A lot of people translate terroir to mean "soil," especially those who first encountered the term in Burgundy. There, you can find many instances of vineyards growing side by side with the same altitude, the same aspect, the same inclination to the sun. The only difference is the soil that supports and nurtures the vines in it.
Terroir, of course, covers more than soil. It means all the conditions of a particular place that are not due to the grape variety or a human hand: climate, aspect (exposure), altitude and soil among them. Terroir is everywhere, when you think of it that way. France has its specific terroirs, and so does everywhere else that grows grapes and makes wine.
What matters is that terroir helps determine a wine's character. If you want to know why a wine is what it is, you had better know its terroir.
Even though a lot of people think of Australia as one monolithic growing region, it has individual terroirs just like anywhere else that makes distinctive wine. On a large scale, McLaren Vale isn't exactly like Barossa, and neither of those South Australian regions is anything like, oh, say, Yarra Valley in Victoria (another state, for those keeping score at home).
It gets finer than that, of course. Individual vineyards, even individual sections of vineyards, impart their own distinctive personalities to the wines made from them. This should not be news, but I can't tell you how many knowledgeable wine people find it so.
To prove the point, owner-winemaker Chester Osborne of d'Arenberg sent me a set of bottles recently to do my own personal comparative tasting. All were made in the 2002 vintage from McLaren Vale Grenache, a grape d'Arenberg champions. Three bottles were examples of wines made from specific soil types, and were labeled Loam, Deep Sand, and Sand and Clay. A fourth bottle, The Custodian 2002, included all three of the other wines in its blend. The Custodian is d'Arenberg's high-end Grenache bottling.
I tried the wines one by one, along with my Aspen friend Mark Harrison and sommelier Richard Betts of Montagna at the Little Nell here. Betts also makes his own Grenache, in Barossa Valley, under the Betts & Scholl label.
Loam had the most apparent fruit, crisp texture and brilliant raspberry, huckleberry and peppery flavors. It had extraordinary length. Deep Sand showed gamy notes, but was very rich on the palate, offering cherry and dried cherry flavors combined with earth. It was quite long but not as refined as Loam. Sand & Clay had the most apparent gamy notes, but also floral and white pepper developing over time, with dense tannins, long and distinctive. It was the most Rhône-ish of the three.
The Custodian blend showed some of the high notes of the Loam wine, and the richness from the others, but it had more finesse than the other three wines individually. No doubt the Custodian bottling had other vineyard lots in it as well.
After about a half-hour in the glass, the Loam was still gorgeous, the Sand & Clay was still brett-y, and the Deep Sand had gained more depth. The blend was still the best.
How did they do with food? With some slices of spicy salame, the wines got too hard and tannic. But medium-soft cheese mellowed the wines, and they all were more attractive. Grenache and cheese. Keep that suggestion in the notebook.
Just for fun, we tried making blends from the different vineyard bottlings. Mark used mostly Sand & Clay, with equal parts of the others. I focused on Loam, with just a touch of the others. Richard tried equal parts for starters, then added a bit more Loam. They were all different.
Betts says his approach in Barossa is almost identical to d'Arenberg's, except "we don't use American oak." He liked the Loam best, because it's most like his Barossa model. "The other two are distinctly McLaren Vale," he adds. "Grenache gets a little deeper and darker when you go to McLaren Vale."
The point is, terroir prevails anywhere you go. This set of Ausssie Grenaches made the point emphatically.
Michael Culley — August 11, 2006 1:03pm ET
Michael Mintz — Washington DC — August 15, 2006 5:09pm ET
Mark N Harrison — Aspen, CO — August 15, 2006 6:16pm ET
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