It’s a beautiful rainy day in Lecce, Italy where the spring has been characterized by a balance of thunder and lightning storms and hot baking days of sun. I look outside at the lush green of the wisteria growing on the balcony and then envision the sandy-tan soil it growths forth from. Then I realize this might be the best approach to understand a region’s terroir.
For me, the term terroir is the hardest to grasp of all wine terminology. So many wine elitists talk about it mystically that I sometimes think no one knows what it actually means. Terroir is a wine region’s environmental factors, so it shouldn’t be subjective, yet wine writers regularly mention it with clout and without explanation. This has become, regrettably, standard.
Originally a French concept, it signifies all of the environmental characteristics imparted to a wine that represent a specific location in the world (don’t let the Latin fool you, it has roots that go way deeper than soil). The beautiful, rocky terrain of Cote du Rhone is perhaps the clearest visual example of a location with a particular terroir. I mean, look at it : It’s hard to believe anything can even grow (above: photo from here). Terroir involves everything from philosophy to calcium and a lot more than a little of the unnamable: The qualities in wine that enthrall our minds though we have nothing to logically say about them. This quality naturally boxes in the reality of terroir, but terroir can be learned nonetheless. Just because you can’t think about it doesn’t mean that you can’t experience it.
The first question is: Must you walk among the vines to understand region’s terroir?
That's too restrictive. You like those wines because you like those wines; the terroir comes gratis. But I certainly believe that visiting the region will significantly shade in the wines.
So you’re in the vineyard. What do you look for? Next time you go wine tasting, before rushing out of the heat and into the air conditioned, thirst quenching tasting room, take a look at the vines you parked next to. What does the soil look like? Are there other things growing around them? Is the area hilly or flat? To fully grasp these elements of terroir one could begin on a molecular level, or they could just see if the soil is sandy then compare the taste of the wines produced there with the taste of the wines produced somewhere with rocky soil. This is the beginning of terroir.
I am dedicating this week to the terroir of the Puglia region and posting pretty pictures of wine that I’ve drank. More Puglia-specific information in forthcoming posts.