When I first discovered the wonders of wine back in the 1980s, I encountered a lot of wines that I liked a lot.
Various bottlings of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Gewuztraminer, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon grabbed and held the attention of my taste buds. All the while, my brain was creating its own filing system of aromas and flavors for each variety and each winery’s take on the various varieties.
There was a lot to taste, and a lot to like. But the first wine I really LOVED was the “Rutherford Cuvee” Cabernet Sauvignon from Pine Ridge Winery. It not only became my special occasion wine, but it also cemented the idea of “terroir” in my head.
How could a Cabernet from the Rutherford district of the Napa Valley taste so different than a Cab from the Oakville district in the same valley only a few miles away? Or why did Napa’s “mountain” wines have such a different aroma, flavor and even textural profile than those crafted from grapes grown on the valley floor?
As I read books, enrolled in wine glasses and did more tasting — a lot more tasting — I came to realize that what the French call terroir really does matter.
Where a vineyard is located, its soil composition, how the vines are positioned in relation to the sun and how much rain the site receives are just a few of the factors that define terroir, and influence the ultimate aromas and flavors of finished wines.
Yes, it is possible for wineries — especially large ones with access to vineyards in multiple regions — to blend to a “house style” each year. Kendall Jackson’s Chardonnay, a mainstay on restaurant wine lists, is probably the best example of that.
But for smaller wineries, with limited vineyard sources, the importance of terroir can’t be overstated. For me, there was something about the flavor of Pine Ridge’s “Rutherford Cuvee,” something the local farmers refer to as “Rutherford dust,” that was simultaneously intriguing and beguiling.
Terroir definitely matters, and the best way to experience a terroir-defined wine is to try one made from grapes grown in a single vineyard. A few examples:
Try these wines, and toast the wonders of terroir.