July 2, 2008

Sticky terroir

by winecountrydog

I'm not the Jancis Robinson of the dog world, but I know more about terroir than most dogs. I'm a corgi, a herding dog. Not a hunting dog except when it comes to wine and beer.

I hunt wine with dog-ma and other humans who live here. By "here" I mean Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake, and Napa areas. I spend most of my time in Sonoma AVAs, especially the Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, Green Valley, Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma Valley, and Carneros-Sonoma. I wait while others taste. I get to meet nice people.

A funny fact about people in winemaking is that they're often beer aficionados. I understand this 'cuz I like beer. I'm allowed to drink a 1/4-cup of beer for muscle spasms. Dog-ma and I hunt for good microbrew pilseners, porters, and stout, but often end up with ales. We want to hunt for draughts, but few places are dog-friendly. I understand when dog-ma sneaks off to drink Sonoma Farmhouse Saison Style ale on tap without me. In bottles, dog-ma enjoys Blue Paddle, Blue Heron, and Lagunitas and Rogue Brewery ales. Rogue's brewdog says their ales are made with "coastal free range water." Woof?

It doesn't always matter what humans in marketing call things. As long as brewers and winemakers don't mangle terroir — that "sense of place." Fortunately, a lot of today's winegrape growers and winemakers have a fairly holistic understanding of terroir. Winemaker Ed Sbragia summed it up when talking to AppellationAmerica.com:

"My winemaking experience indicates to me that when the French say terroir, they really focus on both soil and climate. But it's way more than that. It's the human involvement — how someone decided to plant the vines and in what row direction, then to nurture them by suckering and other practices. . . ."

You've noticed that you can't discern terroir in many commercial wines? You will find a sense of place only in carefully vinified wines from exceptional vines. Wine humans like to say "great wine is made in the vineyard." I like to add "great wine potential can be lost in the handling."

Tilin corgi sniffing vineyard terroir

"That's some nice terroir!"

From my low pawspective, every grape or other crop has an odor and flavor unique to its terroir, even if the crop lacks certain desirable qualities. But the identity of terroir is fragile. Once grapes are harvested, they are sulfured, crushed, put in tanks, doused with commercial yeast and commercial nutrients, pumped over, transferred, sampled, pressed, racked, sulfured again, transferred again, racked again, sampled again, maybe fined, maybe filtered, transferred again, bottled, shipped, stored, shipped again, stored. . . . If I were a grape, my terroir would be exhausted!

I exaggerate to make the point that fermenting grape juice and finished wine are fragile "living liquids" that require extraordinary care in processing and handling.

Longtime winemakers Ed Sbragia and Richard Arrowood (now at Amapola Creek) include the famed Monte Rosso vineyard when they talk about great terroir. At a "Sonoma in the City" seminar, Mr. Arrowood referred to the brick-red soil of Monte Rosso, quipping that, when he walked in the door of his house with the red soil stuck to his shoes, his wife, Alis, said, "You really don’t need to bring any more terroir to my attention."

A corgi dog understands sticky terroir.

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