“Terroir” seems a lofty term in winemaking, perhaps because it comes from the French, but its meaning in English is strictly down-to-earth: it’s related to the word “territory”.
For us, “terroir” means the vineyard, its soil and subsoil. When we expand on the notion, we merely conjure a Truman Show-ish dome and include the weather (around the soil), the aspect or tilt (of the soil), the life forces (in the soil) and so on.
But we forget – I forgot until a wise winemaker taught me otherwise – a significant aspect of “terroir”: the humans who work it, especially over time.
The story of humans working the terroirs where their wine grapes grow is a long one.
It is 700 years of Benedictine and Cistercian monks mapping the thousands of vineyards of Burgundy; of more monks forming and planting the vineyards of Bierzo in Spain; of Spaniards and more monks marching up the Mission Trail of California, planting vines as well as crosses.
It is winemakers selecting which clones of grapes to plant where, whether to water, how to prune or trim or splay a plant – all that and more, all human work, human decision, human interaction.
“People influence terroir,” says Steve Rogstad, winemaker at Cuvaison, in Sonoma’s Carneros district in California. “Just as in Burgundy, all that collective experience over a long time – with the vines, the soils, the farming – it’s all part of what makes the place.”
What follows is talk by other winemakers about the human touch on terroir, a story of sorts in steppingstones.
WHAT WINEMAKERS SAY
“People generally think of terroir as everything about a site that doesn’t have to do with humans. But there’s a difference between the land before you’ve planted it and then after. What humans do to the land always affects the terroir or brings out aspects of the terroir that the terroir can’t do on its own.” – Kale Anderson, winemaker at Kale Wines in Napa, California.
“Since 1971 I’ve had the opportunity to plant over 400 acres (about 162 hectares) of vineyards in this special place (the Santa Rita Hills). I’ve reflected on this. I had been introduced to a beautiful Volnay (a red Burgundy) by a shipmate in the Navy. If I could find the place to make that same texture of velvet in a pinot noir, well … What jumped out at me was this transverse mountain range near Santa Barbara, where the marine influence was more critical than any other place in California, and there I also found the right soil.” – Richard Sanford, winemaker, Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards in Buellton, California.
“It’s more the ‘gestalt.’ A vineyard is an artificial construction after all. Vines do not grow in rows and on trellises and produce tiny clusters of pinot noir at 2 1/2 tons an acre (about six tonnes a hectare). The terroir is a combination of innate characteristics plus all the things about it that can be manipulated and changed. Of course, if you have too much human intervention or too little, you don’t get the best from the site. You can even destroy it.” – James Hall, founder and winemaker, Patz & Hall in Sonoma, California.
“We have about 162 hectares in vine, on seven distinct soil types, with many different subsoil types, some planted beginning in 1974. So we’ve had to choose where to plant; location trumps clone. The zinfandel, for instance, goes up in the northern corner where it’s warmer, a volcanic outcropping of Mount Veeder, Napa Valley, in Carneros.” – Anthony Truchard, general manager, Truchard Vineyards in Napa, California.
“In the vineyard, there is gravel, then sand at 30cm; that is for merlot. Then there is gravel and clay at 80cm; that is for cabernet (sauvignon). We decide what grapes to plant where, but the soil tells us too.” – Thomas Duroux, general manager, winemaker, Chateau Palmer in Margaux, France
“The best vineyard work is not reactive but proactive, holistic, like health care. That’s why we practsce biodynamics; it’s a closed system that builds up the soils. You want the soils to be healthy so that they can, in a sense, handle a cold; not so you have to ‘treat’ them for the cold.” – Jeff Cichocki, winemaker, Bonterra Organic Vineyards in Mendocino County, California
“Scientific and technical knowledge is always helpful, but it is in the use of these where problems arise. For example, if you choose your harvest date while you’re in the office, you will be way off. In the end, the final decision when to pick is to go into the vineyard and touch and taste the grapes.” – Eric Kohler, technical director, Domaines Barons de Rothschild in France.