The term “terroir” for many is confusing. What does the word terroir mean, after all? Well, terroir could really be used to describe the growing environment for almost any agricultural product; potatoes, wheat and lately tea comes to mind, besides the obvious connection many make to wine grape production. The word terroir derives from the French word terre or earth, but that only tells part of the story.
Terroir is a word that has been co-opted into the wine lexicon to convey how factors such as soil, climate, and geography combined with the grape’s genetics create a unique wine, especially marked with flavors and aromas that are distinct as a result of a combination of these factors. “Terroir Wines” are often so distinct, with such a sense of place and character, that its origins can often be discerned even when tasting blind.
In fact, many of the most famous wine regions such as Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne are based on this idea of terroir. These designated areas have vineyard areas that reflect similar soil types, geographical factors and common varietals, leading to an expected flavor and aroma profile.
Terroir producers and their estates often have certain attributes. First, they happen to have great vineyards that exist in a microclimate(s) that encourages the growth of concentrated, healthy fruit. The soil often has good drainage and is mineral rich. These growers respect their vineyards and soil, understanding that without great fruit, there can be no great wine.
In general, terroir producers use the minimum of pesticides and herbicides in the vineyard, if any at all. Taking weather condition factors into account, terroir producers avoid anything but the most natural of methods in the vineyard to prevent disease and louse infestation, believing that the least intervention in the vineyards produces wines that reflect the environment from which it comes. Likewise, in the cellar, these producers do the minimal to alter the wines; all the gimmicks to enhance and enrich is avoided.
To understand terroir wines, it may be best to look at wines that are “anti” terroir, or wines that lack a sense of place. These wines are easy to find. To sum it up, these are wines that could be made in a number of countries around the world and to borrow a phrase from Max von Kunow of Weingut von Hövel don’t “show their face in the glass.” Rather, these wines can display an “international” style that while often technically correct, could almost be termed generic as their exact origins are often impossible to discern.
You may have guessed already which wines dominate the wine landscape. Yes, the truth is these generic, albeit, often technically correct wines have flooded the market. But this doesn’t mean we should give up on finding wines that show true typicity of terroir, it simply means it takes more work…and drinking, to find these terroir gems.
After going to many tastings recently, I compiled a short list of terroir wines, focusing on small, family owned estates; some known, some almost unknown. One of these estates, Jurtschitsch Winery, is an Austrian producer that particularly excels at producing top Grϋner Veltliner and Riesling; varietals that somehow seem to mirror the soil particularly well .
Located in Langenlois, in the Kamptal, Jurtschitsch produces wines that scream terroir. In fact, their motto as espoused by winemaker Stephanie Hasselbach seems to be in making wines that express “terroir(s) without compromise.” The estate has been organic since 2009 and when possible uses natural yeasts for fermentation.
Their Grϋner Veltliners and Rieslings showed amazing minerality with each vineyard expressing a different soil type; the Loiserberg with mica schist, Dechant with loess, the Schenkenbichl site expressing gföhl gneiss, Käferberg with amphilbolite and the Lamm vineyard which has a loam-lime rich soil.
I tasted the 2012 Loiserberg Riesling, 2012 Zӧbing Heiligenstein Riesling and the 2012 Loiserberg Grϋner Veltliner and found intense minerality in every wine. The Loiserberg Erste Lage Riesling fermented with its own native yeast, has intense concentration of citrus and stone fruit flavors, racy acidity, finishing long.
2012 Zӧbing Heiligenstein Riesling is especially unique given the special soil of quartz that is found in this vineyard. The vineyard, Heiligenstein or Holy Stone, is known for producing especially mineral driven, rich Rieslings that are often fermented dry, but retain plenty of fruit concentration. Of course the estate produces other interesting wines, not to mention to compelling reds.
Although “New World” wines often get a bad rap for lacking typicity of terroir, Lawson’s Dry Hills located in Marlborough, New Zealand has been able to produce wines with complexity and a “sense of place.” Of special interest has been the 2012 Reserve Lawson’s Dry Hills Sauvignon Blanc, which was grown on a combination of alluvial, stoney topsoil and limestone-clay soil.
This wine is very aromatic with tropical and citrus notes and a very long, minerally finish. Lawson departs nicely from the often under-ripe, over-cropped vegetal flavors that are sometimes associated with New World Sauvignon Blancs. The rest of their line-up is also very interesting.
Champagne regions is renowned for producing wines that reflect its very specific growing conditions and soil composition. The Côte des Bar is known for its almost full-bodied roundness and complexity, the Côte des Blancs is more delicate and elegant, with a chalky soil that is particularly suited to Chardonnay. The Montagne des Reims is suited best Pinot Noir and produces powerful, rich wines. In the Marne Valley, Pinot Meunier dominates and produces flowery, fruity wines.
It could be argued that it is independent Grower-Champagnes Producers who are able to best demonstrate the different terroirs of Champagne best.
Benoit Tarlant, winemaker at Tarlant
When thinking of terroir and Champagne, Tarlant Champagne comes to mind. The Tarlant family has been involved in grape growing since 1687 and by 1780 started planting their own vineyards. The estate consists of 4 hectares on 4 different crus, breaking down to 55 parcels located in the villages of Oeuilly, Boursault, St. Agnan and Celles-lès-Condé.
The soils consists of Chalk, Sparnacien (Clay-limestone), Sand, limestone and small pebbles. The estate uses organic and biodynamic concepts in the vineyard and boasts vines that are on average 31 years old. Most of Tarlant’s Champagnes are between 0 to 6 grams per liter dosage and have spent 5 years on the lees with none going through malolactic fermentation.
Tarlant’s labels are information packed
Tarlant’s ”Terroir Revelations” include La Vigne D’Or (100% Pinot Meunier) from 50 year old vines and grown on sparnacian soil and La Vigne D’Antan made from 100% Chardonnay and grown on sand. La Vigne D’Antan is one of the only wines in Champagne to be made from ungrafted vines.
These terroir driven wines are truly special, however, the whole Tarlant line-up is exceptional, and as the estate is a pioneer of non-dosé wines it is definitely worth trying the Zero Rose (85% Chardonnay and 15% Pinot Noir) the fruit grown on limestone, sand, chalk and sparnacian soils and the Brut Nature (33% Chardonnay, 33% Pinot Noir, 33% Pinot Meunier) from sparnacian, limestone, sand and chalk.
Champagne Alexandre Le Brun, Vallee de la Marne, is a 3 hectare estate that sources its grapes from parcels in eight different villages. One of its vineyard’s holds Grand Cru status and the estate only uses natural yeasts.
The Blanc de Meunier is extra brut, 100% Pinot Meunier has 4 grams of dosage and very pretty, floral and wild strawberries notes.
The Blanc de Blancs is made up of the 2007 vintage also extra brut made from 100% chardonnay with 6 grams of dosage and comes from Choilly.
Karam Winery, one of a few wineries located in Southern Lebanon, located in the Jezzine area on the tip of the southern part of the country. Wine grapes have been grown in Jezzine for a few thousands of years, long before the Romans came to Lebanon. Karam’s vineyards have altitudes up to 1300 meters (4300 ft) and have a number of different soil types, from gravely to deeper, black soils.
Two wines, in particular, worth checking out from this estate are the Corpus Christi and the St. John. Corpus Christi is made from a blend of Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and has spent a year in the barrel. Ripe flavors of black fruits; black plum, black berry and cherry fruit, velvety mouth feel with soft tannins on the palate. The St. John is a blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Touriga. This blend offers some unique flavors, combined with the black plum, licorice, a touch of cedar and leather flavors.
Dirk van der Niepoort
I recently tasted through the Niepoort Port line-up and was reminded again, how terroir plays a big role in the making of top ports. I was able to taste through the line-up with winemaker-owner Dirk van der Niepoort, the fifth generation of this family owned estate. Dirk’s motto is to respect the terroirs of the Douro and is increasingly using more organic concepts in the vineyard.
One of the most exceptional ports at the tasting was the 2009 Late Bottled Vintage, a super concentrated, very ripe, tannic port that just started shedding some of its baby fat. It was loaded with jammy black fruit flavors and a touch of chocolate. The 2005 Coheita was full of dried fruit, nutty and spice flavors with some hints of chocolate.
The 2001 Colheita exudes more of that spicy, dried prune aroma as is expected with ports that have started developing. The 2011 Bioma Vinha Velha Vintage Port (cask sample), a single vineyard vintage port, rich, deep purple in color, not only are there jammy black fruit flavors, but an interesting floral, lavender and light cedar flavor that makes this port compelling even in extreme youth.
It goes without saying that the 1970 Vintage Port was spectacular. 1970 was an amazing year for port; very refined, dried prunes, hint of chocolate, spice and pepper.
Give terroir wines a try!