What the Hell is Terroir? A Beer Drinker's Guide to Wine

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Terroir is a word winefolk love to toss around. There is a reason for this. It’s one of those ineffables that accounts for why wine is so magically diverse in its flavors, textures, aromas and… I don’t know, spirit. Some people are so obsessed with the microscopic differences in number of sunlight minutes on this slope or the one two yards away, the relative alkalinity of the soil in this vineyard versus the one immediately adjacent, and ambient moisture on this side of that big boulder versus that side, that it begs skepticism even from people who have tasted a hell of a lot of wine. And yet, an awful lot of the Really Good Stuff comes from winemakers who have a hands-on focus on where, when and how their grapes are being grown and harvested and really do take into account a variety of tiny details that would baffle bean-counters and soil geologists alike. How different can those four Russian River Pinots from the same winery possibly be?

If you want to know the answer, head for Healdsburg and visit Gary Farrell Winery, where Theresa Heredia took over as winemaker in 2012. Or if that’s not an available option, find a couple of bottles and a few friends and pull those corks.

Novels categorized as “magical realist” often have in them some variation on the trop of a person’s emotions or personality being baked into their bread or stirred into their stockpots. It’s considered a whimsical fantasia. This is because people think “magic” means “not real.” Ask a winemaker what they think about that. I’ll bet you won’t find many who don’t see an element of magic in what they do. And in addition to the sometimes minute specificities of terroir, and the variables of production method, aging, and Brix degrees and where the barrels came from, wines have a way of subtly reflecting the personality of their magician. And the genius loci of their winery.

With Heredia at the helm, Gary Farrell released four pinots noirs (and three Chardonnays) in 2014. Same grape, same region, same winemaker. Four totally distinct wines.

The 2012 Russian River Selection Pinot Noir gathered fruit from about nine different Russian River vineyards. It’s a beautiful wine, and a classic expression of Russian River Valley gestalt as well as a crystal-clear rendering of Pinot Noir. Heredia references some “fun experimental techniques” on which I will refrain from geeking out, and I’ll go straight to the part where you really want this wine on your dinner table. It is elegant. It is tannin-finesse to the nth. It has a bright fruitiness (strawberry, cherry, elderberry) grounded by spice, cola and cedar notes. It’s fantastically tasty.

The 2012 Rochioli Vineyard Pinot Noir is a single vineyard wine with staggered plantings going back to 1974. Joe Rochioli was one of the first to try Pinot in the area in the late sixties—a visionary, as it has become one of the area’s dominant grapes. Now, do you think this makes a difference? I can tell you what time of day the grapes were picked, how many days of maceration there were and the exact provenance of the barrels it aged in. Email me if you want to know, otherwise I’ll just say this: still a lovely, focused, classic Pinot Noir. But if you were blindfolded and tasted it alongside the mixed vineyard wine, you’d definitely notice a different personality. A slightly more exotic bouquet, forward on rose petals and cloves, with sub-flavors of cinnamon, strawberry jam, and the ghost of some really tasty dessert made with cherries. It has a rich mouthfeel, fine tannins, and a soft lingering finish.

The 2012 Hallberg Vineyard Pinot Noir was made from grapes grown in a slightly different microclimate than the Rochioli. It’s cooler. There’s more fog. There’s a slightly different soil composition. Well, long story short, it’s a totally different wine. Still Russian River Valley Pinot, still fabulous, but unmistakably different. It’s exceedingly aromatic (cherry brandy, cardamom, florals) with darker, earthier flavors on the palate (some herbal, some leathery, some darker variation on the cherry note). It’s a juicy wine, rich but bright with a full-bodied presence and a long finish. Not only a different personality, but a big one.

Heredia made a fourth, small batch Pinot you won’t likely be able to get your hands on because if anyone could keep their hands off of it I’d be amazed. This whole-cluster Pinot came from the Hallberg Vineyard as well. One block of that vineyard in fact. One block, one clone, 14 months in 40% new French oak.

Whatever she did to this stuff, I hope she does it again, because frankly, I’ve put away a significant amount of Pinot in my time on this planet, and while your palate can wear out at the end of a tasting, this one had the opposite effect. Simply put, one of the most seductive, sexy, wood-nymph-in-a-bottle wines I have ever tasted. I can talk at length about the startling array of exotic spices and citrus peel and its clinging tannins and melting, perfectly balanced acidity but let’s just say instead that this was one of those wines that transport you. In this case to a grove of cedar trees carpeted with blooming violets. This wine haunts me. It haunts me.

The takeaway? Yes, sweating the small stuff matters. And Heredia is an alchemist – part scientist (she came to winemaking as a refugee from a chemistry program), part artist, part… well, to me, the best winemakers have a touch of the mystical to them. They aren’t just crushing grapes and fermenting them. They are listening to them. There is a dialogue between the farm and the farmer and the tank and the barrel and the vine and the soil and the winemaker, and that bottle contains a transcript of that dialogue.

And if that’s too woo-woo for you, then let me just say that this is really good wine. Really really good.