I started class the other night by asking how many of my students had heard the term terroir: Most had. So then I asked them what it meant and the room quieted down. Tentatively, they began to mention the definitions they had heard while I scribbled them on the board. “Of the earth.” “The effects of soil on the vine.” “That a wine tastes like where it came from.” And so on.
As I told them, there’s no right answer. What, exactly, defines terroir is one of the most-debated topics in the ivory tower of wine geekdom. I gave them Matt Kramer’s clever definition — somewhereness ” and my favorite description — a sense of place. I told them that some people say it’s whatever nature gives to the grape, but I have a more inclusive description: I don’t feel that you can separate the culture so easily. The way a vintner trains a vine. The traditional mindsets about winemaking. A Bordeaux must taste the way it does in part because the English were such a strong market for hundreds of years.
So how do you teach something that has no definition? You pour a lot of wine and talk about the factors that shaped each one.
I started the class by pouring a traditional Chablis (which is made with Chardonnay) and a rich, though unoaked, California Chardonnay. The descriptions overlapped to some extent (lemon zest, for instance) but the California Chardonnay evoked tropical fruits and had a heavy weight, while the Chablis prompted descriptions of stones and seemed more acidic. That, I told them, was the broadest stroke of terroir. Here in California, we get hot temperatures that saturate the grapes with fruit flavors and lower the acid. In Chablis, the cold temperatures and chalky soil tend to produce leaner wines with less fruit and more minerals.
After that, I poured a Sancerre and a Pouilly-Fumé. The two villages practically face each other across the Loire river, and both white wines are made with Sauvignon Blanc. The wines were similar, my students decided, but they did call out differences. This is terroir on a smaller scale and still, to some extent, in broad strokes. Sancerre has more south-facing slopes but the chalky soil and steep slope drains water away from the thirsty vines, yielding more acidity despite the greater sun exposure. Pouilly-Fumé is flatter, and the flinty soil can leave a taste in the wine (though not in this one). (As a digression, we talked about Fumé Blanc, the California term, coined by Robert Mondavi, for Sauvignon Blanc made in a Loire-esque style.)
Next, I poured three Premier Cru Burgundies from 2005: Morot’s Cent-Vignes and his Toussaints and Xavier Monnot’s Toussaints. This is terroir at a more intimate level: different vineyards within a single region. Oftentimes in this class, students pick the vineyard bottlings as more similar than the ones from the same producer, but most of the class called the two Morots as the most similar. That didn’t exactly make a good illustration of the Burgundian fascination with terroir, but I would have sided with them: The Morots had more extraction and heavier flavors.
We closed the night with two Spätlese Rieslings from Kerpen in the Mosel. Same ripeness level, same region, but, again, different vineyards close by each other (and, I believe, on the same side of the river.) We talked about the differences and how the Mosel, along with Burgundy, is one of the few places where terroir is at its most obvious.
This week, we’ll be talking about blending and blind tasting.