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When Terroir Was a Dirty Word

By Robert Haas

Take a look at this picture of the half-bottle of 2010 Meursault from Thierry and Pascale Matrot that my wife, Barbara and I opened for lunch on our little back patio yesterday.  We enjoyed lunch outdoors because the temperature at noon was 68 degrees, 20 degrees cooler than Monday!

RZH Meursault 2010

Who, only 49 years ago, in Burgundy, would ever have imagined that fine Burgundy wines would be finished in other than cork?  Not me, for sure.  Nor would have Thierry Matrot’s father Pierre or grandfather Joseph.  Matrot’s importer Vineyard Brands tells me that sales in the U.S. have soared since the wine was introduced in screw cap closure. 

The screw cap reads,“Noblesse du Terroir”. Terroir, the difficult-to-translate RZH Jancis 2French noun, has come to mean the cumulative impact on a finished wine of the soil and climate (and some say human) specifics of where the wine's grapes were grown. Wines with terroir are much sought-after and admired by today's growers, wineries and wine writers and critics, and consumers.  The Oxford Companion to Wine, published in 1994 and edited by Jancis Robinson (excerpted right) introduces the subject in four full columns, starting with the displayed paragraphs.  In Robinson's definition, terroir is noble, the underpinning of appellation controlée system and central to the philosophy of wine in the Old World.

Now take a look at the seven-line entry of Frank Schoonmaker, America’s foremost wine expert and author in 1964, about terroir.  His association, rather than the "somewhereness" the wine exhibits, is more of a taste of dirt, neither elegant nor elevated. Look at his description of gout de terroir: "somewhat unpleasant, common, persistent”:

RZH Schoon 2

Why this sea change?  I believe that it has been driven by the influence of new grape plantings in the New World, and particularly in California.  In the old world and particularly France, with thousands of years’ experience, the legislated Appellations Controllées designated the great “terroirs”. But even in the Old World, greatness was traditionally associated with particular vineyards and came only gradually in the second half of the twentieth century to be associated with the environmental conditions that gave those vineyards their specific character.

In California, modern planting and marketing history only dates back to 1933, the end of prohibition.  Early-on, California wines were field blends named after French appellations such as Claret, Burgundy, Chablis, etc., though the wines in the bottle had little or nothing to do with the wines (or even the grapes) traditional in these regions.  As the industry became more sophisticated, higher quality vintners -- led most influentially by Robert Mondavi -- adopted varietal names such as Cabernet-Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Merlot to differentiate themselves from the mostly ordinary field blends. But while varietal labeling offered clarity, more was needed to identify quality wines.  Did they come from growing areas well suited to the grapes in the wine?  Thus began the American Viticultural Area (AVA) designations, and central to the AVA's raison d'etre is the concept that each appellation shares similarities in their soils and climate that gives the wines that are grown there a shared character. 

Of course, the AVA system is based on the models used in France, Italy, Spain, Germany and elsewhere in the traditional wine-growing regions of Europe.  But unlike Old World appellations, American AVA's are not restricted to specific grapes.  It may not be traditional to grow Tempranillo in Napa or Cabernet in Santa Maria, but you're welcome to do so.  The AVA just specifies where the grapes are grown, and it's up to you to make your case for the quality of the end product.  And central to the growing significance of terroir has been wineries' efforts to support their claims to quality by geographic designation.  After all, while Cabernet-Sauvignon could be grown anywhere, there are places where it's better suited than others.  Good “Terroir” implied not just a good place to grow grapes, but a good place to grow specific grapes, resulting in an appealing character of place in the wines produced there. 

Screwcaps share some of this history.  They were first developed in the late 1960's by a French company, popularized by wineries in the New World (Australia and New Zealand deserve most of the credit here) and now have reached sufficient acceptance that they're even being used for noble French terroirs like Meursault. 

Cheers to good ideas, wherever they originate.