In my last few blog posts I have focused on the French term Terroir. This concept, Terroir, is important in understanding fine wine. It makes a specific place special. Terroir is the essence of fine wine. It is the accumulation of time and space that is captured in a wine. Different elements like vine age, farming practices, and winemaking can highlight Terroir. However, Terroir is only potential.
As grape vines grow older, the roots grow deeper, seeking water and stability. The plant gains protection against drought, heat, and many of the events that affect younger plants. As the vine continues to establish, the fruit gains consistency. In deep rooted vines, the data grape growers and winemakers collect, like pH(acid strength), titratable acidity(amount of acid), and sugar (measured in brix in the USA), become closely related year after year. This is in opposition to younger, shallow rooted vines. Young vines have larger shifts in these numbers from one vintage to the next. Flavor also becomes more stable over time. Older vines produce flavors, which show distinction of place and can be recognized tasting blind. Deep roots show a Terroir’s potential.
The methods of establishing and farming a vineyard are paramount in realizing a Terroir’s potential. When establishing a vineyard, many choices are made. Are the best vines selected for the site? Is the topsoil moved, compacted, or altered? Is the vineyard planted with high or low density of vines? Are the vines grafted or on their own roots? These are just some of the initial decisions that over time affect vine health. To establish a vineyard with deep roots, it is important to have healthy plants that force their roots deep into the soil. Some farming practices like irrigating and fertilizing initially appear to help vine health. Over time, these practices hurt the establishment of deep roots. If all the vines needs are met on the surface, there is no benefit to pushing roots deep. The vines become addicted to easy living. While living easy, the relationships between acid, sugar, and flavor are no longer dependant on Terroir, they are dependant on the farmer. Farming is important in realizing Terroir potential.
A farmer is responsible for the raw materials of wine but the winemaker is responsible for them once they enter the winery. Just as a farmer can affect the balance of a grape in the vineyard, a winemaker can influence that balance in wine. In the winery, a winemaker must use restraint to make wines that are reflective of a place. The relationship of acid, sugar, and flavor is Terroir specific. However, this balance is often manipulated for consistency and stability. The grapes must be picked at the correct time so that this balance stays within the comfort zone of the winemaker, otherwise the grapes will be manipulated and cease to reflect Terroir. Tools like oak and stainless should be used to accentuate the wine and not to hide deformities in finished wine. A winemaker must think through the entire winemaking process in order to show and not distort Terroir.
Having the best piece of dirt is only the first step in realizing Terroir. A good vineyard is not a guarantee of great wine. Great wine is made from vines with deep roots. Farming practices need to create grapes with distinction by forcing deep roots. The winemaker must make the correct decisions and use restraint. They must strive to be humble enough to let the fruit show its beauty and a sense of place. The resulting combination of these elements just might reach a Terroir’s potential.
Winemaker John Lyon