Does Terroir Matter?

(Above: I image googled ‘terroir’ and got this abstract painting* back as a result)

A challenging question apparently, and while I would answer in the affirmative, that yes it does, there are people out there who might disagree. And that’s fine.

But I did drink a syrah the other night that had me wondering for a moment, really, if terroir does matter. The wine in question came from Bolgheri on the Tuscan coast–the 2001 Scrio, a syrah from Le Macchiole is, frankly, pretty awesome wine. All savory and peppery, too, with the density of Cornas. But if I think about it for a minute, I realize that the wine (a French grape on the Tuscan coast), and my reaction to it (to think of Cornas, which is neither coastal nor anywhere near Tuscany), are somewhat contradictory to the commonly accepted notion of terroir. Did it matter where this syrah came from, or just that it was good syrah?

So it was with great delight that I read Joel Stein’s article at Time, “Fifty States of Wine”. His premise is simple: Now that all fifty states make wine, why not try a wine from each state and see if and how the concept of terroir works here in the US. In other words, can you make good wine anywhere? Or as Stein puts it: “Great wine keeps coming from surprising new places–New Zealand, Lebanon, Slovenia–so why not Nebraska?” He does seem to disregard winemaking style–a glaring omission if you ask me, but considering that this is Time Magazine, probably a moot point.

One of the more choice sections:

In reviewing somewhat randomly selected bottles priced around $15 to $20, I learned a few general truths. White is easier to make than red. Wines made at golf courses are not good. And the importance of terroir is definitely questionable, since no region of the country seems ill suited for winemaking except the Deep South, all of which I think Sherman salted. Though I didn’t touch the dirt on these vineyards, my impression is that it’s more a matter of finding the right grape for your climate. (Michigan’s riesling was one of my favorites.)

(Go here to read the entire article)

* – painting by Clay Vajgrt

3 thoughts on “Does Terroir Matter?

  1. Good for you WW (can I call you WW?) to be keeping up with “Pop News”. First the Julia Child gem, and now this. You’re very diligent. And what an elaborate experiment by the intrepid Stein! And what utter rubbish. Although perhaps I should read the whole thing? Nah. Instead, I’ll take cues from and paraphrase Tom Townsend (Metropolitan, ca 1990): You don’t have to read Time to have an opinion about it. So what does that mean, terroir doesn’t matter because no region is ill-suited for winemaking? Says who? And even if that were true (it’s not) it’s hardly an argument against terroir. The Gruets searched far and wide (allegedly) to find appropriate dirt for their good (again allegedly) Champagne-style New Mexico sparklers. Kid from my high school did the same in Arizona and ended up in a remote area of the state with cooler climate, elevation and southern exposure. It’s not like I can make decent wine in my backyard just because I want to (although I live not far from that guy in Bel Air who makes Moraga. His vineyards have got to be among the most valuable in the world… well, they were before the whole sub-prime thing). I guess I’m forgetting about the remarkable Marsannes produced in the Gary, Indiana AOC…

    Besides, the great wines from New Zealand and Slovenia usually come from great dirt (and the Slovenians have been making wine for a very long time, long enough to find worthwhile grape/dirt matches). Stein can drink Marlborough Sauv Blancs and think they’re great if he wants. But I can’t name one of those that’s expressive of terroir. Felton Road, Pyramid Valley, Hanz Herzog (I’ll stop at three) meanwhile have taken great pains to find great dirt for their wines. My guess is that Stein either has no palate at all or he managed to seek out the one smart guy in Michigan who grows on steep, slate, southwestern facing slopes.

    Look, I think we could have a very satisfying relativist vs materialist debate on the importance of terroir. Better still if we were at Terroir (SF) and were, at least, half in the bag. In truth, I’m not sure terroir matters either. But, for me, it’s more fun to pretend that it does than it doesn’t.

    Wow… I have way too much free time. Who knew Time magazine could be so provocative? Great discovery. This was fun.


  2. I heard recently that some British wine was reviewed against French wine and came out on top, suggesting to me that perhaps terroir doesn’t matter. Bet they had to work hard though, can you imagine the weather problems.

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