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Everyone has heard the real estate adage that entitles this article. Quite straightforwardly it emphasizes the paramount importance that location plays in the value of a piece of property. For example, consider a piece of real estate situated on a very busy street. For the suburbanite seeking a little patch of tranquility away from a hectic world, this would be a major detraction. But for a retailer, the bustling thoroughfare could be his salvation. Therefore, what can be developed at this site is highly dependent on the environment in question. This particular environment may not be the best breeding ground for a family, but a convenience store might flourish. This concept could not be truer for viticulture, i.e., the cultivation of grapes.
People often query how much difference exists between two wines, each made from the same grape, but form different parts of the world, for example, an Oregon Pinot Noir and a Grands Echezeaux. (In America wine is named after the grape, in this example Pinot Noir. In France, wines are generally named after their place of origin. “Grands Echezeaux” is Pinot Noir from a specific vineyard in the appellation of Echezeaux, a sub-district of France’s renowned Burgundy region.) The answer is there can be a stark contrast, especially if you’ve developed a palate for wine.
The issue is this: even if the grapes are identical, the environments within which they’re grown can be dramatically dissimilar. When it comes to a product that is solely the result of manufacturing, plastic beach chairs for example, then it’s immaterial where the factory is located. Quality rests on the nature of the raw materials and the fabrication methods. But when considering a natural product, one whose efflorescence is intertwined with nature, then it’s location, location, location.
Fruits and vegetables each have differing developmental needs. The biological circumstances most auspicious for oranges are not the same for wheat. Even within a class of fruit or vegetable, different sub-species may grow better under divergent conditions. This is because each sub-type has its own biochemical prerequisites that must perforce transpire for it to reach its full potential. The conglomeration of all of the natural factors that come to bear in a specific location is what the French call terroir (tehr-WAHR).
Thus, the first and foremost aspect of terroir is the soil composition. Soils vary greatly in terms of their chemical properties, even between neighboring parcels of land, let alone when an ocean divides them. Examples abound. You may have heard of Beaujolais, a wine from the Beaujolais region of France made from the Gamay grape. The Beaujolais region is dominated by granite hills, which lend their own unique elements to the natural admixture of the soil. No other place in the world has been able to produce a Gamay based wine to the level of success in Beaujolais. The mineral-rich volcanic soil surrounding Italy’s Mt. Vesuvius is ideal for certain grape varieties and imparts a distinctive quality. There are many other instances worldwide.
But the soil chemistry is only the beginning. Next is the texture of the soil. Soils vary in terms of the size of the particulates that compose them. Clay-based soils are dominated by finer particles while a gravelly soil is an amalgam of larger ones. Soil texture can affect water drainage. Without proper drainage roots become saturated, and additional foliage grows. This in turn excessively shades the grapes and reduces ripening. Then there’s the slope of the land, distance from the water table, the angle of the vineyard to the sun, proximity to bodies of water, the altitude of the vineyard, and susceptibility to local pests and diseases.
Last but certainly not least is the climate, and more specifically the microclimate of the vineyard. The amount of rain vs. sunlight and when that rain occurs is crucial. Also vital is the average yearly temperature, humidity, fog or mist, and the specific vineyard’s vulnerability to frost, hail or damaging winds. It sounds amazing but even neighboring parcels of land can have subtle deviations in their climate. One parcel may be at a higher altitude, maintain a disparate slope, lie closer to a body of water, or returning to soil chemistry, have a sudden streak of some other kind of mineral. For example, consider Montrachet, a Burgundian vineyard which produces what most consider to be the best Chardonnay in the world. Its terroir is differentiated from its neighbors by a sudden vein of limestone and a perfect angle toward the sun.
The list of factors that embody the concept of terroir is seemingly endless and the interplay of them is even more mind boggling. But all of these elements and others play a role in the final quality of the wine. Ahhh, but now we’re skirting the edge of a grey zone. Is a wine made from the same grape, but a different place truly better, or just different? Is the difference due to actual quality level or are we immersed in stylistic differences disposed to variations in personal taste? Clearly at the extremes there’s little room for debate. Indubitably there are unique terroirs in the world that excel at cultivating certain grapes to heights that others can’t match, at least not on a consistent basis. But I’m not looking to engage in a debate of whose Pinot Noir is better. My point is simply that differences do exist because of terroir. Ultimately you must rely on your own taste buds, your own gustatory biochemistry, and your own psychological influences……. the “terroir” of your palate, shall we say, to determine the location of your pleasure.