The grapes we make wine out of come from sturdy plants. They don’t need much manipulation. They don’t need great soil or lots of water. In fact, if you plant them in rich, black, loamy soil, like the soils of central Minnesota, Wisconsin or Iowa, they suffer and grow poorly. These soils are too rich, too good and too well-suited to plants that need help to thrive. Wine grapes don’t need much help; all they need is heat and something akin to dirt.
The grape that makes wine is not the grape you see in the grocery store. It is a special grape from Europe called Vitis Vinifera. These are wine grapes because they have the best characteristics for making wine. North American grapes, called Vitis Lambrusca, are not well-suited to making wines, but they are well-suited to eating as fruity snacks.
Vitis Vinifera is better known as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Riesling, and hundreds of other varieties. France is the homeland of many of these plants. The French have a term for the best dirt to grow these varieties. They call it terroir, pronounced: ter’ wär.
Terroir isn’t just the dirt, it is the idea that a specific place produces a specific taste. The wind, the temperature, the water and, of course, the dirt, all contribute to terroir. This isn’t an ancient idea, but it isn’t young either. It is something that patient farming and manipulation of the land will teach a generation. The monasteries of Burgundy were probably the first in France to notice terroir.
As the Roman Empire crumbled and the Dark Ages began, the most productive lands were given over to the production of grains such as oats and wheat. The new Christian monastic orders petitioned the lords for land to cultivate their communities. The warlords knew any land they gave to the church would be owned by God and not by them. Land was given, but more often than not, God was given the less desirable land such as hilltops and mountain sides. This land was more suited to goats than oats. But through patient practice and careful work, the monks discovered that Vitis Vinifera, primarily Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, preferred the warmer hillsides and rocky soils they were granted. Through this quirk of fate, the local lord gave his least productive land to the monastery and the monks turned it into the most valuable farmland in France producing some of the finest wines in the world.
While terroir is a French concept, it applies to anywhere wine grapes are grown. And for the wine drinker, this can be a fun tool for exploring the taste of your favorite variety. Some grapes exhibit terroir better than others. These are called the Noble Grapes.
They are Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Riesling. These grapes taste different depending on where they are grown. A Burgundian Pinot Noir will taste very different from a Pinot Noir from Sonoma California. A Riesling from the Mosel River in Germany will taste different than a Riesling from the Columbia River in Washington. A Cabernet Sauvignon blend from Bordeaux will taste different from a Napa Cab. The same grape grown in different geographic areas with different climates produce different wines and that concept is called terroir. The dirt makes the difference.
Want to experience terroir this summer? Try these two Sauvignon Blancs (both should cost about $20 and are available locally):
1. Sancerre. This wine is from a small hilltop town in the Loire River Valley in central France. It is dry, herbal and crisp. Serve it chilled but not too cold, and eat it with light summer fare such as salad or fish. The classic pairing is goat cheese. I suggest a slab of goat cheese on half of a fresh apricot on a warm summer afternoon paired with a chilled glass of Sancerre.
2. Sauvignon Blanc from California. My personal favorite is a wine produced by the St. Supéry vineyard in the Napa Valley. This wine is dry and fruity with strong aromas of grapefruit and lime. Serve it well-chilled with salad, grilled chicken or light pasta dishes.
Devere is a licensed wine educator in Minnesota. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.