Monday, May 4, 2009


Next weekend, we are having a group of people over for wine-tasting. The goal is to learn how to discern the terroir of wine -- i.e., the effects microclimates have on the personality (flavor and quality) of wine. Reisling and pinot noir are the varieties whose flavors are most reflective of their terroir. Given most of our guests are red-wine drinkers, we are sampling pinot noirs.

Why look at terroir? Because terroir contributes to the distinctiveness of each wine producing region. This is not to say that the vintner has little to do with the wine; in fact this is far from the case. One of the most important decisions the vintner has to make is selecting where his grapes will be grown, whether he grows them himself or contracts their growing. A skilled vintner can often produce a drinkable product from a dismal year.

The concept of terroir (or environmental influence on the character of the product) is being applied to much more than just wine. Terroir has been applied to coffee for several decades, though not by that name. Everyone knows that Sumatran coffees tend to be smoky, dark, and rich while Costa Rican coffees are known for being well-balanced and mellow. Chocolatiers are just entering the terroir scene; Ghiradelli and other high-end chocolate producers now offer single region (and sometimes single supplier) chocolates so all the nuances can be savored. Even meat and dairy producers are starting to explore terroir and how it improves their product's marketability.

We will be sampling wines from Oregon, Washington, California, New Zealand, Canada, France, and Australia (if I'm remembering correctly), at least 10 wines. Each of these regions uses a different strategy for growing their grapes. France tends not to irrigate its vineyards, relying on the natural rainfall to provide sufficient moisture to ensure a good crop. Washington's grape growers in the Columbia River Valley irrigate their vineyards to provide ample moisture, but the soils are not as rich (a result of the repeated scourings given by the 14+ incarnations of Glacial Lake Missoula during the Ice Age). Oregon's Willamette Valley soils are rich, but the rains are seasonal, September through May. Each strategy stresses the vines to encourage fruit production over leaf production and limit the total amount of fruit so the flavor will be as concentrated as possible. By comparing the wines produced under these different conditions, we hope to start discerning the terroir of wine.

Next week, I plan to post the results of our tasting.

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