Terroir and Loafing

With apObeliscoologies to Sam Cooke.

Don’t know much about Chardonnay
Don’t know much about Cabernet
Don’t know much about cuvaison
Don’t know much about Sauvignon
But I do know I like this hooch,
And I know that if you like it too
What a wonderful wine it could be.

This past week I had the opportunity to attend the Auction of Washington Wines Picnic and Barrel Auction event, benefiting Seattle Children’s Hospital.  The event was interesting, with over 100 wineries in attendance and winemakers (and their minions) roaming the grounds to continually pour samples directly into your waiting glass.  Not too shabby a way to spend an evening, really.

But if I’m honest, I had a certain amount of anxiety about attending.  You see, I don’t really know all that much about wine.

I don’t mean to suggest limited knowledge about legal issues involving wine; I’m quite comfortable chatting on those topics.  What I mean is that I have limited knowledge of (perhaps appreciation for?) the stuff itself.  I know when I like a particular wine and when I don’t – but I couldn’t begin to tell you whether or why one wine is better than another.  Possibly the subtleties are lost on me after too much whiskey.

Before the event, I chatted briefly with colleague who knows a great deal about wine and asked her what I should expect.  Her answer was unequivocal – I should expect to have a great time.  And I should expect to meet many winemakers who like nothing more than to talk at length about what makes their particular wine special.  This, of course, meant discussion of terroir.

The Oxford Dictionary defines terroir as: the complete natural environment in which a wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography and climate.  This is the definition of the word, but the idea behind terroir is that these factors influence (and possibly even control) the flavor of the ultimate product.

Whether or not you believe terroir makes any difference in wine (and I note that this is a matter of some debate), it is worth noting that the concept isn’t absent in discussion of spirits.  After all, the philosophical underpinnings of terroir as a concept are baked into the notions (turned legal realities) that scotch whisky can only be produced in Scotland, apple brandy made anywhere other than France cannot be calvados and tequila must come from Mexico.

Further, as the U.S. distilling revolution continues to gather steam, many master distillers are clamoring for new ways to distinguish their products by touting the way in which their location makes their product distinct.  When those traits are the result of unique ingredients, I think we can all agree that the product itself should be distinguishable.  But what about the environment in which the ingredients are grown?  Are we to believe that the soil conditions for barley can make a meaningful difference to the taste of whiskey after the barley has been malted, subjected to the mash tun and then distilled?  And given that some distillers believe perhaps a majority of the flavor in whiskey stems from the way in which it is aged – rather than the mash bill itself – how should we think about terroir when it comes to the environment of the rick house?  Does it make a difference?  If the pro-terroir crowd [Note: I’m resisting the urge to call them terroirists – lest I be misheard] is right, then the aging environment should make a tremendous difference.

I know two local distillers – each of whom I admire greatly and whose products I enjoy.  One believes strongly that the best way to age spirits is through scientific analysis and the exertion of a strong level of control over the environment in which aging occurs.  The other believes the best way to age spirits is in an open air warehouse with significant temperature swings.  Who is right?

Both.  The fact of the matter is that however the master distiller believes is the best way to produce her product is, in fact, the best way to produce her product.  Our job is simply to enjoy it.

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