Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Every wine is a terroir wine

An informed discussion on terroir and blending requires a clear understanding of the scope and definition of those two elements. In seeking to provide the prerequisite information, I have written a framing blog post on the scope of the blending decision and directed the reader to a prior post on the historical roots of the concept of terroir. In this post I present my thoughts on the concept of terroir.

What is terroir? That is a question that is asked and answered, I am sure, an excruciating number of times on a daily basis. And the answers are as numerous as the number of times the question is asked. To me, the predominant terroir driver is the physical environment within which the wine grapes are grown.

Grapevines have a set of needs, and the wines that are produced from the grapes provide insight as to how the physical environment went about meeting those needs. First I begin with the needs.

Next, as an example, we look at how those grapevine needs are met in the Masseto vineyard.

The Ornellaia estate encompasses 180 hectares -- 97 of which are planted to vine -- divided between two properties: the 37 hectares of vineyards and the winery on Via Bolgherese and a 60-hectare property called Bellaria which is located to the north of Bolgheri.  The Via Bolgherese property is divided into a 30.37-hectare vineyard dedicated to fruit for non-Masseto Ornellaia wines and a 6.63 hectare vineyard dedicated to the growth of Merlot grapes for the fabled Masseto wine.

The Masseto vineyard is sub-divided into three distinct sections based on soil characteristics and resultant wines.  The lowest section of the vineyard is called Masseto Junior and its soils are characteristically a clay-sand mix.  According to the winery the wines produced from grapes grown in this section are lighter and serve to smooth out the tannic roughness associated with the wines from the other sections as well as contributing to the overall delicacy of the final product.  The middle portion of the vineyard is called Masseto Centrale and has the highest levels of Pliocene clays. Wines produced from these grapes are powerful, concentrated, and tannic.  The top portion of the vineyard is located 120 meters above sea level and the soil here consists of loose clays and sand along with pebbles.  The soil here is the shallowest in the overall vineyard and the grapes tend to ripen earliest. The wines produced from this section of the vineyard are dense and linear.

This is what the physical environment offers in three separate parts of the Masseto vineyard as it strives to fulfill the needs of grapevine. These wines manifest terroir effects, driven by the physical environment in which the grapes were grown.

Added to the foregoing, and of recent vintage, is the role of microbial populations in terroir. As reported in a recent Wine Spectator article, scientists from the UK and NZ have found that yeasts play a large role in wine regional identity. These scientists isolated Saccharomyces cerevisae strains from six NZ regions and found that post-fermentation levels of 29 chemical aroma and flavor compounds varied according to the regional strain used. In a post on Bodegas Catena wines, Just Grapes reports on a mold -- occurring in only one section of the Adrianna vineyard -- that enhances the efficiency of vine nutrient absorption. Catena makes a wine with grapes sourced only from that section of the vineyard and that wine -- mundus bacillus terrae -- is, according to Just Grapes, "remarkably distinctive and expressive." The key here is that the microbial differences are tied to location and so are correlated to the physical environment in which the grapes are grown.

After a lot of thought and struggle, I have decided not to include the winemaker in my definition of terroir because the final product is so dependent on winemaker style. And that style is variant from winemaker to winemaker and from period to period. For example, in Rioja, and Montalcino, and Barolo, a traditional style came under attack from modernists. In all three of those environments you now have folks who have stuck to the traditional path, ones who have gone fully modern, and others who have struck a middle ground. The one thing that has remained constant (except for the warming) is the physical environment.  If the winemaker picks at the wrong time, the terroir characteristics are modified. If too much residual sugar is left post-fermentation, terroir characteristics can be muted. The winemaker can also use techniques to dampen terroir effects and produce a "house-style." And the jury is still out on the terroir effects of postmodern winemaking.

Terroir is about uniqueness and distinctiveness and can be extremely granular. That is to say, a specific portion of a vineyard can be identified as a terroir (the basis for cru wines).

I differentiate between terroir and appellation requirements. While appellation requirements may drive a sense of place, the "sameness" may highlight or dampen the terroir effects depending on the similarity of the physical environment within which the estates are operating.

So, those are my thoughts on terroir. Next I will look at blending terroirs.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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