Friday, May 18, 2007

A Sense of Place

What is terroir? Terroir is a French term used in wine to identify the unique characteristics mother nature bestowed upon a specific area. Loosely translated, terroir means “a sense of place.” Like a microclimate, terroir embodies the geographic factors, such as altitude, soil, position to the sun, weather conditions and water drainage, that influenced the quality of the finished wine.

American Viticultural Areas (AVA or appellations) are recognized by the US federal government for their terroir - distinctive combinations of soil, climate and identifiable regional wine character.

As appellations are growing in the USA, terroir has come under controversy. Critics of the term, terroir, say it is strictly a marketing term - a spin. There are opinions it is area-politically driven and others feel that appellations need to be redesigned and better defined. As an example, there are appellations that do not possess a single terroir and not all of those particular grapes deliver a similar character to the wines.

In America, we are often guilty of taking something that has been nurtured for over thousands of years and butchering and commercializing the hell out of it until it fits our lifestyles. Is terroir a romantic French fiction, a commercial tool or a true sense of place? While mining for gold, prospectors knew certain elements of land were common to specific regions (terroir) increasing their chance of striking it rich. As the New World wine industry grows, have we lost the true meaning of this sense of place?

This week I spent two days touring some of the appellations in Washington State. Our host, French-born Gilles Nicault, winemaker and manager of Long Shadows Winery in Walla Walla, guided us to lands of vinifera that defined our appellations and most of all, he introduced us to the caretakers of the most unique soils of Washington State. To sum it up in one word - overwhelming!

Next week I hope to share the unique palette of soil we touched and people we met while we discovered their sense of place.

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