Tag Archives: Terroir

Terroir Controversy


Terroir – Webster Dictionary Definition:

“The combination of factors including soil, climate, and sunlight that gives wine grapes their distinctive character.”

What a simplistic explanation!  Does “soil” include proper drainage, or the angle of the grade?  Does “climate” include the daily temperature variation?  Does “sunlight” include the degree of latitude?  All of this and much more make up the definition of Terroir.  I can think of other related factors: the altitude of the vineyard, are the vineyards terraced, is the vineyard in full sunlight, or shaded at times, etc…

'Bruce! 'ow many times must I tell 'ya? Only one wave of the bloomin' terroir flag over the fruit!'

Is Terroir a Real Concept?

“Terroir” has been one of the most misunderstood and controversial concepts in the wine industry, since vineyards began popping up all over the New World.  It has been a critical part of the tradition of European winemaking from it’s very beginnings.  European wines have always been more about “Place”, than Varietal.  New World skeptics continually site the lack of scientific data that supports the chemical impact of soil composition on flavors developed in wine grapes… completely absurd! Whether, or not the chemistry supports it, your palate can taste it.  Most contrary opinions point to the soil component, when Terroir is actually so much more.  Soil is just a small piece of the vineyard conditions that impact the character of wine.

'That may be what the wine glossary says, but to me, terroir means a fantatic view.'

A Personal Connection to Terroir

I usually recall most wines by either vineyard, or winery location, or the underlying experience, rather than the flavor.  I prefer wines aged in neutral oak, rather than new oak, so the fruit can express itself fully.  When I taste acidity, I see morning fog in the vineyards.  When I taste savory flavors, I think cooler climate.  When I taste concentration, I think small berries and making the vines work hard to ripen…  There is more to the impact of Terroir, than just added minerality.  Sometimes, when I sit alone enjoying a well made wine, I try to visualize the vineyard from the character of the wine.  Focusing on “Place” can truly enhance your enjoyment of wine, if you embrace the idea.

Why Does Terroir Matter?

UC – Davis has added so much to the world of wine in the last decade and it is exactly that influence that has swung the pendulum too far.  A scientific approach to wine can foster a dependence on chemistry alone in making decisions impacting the final product.  I have been looking at this issue for many years now and have come to the conclusion:  the making of wine is definitely equal parts science and art.  Two prominent winemakers I interviewed this year (Kathleen Inman and Todd Anderson) embrace this kind of thinking.  Their ideas are interesting and worth sharing, because they focus winemaking on the result (not the process).  This winemaking strategy requires starting with a vision, even before bud-break.  In my experience, this alternative view is more likely to produce balanced and structured wines with a textural component. That last piece is too often missing from wines today.

So, where does this topic fit into the idea of Terroir?  Very simple… a poor understanding of the fruit and its influences will cause poor winemaking decisions.  Winemakers cannot express the art in their craft, without an understanding of the Terroir that has produced the fruit.  I will take this even one step further… Terroir is not a fixed concept.  Vintage variation from year-over-year of climate change can influence the sense of “Place” that wine brings.  If these ideas are starting to connect, you will realize vintage variation is NOT such a bad thing.  It just ties you closer to “Place”.  When a winemaker works with climate variation (instead of fighting it), some years the wines are silky instead of velvetty, lighter instead of heavier bodied, or have soft instead of chewy tannins.  Personally, I enjoy most wine styles and can really appreciate that diversity, often coming from the same vineyard each year.

'As Chuck's definition of terroir dragged past the 20-minute mark, Suzy concluded, the longer the explanation, the less likely you know what the word means.'

Are We All Tired of This Discussion?

Everyone associated with wine in any way has probably had this discussion at one time, or another… and is probably tired of the topic.  Please don’t lose your patience, it is much more important than you may realize.  It could even hold the key to introducing an appreciation of premium wines to the average consumer.  If my introduction to wine was any indication, I was appreciating Terroir long before I even knew the word.  I enjoyed wine country vacations for many years, before I understood what I was drinking.

Humor me for a second… visualize:

  • sitting in a rocking chair at sunset
  • on a porch overlooking row upon row of vineyard
  • enjoying a glass of wine

It just sort of warms the soul!  I think there are more consumers that would connect with this experience than the industry realizes.

Now stop and ask yourself:  

  • Did you choose a location for that view?
  • Did a specific wine, or style come to mind?

Wine can enrich life, but you must choose the path and open your mind… a few other people through history agree with me:


“If you have to ask if it’s too early to drink wine, you’re an amateur and we can’t be friends.” – Anonymous

  • I will have to use this one next time I visit Napa…

“Good company, good wine, good welcome, can make good people.” – Shakespeare

“Wine is more than a beverage, it’s a lifestyle.” – Anonymous

“Wine to me is passion. It’s family and friends. It’s warmth of heart and generosity of spirit. Wine is art. It’s culture. It is the essence of civilization and the art of living.” – Robert Mondavi

  • This is a great quote. He was able to put into words the affect wine had on his life.

“Great wine requires a madman to grow the vine, a wise man to watch over it, a lucid poet to make it, and a lover to drink it.” – Salvador Dali

“Wine is sure proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” – Benjamin Franklin

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Wine & the Football Couch Potato

My wife and I started our wine country vacations nearly twenty years ago. Not very long after, we began collecting wines. At first, we stored the wine in racks, then later in expensive environmentally controlled cellars. Initially, we bottle-aged reds only, then whites and finally sparkling. A couple of years ago, I was formally trained in a classroom, passed the Sommelier exam and received my certification. It has been a wild and crazy ride. If this already has you thinking, “I could do that!”… It is time to accept your secret inner wine-o and warn your children. The first one to move out will lose his/her bedroom to a well-decorated, Tuscan themed wine room!

The Transformation

I graduated from a beer and whiskey drinking male stereotype, to someone who spends a good chunk of his income on fine food and wine. How the heck does THAT happen? I think my path broke the mold when it comes to your typical wine-o/foodie archetype. For the 6-pack of Budweiser Sunday football guys everywhere (old me), I will attempt to look deep inside and reveal the wonder of this miraculous change.

1. Romance

No, not that namby-pamby touchy-feely kind. When a guy figures out that your honey can be talked into just about anything, after a few bottles of REALLY GOOD red wine on a patio overlooking a beautiful vineyard, you will understand the connection between wine and hormones.

2. “Mellow Buzz”

The red wine effect is unlike any other alcoholic beverage. You feel good, warm inside, relaxed, sexy, friendly and all the world’s problems are thoroughly pointless.

3. Social Connections

You meet people when enjoying the wine country and drinking wine. It adds friends to your circle and you get the extra added benefit of impressing them with your manly description of floral aromas.

4. Cheap Wine vs. the Good Stuff

If only I had never traveled to Napa that first time, it would have saved me at least $100K over the last 10 years. Before that trip, I had never spent more than $15 on a bottle of red wine and it was all pretty awful. Had I been born in Italy, where the difference between cheap wine and the good stuff is not as great (topic for another day), my life would have been entirely different. I would have been wealthier, closer to retirement, much more good looking and writing this post from my villa on the Tuscany coast.

5. Crazy Flavors in Wine

How the heck do you make grape juice taste like graphite, or tobacco? Or for that matter… mint, bacon, or eucalyptus? The big guy upstairs really put some mojo in those grapes!

6. Adventure

Terroir is more than a Dictionary definition, it is a wonderfully engaging concept. Not just from the perspective of its impact on flavors, but the idea of “place” it brings with it. With every new wine region, it brings new expressions of different varietals, new flavors and aromas… and provides a very different experience. Tie that to the regional cuisines associated with each and you have an endless journey of discovery.

The Journey

There it is. I never pushed. I was always drawn along the path. Ladies, want to see if that Sunday football couch potato can transform into the kind of guy that talks YOU into a vacation in the wine country… here’s your template. Best of luck though, while he may become that dreamboat you always wanted, he is sure to be in the poorhouse begging for foie gras on the nearest street corner!

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The 100 Point Wine Rating Scale has Become…

As wine media has begun reaching the consumer and wine critics are becoming rock stars… You have to ask yourself, just exactly how does this rating system work? On many websites, you will find an attempt at an explanation that reflects how the major critics SEEM to interpret it, but… does anyone really know definitively? There are no hard and fast rules. So hear is a quick look under the hood from the perspective of using the ratings as a method of selecting wines for your cellar.

As you walk through wine websites, you begin to notice there are virtually no ratings under 80, or over 95. I think the worst rating I have ever given a wine is 82. Of course this seems absurd, but regardless, if this is the standard… what do the ratings really mean? If you are the type that needs to make sense of this mess, follow me on my journey.

Criteria for the System

What exactly do the ratings evaluate: drinkability, age-worthiness, structure, balance? How do you compare entirely different styles using the scale: red, white, old-world, new world, sweet, fortified, etc. I am sure you get my drift here. Every critic’s wine notes and evaluation process is based on a different standard, therefore there is no frame of reference for the consumer. So, do the ratings have any real value, or are they just marketing ploys? Well, perhaps the intent is entirely marketing-focused, but I believe I have found ways the ratings can assist me in my wine purchasing decisions:


The majority of wine critics (AND fine wines collectors) have developed an educated palate. This assumption is important and I think largely true. I know for myself, I may not like a wine that others view as enjoyable, but that does not mean I cannot appreciate its quality. If the winemaker has produced a quality wine in its structure, balance and extracted flavors/aromas… I will not give it a poor score, even when I do not care for the wine personally. Again, I think this to be largely the case with the most (but not all) professional/semi-professional critics. the breaking point here for me is at 90. If the wine is rated 90, or over from several sources, odds are – it is a quality wine… but that does not guarantee that YOU will enjoy it. It is simply a place to start weeding out bottles not worth the investment. In my case, I know, I am missing many wines I might enjoy in the 85-89 range, but I try to visit wineries to sample what I can of those.

Callibrating Your Palate

Calibrate a particular critic’s palate to yours. Take a few minutes to taste wine and compare your impressions to the critics ratings and find one that generally matches your impressions. In my case, of the major critics, I think Stephen Tanzer is the closest to my palate. It is worth the time to find your match. I place a little more weight on an evaluation, when ST writes the note. Again that is just me personally.

Should the System be Changed?

I have read and many have explained to me that winemaking technology has improved tremendously over the last two decades and therefore there truly is no more “bad” wine… which is the reason why ratings do not drop below 80 any longer. I am willing to accept that, but if that is the case, then we MUST move to another system. I also believe a criteria for a new ratings system needs to be established. When I choose to purchase wines I have not tasted, here is my criteria:

  • Structure and balance: acidity, tannins, all the parts work together? Fuller, rounder wine with a mid-palate?
  • Fruit: fruit-forward, or not
  • Texture: wine coats your mouth, or crisp and clean
  • Terroir: the wine includes an expression of the local terroir?
  • Finish: flavors linger?

IMHO, if we rated each of these categories 1-10, that would provide a useful wine rating and evaluation!

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