Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Tare What?

Hang out with corkheads long enough, and someone will eventually start talking about terroir. Wine's typically not something to be scared of, so what gives?

No, not "terror" -- "terroir!" It's pronounced "tare-WAHR" and is the backbone of any wine. Specifically -- it's where the bloomin' grapes come from.

The term is often used in discussions of the soil in which grapes grow, but I prefer the broader definition. Terroir certainly includes the soil itself, but also encompasses the climate and the topography of the growing region. The most obvious example of the expression of terroir is in the classification of French and Italian wines.

To wit, the terroir of the Bordeaux region produces a certain type of wine. That’s then further divided into the specific area of Bordeaux (Pomerol, Margaux, etc.) and then even further into the various Chateaus – like Lafite-Rothschild, et al. You see this more and more with many American wines as well. You’ll see wines labeled “Central Coast” or “Willamette Valley” – and these wines often get down to listing the individual vineyards from which the grapes are harvested.

So, why does all this matter? What difference does it make where these wines are from – especially wines like the ones we’ve got here – wines that aren’t the tippy top of the scale?

Because where the grapes are grown can tell you as much about what’s in that bottle as the grape varietal itself. If you’ve been reading the Vine for awhile – or even if you’ve just stumbled your way through Wine School, you’ll notice that there are often huge flavor variations among wines made of the same grape. The largest of these flavor differences go hand in hand with geography. For instance, a sauvignon blanc from New Zealand will generally have flavors of tropical fruit, a white Bordeaux often has a lighter, minerally taste, and an American sauvignon might taste more like grapefruit.

Terroir also explains why some regions grow certain grapes. Pinot noir, for instance, needs a very particular type of climate. That’s why so few regions produce the grape. And it’s no accident that New Zealand is about as far south of the equator as Oregon and Burgundy are north.

I bring all this up because knowing a wine’s terroir (and the general flavors of wines from that area) comes in very handy when you’re trying to find a wine either to pair with food or just to have on its own. As a rule of thumb – wines grown in cooler climates tend to be more delicate and have more complex flavors. Warmer climate wines tend to be higher in alcohol and have much more powerful fruit tastes.

One of the complaints you'll often hear about wines in the price range we're most interested in is the "uniformity of flavor" these wines often have. "One tastes like another," you'll hear many people say. Even among similarly priced wines from the same country, you’ll find significant differences. As an example, I tasted three American syrahs -- often considered to be fairly uniform. I looked at three, all between $10-12:

I started with the J. Lohr 2005 South Ridge Syrah. J. Lohr's syrah comes from Paso Robles. Red wines from Paso Robles (about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and inland across the Santa Lucia mountains) have some consistent notes across varietals. The Paso Robles Wine website quotes Matt Kramer’s book in stating that almost all their reds (they grow primarily Cabernet, Merlot, Grenache, and Syrah) have soft tannins and rich fruitiness. This is another perfect example of terroir description -- common flavor elements across grape varietals. This syrah falls squarely along those lines. The nose of this wine is big, fruity and smoky. It tastes much like it smells -- with flavors of blueberries, blackberries and leather. The finish is leathery and dry, but the tannins soften considerably as the wine opens. If I hadn't known better initially, I'd thought I'd been handed a cabernet, and this certainly could pass as a cabernet’s first cousin.

From there, we move on to the Rock Rabbit 2004 Central Coast Syrah. Rock Rabbit grows most of its grapes slightly north of J. Lohr in the "Central Coast" region near Monterey. The wines from this region tend to be big and juicy, and this syrah also follows right along. According to the winemaker, this wine is made in "Australian style," and I would concur. The nose is big and plummy -- a fruit bomb to be sure. The flavor is very fruit dominant, although it mellows a bit after a sip or two. Plenty of plums and licorice, and the finish is only slightly dry. It's quite a contrast.

Finally, I went with the Hogue 2005 Syrah. I expected a big difference, and I wasn't disappointed. Hogue is from Washington State, where the weather is considerably cooler than what you'll find in California. As such, the wine is much more balanced and almost delicate. The nose has much more subtle fruit -- raspberry comes to mind, with a smoky undertone. The flavor is "smooth earthy" -- blueberries and caramel. The finish is long and not very dry. A very pleasant wine, and a much more complex one than the other two.

So, have no fear of terroir – let it be your ace in the hole when it comes to picking the “right wine.” Much as in the description of Paso Robles above, you can feel pretty safe in picking out a flavor profile once you get exposed to a certain terroir. Give it a go and see what you find!

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