Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Terroir: Experiencing it First Hand

I just posted this on my client blog, but think it will be interesting to you. This is my experience after having traveled for business recently.

Having gotten everything back in order from my travels and visits with clients in France, Spain and Portugal, I have a new found appreciation for how significantly the geography and the geology affect wines around the world. Having grown up in Northern California, I have traveled throughout many of our wine growing locales, and enjoy and appreciate the differences. Prior to my trip, I would have said I have a California palate. Before leaving, I attended a trade tasting for both Argentina and Spain's Rioja region, and the wines were significantly different from each other, in good ways. I have always tried wines from many areas, but haven't always understood what I was drinking.

Upon arriving in France I immediately visited E. Guigal in the Côte Rôtie area of the Rhone. E. Guigal is a large négociant in France that also has their own vineyards and winemaking facilities. Guigal has excellent wines in a broad range of price points. Getting to see the land and the winery allowed me to understand the different techniques they use, and to understand why certain wines tasted the way they did. The winery has several vineyard designate wines that are extraordinary. Seeing the difference a mountain, direction of a hillside or the soil the grapes grew on was quite a lesson in terroir.

Upon leaving Guigal which is in the Northern Rhone, I traveled down through the valley, witnessing the changes in topography, elevation and soil. Côte Rôtie is quite different from Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and the wines reflect it.

Traveling in to Spain, the weather was significantly warmer, and the countryside was much like California. Feeling at home, you would think that the wines would taste similar to Californian wines. But each region within Spain has significant differences. The wines of Tarragona were much different from Jumilla and Yecla, not to mention other wine districts in the country. And while the countryside reminded me of home, the wines had a different personality. While I know this is because the wines are made with grapes that aren't used as much as in California, I think it also has to do with a long history of wine making and use of the land.

I think I would be remiss not to point out that the attitude towards wine significantly affects how the wine tastes. Yes, in a blind taste test this wouldn't be the case, but when you pull in to a roadhouse in Alicante for lunch on a Tuesday and the two truckers next to you are eating a three course meal with a bottle of wine split between them followed by coffee and dessert, you see a different attitude to wine. In the countries I visited, it is a way of life to take your time, eat well and have a glass of wine with your meal. Coming home, I have found this almost impossible to institute in my own life--instead I am wolfing down my food while being distracted by what I have to do next. Wine is drunk here more like a cocktail, not as a dining accompaniment.

Spain is an immense land, which I found out while driving around it. It has so many different areas, all with their own personality. The Spanish are a very independent people, which is evident in the fact that the individual states have a lot of power in comparison to other Southern European countries. You also see this in the wines, with significant differences between regions and sub-regions.

Portugal was very similar to Spain in climate, but there was a different feel to it. Visiting the Douro River area and tasting the great wines and ports that are produced with distinctive grapes was eye-opening, and sometimes vertigo inducing. Many of the wineries still stomp their grapes underfoot, which was so surprising to me. Also the ports and other dessert wines were extraordinary, and won over many of my traveling companions who previously didn't like sweet wines.

Back on to Rioja in Spain. I had enjoyed the trade tasting the Rioja tourism group gave in San Francisco, and was able to tour many producers in this area. The wines were very good, and agreed with my palate. The people I met here were also very helpful and friendly, making the time there extremely enjoyable. This was the highlight of my Spanish wine tour.

Leaving Spain we headed to Bordeaux. This fabled wine making area I have read about for years, but have never understood the affect the land had on the wine. Getting to visit the different locations; St. Emilion, Medoc, Pomerol, gave me a new outlook on the wine. The geography was surprising to me, such a flat area without significant elevation. Throughout California vineyards boast their elevation, terrain and jagged cliffs. I didn't see that in Bordeaux. But tasting the wines, you see the difference. Yes, they have had significant success in the past, and money has been put in to maximizing the expression of ideal characters in the fruit. To look at a map does not allow you to understand what terroir means for the area. I was able to get to some great 1st growth properties and taste some exquisite wines, which yes indeed tasted unique to the area.

At the end of the trip I was in Burgundy. This was a late addition to the travel itinerary, but well worth getting to. Visiting several sites in the Beaujolais area, it was interesting how different the land was. The Saône river winds its way through, with some hilly areas and other flatter production areas. Many of the sites are small growers who sell their wine to a larger négociant or co-operative. Seeing the difference between small production areas and large Burgundy wines allowed me to understand the wines and the geographical distinctions better. The last stop in Burgundy was at a nice restaurant that served only local wines, which is easy to do in this area, and excellent traditional French cuisine.

Coming home I have been enjoying my glass of wine in the evening. I've been trying some new wines, while also going back to some house favorites. I have been surprised by how my palate has changed, often favoring the European wines I have visited. Some of the tried and true California wines taste big and overpowering recently. Now when I'm browsing the aisles at the wine shop, I know where the wine is coming from, and what impact the terroir has on the resulting taste. This is so exciting to me. Wine education is very important in explaining the story of a wine, and seeing the areas first hand has been enlightening. I recommend touring as many wine producing areas as possible, and am already planning the next itinerary. Argentina.....Chile.....

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