There’s a French term that’s used to describe wines that express a distinctive character … "gout de terroir." A literal translation means the “taste of the earth.”
It’s the concept that wines reflect the natural environment in which the grapes are grown and the wine is made. I often use the phrase, “the sense of place” to explain the characteristics of a wine that is specific to a region or location.
What effects the vine defines the wine … it’s flavor, aroma, body and character. Every element contributes to the identity of the wine that expresses “terroir,” the geology, the altitude and elevation, rainfall or the lack thereof, the sun exposure, foggy mornings and chill at night.
It’s learning and cataloging these specific details that allows sommeliers to blind taste and identify wines, as is required during sommelier certification exams.
I’ve had the pleasure of traveling to different wine regions here and abroad, walking the vineyards, tasting the fruit from the vine and meeting the farmers and vintners that grow the fruit and make the wine. The experience helped me to understand this “sense of place” that makes some wines so very distinctive. Here are a few of my favorites from my wine travels.
Schramsberg Vineyards- Calistoga-Napa Valley, California
The property was originally purchased in 1862 by Jacob Schram who planted vines and established one of the first wineries in California. As the generations turned, the land passed from the family and eventually fell into neglect. In 1965, Jack and Jamie Davies purchased and restored the vineyards and built a new winery. They had a vision to create great American sparkling wines to rival the classic French Champagnes. In 1972, Schramsberg's 1969 vintage "Blanc de Blancs" was served at the "Toast to Peace" in China between President Richard Nixon and China’s leader, Chou Enlai. Since 1972, Schramsberg's wines have been served at American state functions as a matter of protocol. The wines are truly world class and a tour of Schramsberg is a must if you visit Napa Valley.
Oregon-Adelsheim Vineyard-Willamette Valley, Oregon
The Willamette Valley in Oregon lies on the same latitude as the Burgundy region in France. It is one of the best regions to grow and make wines from the Pinot Noir grape in North America, yet was unknown until the 1970s. Adelsheim Vineyards was founded in 1971 by pioneers David & Ginny Adelsheim who were among the first to found the now flourishing wine industry in Oregon. In my visits I am always impressed by their commitment to both the quality of the wines they make and the land they use and protect.
They only use and promote sustainable agricultural practices in farming the vines. One of my favorite Oregon Pinot Noirs is Adelsheim Elizabeth’s Reserve.
The wine is a perfect example of a classic Willamette Pinot … complex, with layers of fruit and earthy notes, yet elegant and balanced in flavor, acidity and structure.
Rocca della Macie-Chianti Classico, Tuscany, Italy
In 1973 the winery was founded on a 14th century farmstead by Italo Zingarelli, a famous Italian movie producer and his son, Sergio. Embarking on a new career, the family created the best-selling Chianti in Italy and started exporting their wines abroad five years later.
They now produce from six separate, family owned estates. The wines are all excellent and the Chianti Classico and Classico Reserva are always elegant and expertly balanced examples of the Sangiovese grape. The winery is an intriguing blend of old-world tradition and modern winemaking techniques.
There is a phrase in Italian that I love …”agricola promiscua,” which translates as “promiscuous agriculture.” It means that a single farm will produce many different crops and livestock in a harmonious balance. Rocca delle Macie is a perfect example as they also produce superb olive oils, hand harvested honey and distilled grappa from the family estates.
Dr Loosen-Mosel River Valley, Germany
Ernst Loosen took ownership of the Loosen family estate in 1988. The property had been in the family for over 200 years and held some of the most coveted vineyard acreage along the Mosel River. He recognized that the 60 plus year old vines were an invaluable asset and took steps to both protect and optimize them. He adopted stringent sustainable organic farming methods and reduced the yield from the vines. The result is wines of depth, both nuanced and complex. The wines from the Loosen Estate are classic - aromatic, with high acid and balanced sweetness. The layers of fruit and the slate minerality are characteristic of good, traditional German Riesling. Visiting the vineyards and winery is like taking a trip back in time. Everything is done by hand, from harvest to winemaking and harks back to an old-world approach that many winemakers no longer invest in.
This is just a small sample of some of the beautiful places and remarkable people that I have been privileged to visit in my wine journeys. Each winery is an example of the dedication, passion and a focused vision that talented winemakers share through their craft. Visiting and learning from them has helped me learn and grow as a sommelier and lover of wine. I encourage you to take any opportunity to travel, talk, sip and enjoy the journey yourself.
James Andrews-CS, is the wine manager and sommelier at Parkhill's Liquors & Wine South. He has been a certified sommelier since 1999 with The Court of Master Sommeliers. James is also a wine educator and cellar consultant.