When I pour wine for people, or when I’m out tasting, often I hear people remark that they can “really taste the terroir” in whatever is in their glass. And they would be right … if terroir meant “dirt.”
The trouble with terroir is that it’s a loanword from French that really doesn’t translate precisely into English. It’s absolutely derived from the word “terre,” which is from the Latin and means “earth.” But dirt is only one of several qualities that make up the concept of terroir. Soil types are important, but so are the weather and topography of a vineyard. Borrowing from Wikipedia, as they really do articulate it nicely:
Terroir can be very loosely translated as “a sense of place,” which is embodied in certain characteristic qualities, the sum of the effects that the local environment has had on the production of the product.
Basically, where something is growing and what it’s like there are just as important as what is growing. Anything that comes out of the ground expresses terroir, though certain crops are better known for it (coffee and chocolate are some of the most popular, but tomatoes are often cited. And I stand by my belief that the best peach I’ve ever had in my entire life was the size of a soccer ball and came from Stephen and Paula’s orchard, which is home to my favorite Hawkes Cabernet).
Terroir is at the heart of European wines. France in particular has adopted terroir as the primary principle in its Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) system, which is the model on which all other appellation systems are based. Terroir is the reason pinot noir-based wines from Burgundy that are classified as grand cru are labeled with the name of the vineyard; the varietal isn’t immaterial, but it comes second to the place where the grapes are growing.
Terroir is also the heart of our Cabernet program. We farm three vineyards all located in southern Alexander Valley, and which are at most seven miles apart. And yet, if you’ve had the chance to try our single-vineyard Cabs side by side, either out of the barrel as Futures, or back when we first started making them (it’s been nearly three years since I’ve had all three from one vintage open at the same time), you’ll know from experience that they taste nothing alike.
I went for a walk with Jake on the Pyramid Vineyard a couple years back, right before harvest. He and Stephen were trying to decide what they wanted to pick for themselves. And it shouldn’t have surprised me but it did: as we walked, the grapes we sampled from one side of the hill tasted different from other parts of the vineyard.
Good winemaking starts in the vineyard. For us, that means picking by hand and keeping individual blocks of the vineyard separate throughout the barreling process, all so that, two years later, we can taste through everything and pick the Cabernet that is the truest expression of the place where it’s grown. And that is what terroir is all about.