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Yes, Virginia, Terroir Is Real
There is terroir in America, even if some people deny its existence.
Tuesday’s newsletter, about the New York Times Magazine’s recent wine article on Maggie Harrison, seems to have struck a chord. For one thing, one the positive side, we have a lot of new subscribers. Welcome!
The thing that a lot of people have commented to me about has been the writer’s giving voice to the denial of “terroir” as a concept. “Terroir is a myth,” Harrison tells the writer, who runs off with this four word statement and asserts that Harrison has declared a “war” on “wine” based to her denial of terroir:
The painstaking blending process that I observed, which sets her apart from so many other producers of still wine, is also the reason Harrison makes some people irate. Her process violates one of the central tenets of her craft: terroir. A French word that can be translated loosely as “sense of place,” terroir refers to every factor affecting a vineyard: soil composition, climate, elevation, drainage, even the surrounding flora and fauna. In the wine world, this concept has evolved into a philosophy.
A few people from Oregon, in private messages, suggested this is stretching the truth. I’m not going to deal with that here. But what I am going to reiterate is that the explanation of “terroir” quoted above is not totally accurate. Terroir is not only the measurable scientific things such as soil, climate, altitude, drainage, flora and fauna. It’s also culture, about how people who live in a certain place make wine in the tradition of that place.
As I said in Tuesday’s piece:
I wish I loved anything as much as a certain type of American wine person loves to hate the idea of terroir. I guess it’s an easy target since it’s a French word. Though I assume these same people use words like menu, toilet, garage, sauté, blonde—and sommelier—and many others every day.
I’ve met a surprising number of American winemakers and wine professionals who sneeringly react when I mention terroir. “Do you really think you can taste minerals in the wine?” is a popular response. Or, “I’m a man of science. I believe in what can be proven scientifically.” Both responses miss the point of terroir, which should be a relatively easy agricultural concept to understand. But I guess this is a debate that will never end. Much like so many of the key political issues dividing us, there will never be common ground.
In any case, this week I’ve been enjoying some very terroir-driven American wines. All of them come from Forge Cellars in New York’s Finger Lakes. I’ve mentioned Forge before in the newsletter—it’s among my favorite U.S. producers.
The winery is a partnership between American Rick Rainey and Louis Barruol, whose famed Gigondas estate, Chateau de Saint Cosme, in the Rhône Valley, dates to 1570. (As a 14th generation winegrower, Barruol would be the opposite of a terroir denier). Forge Cellars’ focus is riesling, pinot noir, and cabernet franc from single vineyards—or even lieux-dits, small lots within existing vineyards—from around Seneca Lake. There are a dozen site-specific bottlings of riesling, and three single-vineyard bottling each of pinot noir and cabernet franc. I don’t always love wine clubs, but Forge’s is one you should join, because you get a chance to taste and compare the effects of the various sites on the grape.
Forge Cellar Leidenfront Cabernet Franc is among the best in the U.S., making a case for itself alongside Loire Valley cab francs. Forge Cellar Pinot Noir Classique punches way above its price point—I would taste it next to fine examples from Oregon or anywhere else.
Meanwhile, the riesling is always dry. While the sweetness of riesling in the Finger Lakes can vary widely, Forge Cellars generally stays around 1-2 grams of residual sugar. You’d never mistake it for German or Alsatian riesling. A few months ago, I took one of Forge’s single-vineyard rieslings as my contribution to a blind-tasting dinner in New York with a bunch of sommeliers. While everyone could distinquish it as riesling, no one was able to place whether it came from Australia, Austria, Washington state or elsewhere. This simply is what great Finger Lakes riesling tastes like. Cough, cough terroir, etc.
I’ll be talking more about my other favorite Finger Lakes wineries in August, when I publish my next travel guide for paid subscribers. So now would be a great time to upgrade so you don’t miss it!
In the meantime, for our new readers (and for my old friends who may have missed these pieces) here are five links to some of my favorite terroir-driven articles in Everyday Drinking.