I love the word terroir /terˈwär/. It is one of my favorite wine words. Terroir refers to a sense of place; the ideal that the soil, climate, culture, people, history–all of the elements that have aligned to influence a wine–can be tasted in the juice. Terroir: The concept is mysterious. The word is sexy. I look for opportunities to say terroir even in non-wine related conversations. I drop it into sentences like I’m dropping a mic, “This artwork is heavily influenced by New Orleans terroir.” BAM! I’m provocative! Confusion ensues. I’m out!
In the wine world, terroir is closely secured to history: the history of the vines, history of winemaking, history of the soil, history of the area. When you speak about a region’s terroir or sense of place it is an indication that the region has “proven itself.” This place is resilient and the people who farm the land have made peace with it. They know how to compensate for climate, maneuver the vines, be still and take orders from the climate. The lessons learned by these farmers are then adopted into practices, laws and systems that enable winemakers to capture the regions sense of place.
I recently attended the 2015 Wine Blogger Conference held in Corning, New York. We were there to explore the Finger Lakes wine region; known for their aromatic white varieties like Riesling and Gewürztraminer. As I discovered red varieties like Cabernet Franc and Lemberger. At a panel discussion, winemaker Fred Merwarth, of Herman J. Weiner Vineyard asked the question, “Do we (Finger Lakes) have a sense of place?” He posed the question a few times; to himself, to the audience, and to the others on the panel. His question, held on, lingered and begged to be answered. No one responded. Was I the only one who heard?
This led me to ask myself; without an extensive wine history can a region claim to have a sense of place? How do we talk about terroir when it comes to a younger wine area? Winemaking in Finger Lakes dates back to 1829. However, the region didn’t gain notoriety until the early 1960’s when Dr. Konstantin Frank, a viticulturist from Cornell University, successfully produced wines from plantings of Vitis Vinefera grapes.
I’m not sure if Fred Merwarth was hoping for an answer, or if I am qualified to answer, but he sent me on a journey to understand the concept of terroir in the Finger Lakes. I evaluated the wines of Finger Lakes with closed eyes and muted ears. I didn’t want to miss a thing. I tasted the soil. Yes literally, I held it in my hand, warm and humid and tasted the grittiness. I tasted more Riesling than I have tasted in my life! I listened to the winemakers. I spoke to the people.
I was looking for a sense of place, but what I found was a sense of home. Finger Lakes comprises a community of people working to understand their region’s soil, to experiment with vines, to be still and take orders from the climate. The distinctiveness in the region at this point is in its pioneer spirit. The energy poured towards achieving greatness is palatable.
Recommendations: Dr. Frank Vineyards (http://www.drfrankwines.com/) Semi Dry and Dry Riesling. Try Fox Run Vinyard’s Lemberger (http://www.foxrunvineyards.com/)! For a list of other wines I loved check out (@ShallWeWinechi on twitter)