Tasting Terroir – Can You Really?

The first thing most people think of when they hear the word terroir is the soil in which grapevines grow, but it is much more than that, it’s the rain, the heat, the sun, the humidity, the wind, and anything else that Mother Nature can throw at a grapevine in any given year.

If you’ve ever watched Sommelier competitions, it can be awe inspiring, watching what appear to be super human capabilities, as wines are identified blindly by grape, region, producer, and even the vintage. In order to do this, you have to be able to detect the influences that things other than soil have on the wine, and you also have to know how those things present themselves in the wine. To pick out the vintage – just wow – it’s truly fascinating to me.

It seems everything on the subject of wine can be controversial, and terroir is no exception. There are those who think the entire concept of terroir in wine is a complete myth. While I don’t believe that terroir is a myth by any means, there are many things that occur during the vintification process that also shape the features of the finished product – fermentation temperatures, maceration times, added yeasts and of course oak influence.

On a recent trip to Napa Valley, my husband and I made our first stop at Stag’s Leap for the specific reason that they make it easy, with no appointment required for their regular tasting flight. We were landing that morning and I didn’t want to make an appointment and then have the stress of a flight delay, or some travel mishap. We are fans of Stag’s Leap and figured it would just be a good first stop to relax with a glass of wine we know we love.

img_2804-1With no real agenda, we tasted through six of Stag’s Leap wines, that ended up being one of the most memorable and educational tasting sessions we’ve ever had. Our host, Steven, brought the terroir lesson home for us and I want to share the experience with you.

The effect of terroir  was really showcased between the Fay Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and the S.L.V. (Stag’s Leap Vineyard) Cabernet Sauvignon. The two vineyards sit right next to each other on the winery’s property, but because the Vaca mountains that they abut up against treat them very differently, the soils are like night and day.

The red lines, added by me, show the natural flow of  water and alluvial soil from the mountains.

The natural flow of the mountain range deposits itself into the Fay vineyard – this includes not only precipitation that soaks into the ground and water table, but all of the alluvial soil deposits that come from the mountain.  The S.L.V. vineyard does not benefit from this as the mountain just doesn’t flow that way.

The result of this is that the grapes in the two vineyards are incredibly different. One ripening sooner and one later. One having much thicker skins, one thinner. The impact this has on the wines was very apparent, and I believe something even the most novice palate could detect.

Fay Vineyard on the left, S.L.V. on the right.

The Fay wine is soft and plush with notes of black fruit, violet, and tea. The tannins are literally silky.  Faye has a slightly brighter acidity, and a longer finish.

The S.L.V., while also a plush and luxurious wine, has bolder tannins, slightly less acidity and a shorter finish. The S.L.V. has a noticeable aroma of green pepper (a natural occuring aroma resulting from polyphenols called pyrazines that are natural in Cabernet Sauvignon). On the palate the Fay has a chocolate note, with baking spices. I also picked up the freshly sharpened pencil note that it seems to be unique to me – I think most people might call this graphite, or perhaps even a mineral note, but to me nothing describes this note quite like freshly sharpened pencil!

The 1973 S.L.V.  Cabernet Sauvignon that won the 1976 Paris Blind tasting.

It is important to note that the wine that the won the 1976 Judgment of Paris was the S.L.V. wine. It is often referred to as an “iron fist in a velvet glove” and I would say that this is an apt description of this beautiful and amazing wine.

As mentioned above, there are vintification differences that can impact the wine, and these 2 wines definitely have differences. In fact, here is a published interview of Stag’s Leap Cellar’s winemaker Marcus Notaro as he discusses the use of different yeast, maceration times and oak usage between the two. He also notes that those decisions are made based on the differences in the grapes at the time of harvest – a direct result of the differences in terroir.

What are your thoughts on terroir? Have you had an experience such as this that really drove it home? Or is it something you can easily identify? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.


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