Look to the New World for Terroir

I think I’ve finally concluded that in the Old World (Europe) "Terroir" is really "tradition".

The European wines from different appellations, large and small, that you drink tend to have a consistent and particular characteristic not because the climate and soil from that appellation force upon the wine a particular character, but because there are a set of traditional winemaking and grape growing techniques in an area that lead the wines in a particular direction. Those traditions relate to how the wine is made, which clones of a variety are planted, how the wine is aged…oh and sometimes the climate and soil is such that it adds its component to the traditional characteristic too.

This is a "broad" definition of terroir, I’ll admit. But if we are going to ask that the idea of "terroir" deliver to us expectations about wines of a region, then I don’t think there is any other way to define European terroir. Appellations wines in Europe taste the way they do mainly because of the traditional vinification and grapegrowing methods that are employed there.

New World appellations don’t have this tradition of terroir. And this means something important:

If you are looking for a region where wines of an appellation can have characteristics that relate directly to the place where they are grown, rather than to the people who make them, you probably want to look to the New World.

I was stung by this revelation while at an Appellation America-sponsored exploration into the Cabernet Sauvignon of the Atlas Peak appellation. As I listened to the six winemakers talk about the characteristics of Atlas Peak Cabernet, there was actually very little talk of any consistent winemaking or grapegrowing techniques that people who make these special wines all employ. In fact, they all employ different techniques for getting the grapes ripe and turning them into wine. They don’t all use the same clones of Cabernet either, perhaps one of the most important reasons wines of a particular region in Europe often taste similar.

More than anything else about the Atlas Peak appellation Cabernets was the real balance of acid that, though elevated, helped to make the wines distinctive, as well as more prominent tannins than other Cabernets from the Napa Valley region. Winemakers from Astrale e Terra, Atlas Peak Winery, Pahlmeyer, Elan, Krupp Brothers and others all noticed these characteristics in the 2002 vintage Cabernets we tasted.

But back to the idea of Terroir.

The different definitions of this concept seem to abound. Yet they all in the end attempt to answer the question, why do wines from a particular region taste the way they do? The first step is to identify the characteristics that tend to follow wines from a region. Appellation America is doing this with their ongoing series of "Discovery Tastings" of wines from regions across the country.

After you identify a characteristic that is located in the wines of a region, the next step is answering the question, from where does this unique characteristic come? It strikes me that it is much easier put the source of that characteristic in the ground and in the climate when there is no real tradition behind the clones, grapegrowing and winemaking in a region. And this is exactly what we have in the New World…no real traditions.

It is somewhat ironic that it should be the New World where the notion of terroir equaling what nature has to give is best demonstrated; the French and Europeans, at least the most nationalistic of them, often argue that the New World does not have "terroir". This is of course a silly notion if you define terroir as the result of what the climate and soil brings to the wine. This definition implies that the Sahara desert would deliver terroir.

What is meant by "the New World has no terroir" is that the new world has no real traditions that can be associated strongly with any particular appellations. And this in turn is the exact reason why the New World appellations are the best places to find terroir.

4 Responses

  1. Erwin Dink - May 8, 2006

    Wonderful insight. Now I’m wondering about the relationship between long established regional traditions and climate/soil. Are those traditions so entrenched because they were born from years of working with a unique geographical environment? Or were they imposed on the region for other practical reasons? Could terroir actually be meant more to speak to the relationship between the winemaker and the land rather than simply the nature of the land itself?

  2. tom - May 8, 2006

    I think your comment about terroir being the relationship between the land and the winemaker is the right one in most cases. In fact, I’d argue that in general the grower and winemaker have far more to do with the final character of a wine than the climate and soil.

  3. Ben - May 9, 2006

    I have to side with Erwin. I have grown winegrapes on LI for 23 years and though I use many of the same techniques of vineyard management as are used in Napa, and the winemaking regimen may also be quite similar, the end product is distinctly different, and that difference is caused by soil and climate. The techniques are different, to be sure, but they are driven by the differences in the fruit, which reflect the difference in terroir.

  4. tom merle - May 9, 2006

    I’d like someone to tell me what’s wrong with the good old American meaning of the word “territory” when discussing place as it affects vino. I see no difference between this word from our language vs. the various dimensions contained in/associated with the prettified (=french fried) term “terroir”.
    Tom Other

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