into the 2013 Champ de Rêves Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley, it adds a suppleness to the wine. The resulting wine has notes of sour cherry, cherry cola, rhubarb and cedar.
Wild Ridge is in the northwest corner of the Sonoma Coast, near Mendocino, near the historic hamlet of Annapolis. The vineyard sits above the fog at 900 feet above sea level, resulting in warm days and chilly nights. The grapes are grown in fine sandy loam soil with maritime volcanic and sedimentary deposits.
In this vineyard, the clone 777 wine has notes of cola, wild strawberry and tar. In the 2013 Wild Ridge Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, the 777 makes up 30 percent of the blend and adds more of the muscle to the wine which has aromas of blackberries, red cherries and tea.
Siduri’s Sierra Mar Vineyard is in the southeastern part of the Santa Lucia Highlands. The vineyard sits at a high elevation, and the soil is composed of decomposed granite, gravelly loam and sedimentary deposit.
The clone 777 wine has aromas of forest fruit, spice and on the palate is savory with a long finish. When blended into the 2013 Siduri Sierra Mar Vineyard Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands, the 777 provides the middle notes of the wine and the rest of the wine is built around it. The resulting wine is lush and rich with notes of dark ripe fruit.
While Clone 777 does not make a compelling wine individually, it tends to make up the heart of many pinot noir blends. And while there is a synergy found in the clone, there is a difference in flavor based on the terroir.
We may not be able to define exactly what “terroir” is and the New World may be years away from clear delineations, but we can see that the same clone grown in different places will embody characteristics unique to that place. And, because of this, we know that at the very least a sense of place can be found in wine.