Terroir is one of those concepts where if you put 50 wine geeks in a room and let them talk among themselves, you can create a heated discussion around dirt. Add to that equation a blind wine tasting and hold it at Daniel and it’s possible that a cheese puff and caviar food fight may erupt. The potential to see little bites of culinary genus thrown maliciously at Masters of Wine and industry greats was too good for us to pass up, so Gothamist gladly accepted an invitation to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of Robert Mondavi Winery at a panel discussion titled “A sense of place: The future of terroir”
While we are sad to say everybody acted on their best behavior, hearing the moderator yell, “Jane you ignorant slut,” made it well worth our time. The panel consisted of Doug Frost, Master Sommelier and Master of Wine, who served as the moderator, Genevieve Janssens, Director of Winemaking for Robert Mondavi, Dr. Xavier Chone, a terroir specialist and Joshua Wesson, Chairman and Executive Wine Director of Best Cellars. Now we don’t want to bore you with all the details. If fact, we probably spent the first 30 minutes or so arguing over what terroir even is and while I don’t think we ever reached a consensus, the short safe answer is the geographic factors (like location, soil, altitude, microclimate, etc) that impart unique characteristics in a wine that evoke a sense of place. For example it could be the reason you like Sauvignon blancs from the Loire Valley but dislike wines made of the same grape from New Zealand.
The discussion was broken up with two blind flights: one of white wines and one of red. The whites were based on the Sauvignon Blanc grape and the reds where based on Cabernet Sauvignon (the full list is at the end). Tasting blind helped to remove the bias of expectation and forced us to try and identify the unique characteristics of the wine. The tasting was pretty tame. People shouted out that they got minerality in the old world wines with hints of lime and grass. We all patted ourselves on the back for being able to pick out hints of pineapple and lime in the new world Sauvignon Blanc. And for a moment, we stopped to extol the virtues of a wine that exhibits the “terroir” of the vineyard.
But then things got interesting.
As we were discussing how important terroir expression is in the world of wine, Joshua Wesson, the Chairman of Best Cellars brought up perhaps the most interesting point of the day. The average wine consumer does not think about wine in terms of terroir. They don’t walk into a wine store and ask for a wine that expresses the terroir of the Rheingau. Had we just spent the past hour talking to ourselves? Does anybody care about terroir? Yes and yes. We drink wine because it’s unique, dynamic and expresses a complexity that you would never find in a glass of soda. These characteristics are part winemaking but also an expression of the land. Genevieve Jannssens, the winemaker at Mondavi Winery, perhaps said it best when she said, “the vineyard is our boss, we do not own it…” A great winemaker does not look to put their fingerprint on the wine they create but rather bring out the unique fingerprint that each wine inherently possesses. The wines that have consistently impressed us and left a lasting impression are the ones that have personality. Something that makes them stand out from a sea of sameness. To us, that’s terroir. It’s not something that you can sit down and analyze with a group of wine experts but rather something you feel and taste in the wine. And whether you are a sommelier or an enthusiast, you know when a wine has it. You can just taste it.
Flight One: White Wines
2003 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand
2003 Didier Dagueneau Pouilly Fume Pur Sang, Loire Valley, France
2002 Robert Mondavi Winery Fume Blanc Reserve To Kalon, Napa Valley, California
2002 Chateau Haut-Brion Blanc, Pessac-Leognan, Bordeaux, France
Flight Two: Red Wines
2002 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Saugignon Reserve, Napa Valley, California
2002 Chateau Margaux, Margaux, France
2002 Almaviva, Puente Alto, Chile
Barrel Sample: 2005 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon To Kalon Lot, Napa Valley, California