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

Midsummer Hedonism

Like many people in the wine biz, I’m part of a tasting group that meets regularly to sniff, sip, ‘n spit wines. I’m also part of another subgroup – with some of the same people from the main group – where instead of getting together and writing tasting notes that we’ll probably never read again, we cook a delicious dinner and mutually raid our cellars. We hosted the most recent dinner in San Francisco. With a couple days to work (and recover from a massive house party; Advil, natch), Simon and I assembled the menu: fava-pecorino crostini, hand-made fettucini with an earthy porcini-shitake ragù, roast leg of lamb with crispy potatoes and a salad of spicy summer greens, panna cotta with raspberries. Below, the wine spoils:

Apologies for the darkness of the shot; I was a little sauced by that point and not up to the task of adjusting the light settings on the camera. Poor Dampierre, forced to hide in the shadows like that.

The ’99 Giacosa Barbaresco was stunning, and continued to positively evolve over the course of the evening (and it killed with the fresh pasta); the 2001 Paleo, a Bolgheri cabernet franc from Le Macchiole, was supple and elegant, a distinctive expression of cabernet franc that tastes totally Italian. But then you would expect stellar performances from these wines. The shocker was the magnum 1986 Ahlgren Santa Cruz Mountains Semillon that my friend Matthew brought over. Fresh and vibrant, yet showing that semillon honey/waxy character, I found this wine (from Santa Cruz–wtf!?!?) to be just delicious. And because of the large bottle size, we got to drink it throughout the meal. Matthew had bought this recently at the winery, so that probably accounts for its freshness.

*The Santa Cruz Mountains is one of California’s more obscure AVAs, but one that’s totally worth getting to know (You can check out the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association here). I find that I’m constantly surprised by wines from here, and the ’86 Ahlgren Semillon was no exception.