Terroir: ter-WAHR. Dictionaries say it’s the environment, particularly soil and climate, in which wine grapes are grown. Wine fans insist it’s much broader, much deeper.
True believers call themselves “terroirists,” smiling at the inside joke. Even the more literal-minded say the concept also includes the temperature, wind, nearness to the sea, quality of the air. The more philosophical take it even further, asserting it has a human element – the culture, the relationship of the farmer to the land.
This column will try to demonstrate the concept with some California chardonnays.
The idea is that cool areas like Sonoma’s Russian River Valley preserve natural fruit acids that create crisp, lively chardonnays with intense fruit flavors. Warmer areas such as Napa Valley produce richer, softer chardonnays with complex flavors of butter, even caramel.
California has more than 200 “American Viticultural Areas” – from Sonoma’s “Chalk Hill” to Santa Barbara’s “Sta. Rita Hills.” They’re areas in which they believe grapes take on certain flavors because of the location’s … well … terroir.
Some of it is the weather. But there’s more.
At Heitz Cellars’ Martha’s Vineyard in Napa, tall eucalyptus trees surround the vines, and tasters swear they can perceive the minty aroma in the wines.
A few years ago Northern California was plagued by wildfires, and tasters – including yours truly – could smell it in the wines. It was quite pleasant, luckily, like a wine aged in a well-charred oak barrel.
So try to taste some of the wines below – listed roughly from north to south by growing area – and see if, unbeknownst to yourself, you’ve been a “terroirist” all along.
California’s terroir-driven chardonnays:
• 2011 Bonterra Chardonnay, Mendocino County: crisp and fresh, with aromas and flavors of lemons, limes and green apples; $14.
• 2011 Journey Chardonnay, Sonoma County: quite crisp, with complex green apple, pear and mineral aromas and flavors and nutty finish; $75.
• 2014 La Crema Chardonnay, Russian River Valley: crisp and lively, with intense aromas and flavors of apples and peaches, long finish; $30.
• 2011 La Follette Chardonnay, “Sangiacomo Vineyard,” Sonoma Coast: rich and crisp and fruity, with bread dough aromas, complex flavors of lemons, limes and minerals; $38.
• 2011 Gloria Ferrer Chardonnay, Carneros: crisp and lively, with intense apricot and pear aromas and flavors, with crisp green-apple finish; $25.
• 2011 Educated Guess Chardonnay, Napa Valley: toasty aromas, rich cinnamon and vanilla flavors, creamy and full-bodied, crisp; $17.
• Nonvintage Barefoot Bubbly Brut Cuvee Champagne, Calif.: crisp bubbles, with aromas and flavors of lemons and limes; $10.
• 2012 La Crema Chardonnay, Arroyo Seco, Monterey: rich aromas and flavors of ripe mangos and peaches, smooth and creamy; $30.
• 2012 “True Myth” Chardonnay, Edna Valley: rich and ripe, with mango, per and vanilla aromas and flavors; $15.
• 2011 Byron Chardonnay, “Nielson vineyard,” Santa Maria Valley: creamy and rich, aromas and flavors of ripe peaches and minerals; $32.