Micro-Terroir: When There’s Really a ‘There’ There

One crisp Tuscan evening, my wife Morgan and I found ourselves in a spartan dining room overcome with pleasure and completely at a loss for words. A long table had been covered with prosciutto, coppacola, tomatoes, cheeses, fresh baked breads, and home pressed olive oil. Our hosts had shown us a graciousness and warmth typically extended to diplomats.

The hills surrounding Montalcino.  Photo by Morgan Dawson Photography.
The hills surrounding Montalcino

I rummaged through my limited Italian vocabulary for words that would honor such magnanimity. Finally defeated, I settled on English: “Gianluca,” I said, “How the hell are we going to eat all this food?”

You have almost certainly never heard of Gianluca Terzuoli, and you will probably never drink one of his wines. His family’s winery, Santa Giulia, is a tiny producer in the northern part of the appellation that produces Brunello di Montalcino. It was in his dining room that I first discovered the concept of terroir.

We’d experienced a week of tasting Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino from the southern part of the appellation. These wines were often heavy and thick, but Gianluca introduced us to the wildly different Brunellos from the northern zone. His 2003 was a bit awkward and over-eager, but filled with energy and promise—rather like a first kiss. It also offered much more acidity and balance than some of its regional siblings.

Evan with Gianluca. Photo by Morgan Dawson Photography.
The author, left, with Gianluca Terzuoli

“So many people like the dark Brunello,” Gianluca told us. “In vineyards that face north, it’s cooler. We don’t try to make a black Brunello. We make it like my grandfather made it.”

And so: terroir. One microzone might produce a wine that’s completely different from wines made nearby, even those that share an appellation. Wines are influenced by soil, aspect, rainfall, air drainage, and even the subtlest differences can make a difference in the resulting wine. In Brunello, some producers are now lobbying for subzones that would divide the appellation among geographical lines.

I’ve witnessed this same trend for specificity in the Finger Lakes region that I call home. It’s a way of codifying these differences, making them explicit.

Take the case of the single-vineyard Rieslings produced by Hermann J. Wiemer on Seneca Lake, New York. This winery produces one Riesling from the HJW vineyard planted behind the facility, and another from the Magdalena vineyard ten miles north. The only major difference between the vineyards is site. The northern site is one of the warmest in the region, and the Riesling it produces is lush and fleshy. The southern site, meanwhile, produces a Riesling that’s more angular and jagged, charged with electric energy. These wines seem like fraternal twins: one grew up to be a poet, the other a football player.

If you didn’t know anything about the sites from which these wines were born, you would probably assume they’d drink roughly the same. After all, both bottles are labeled “Finger Lakes”—and there must be a distinctive Finger Lakes style, right?

Sure there is, just as Brunello, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and Côte-Rôtie have particular hallmarks. It’s not that “appellation” is meaningless. But there can be striking diversity even within the smallest wine regions. Whether Montalcino or Finger Lakes, consumers should keep in mind that an appellation can’t perfectly predict a bottle’s personality.

Most wine lovers, myself included, cherish a “sweet spot” region (or two). We have some expertise in an area because we’ve spent some time with its wines. We’ve tasted from a range of producers within this favorite region, which leads us to pontificate about how, for example, “Syrah is Clark Kent and Côte-Rôtie is the phone booth.”

The entrance to a Tuscan estate
The entrance to a Tuscan estate

But even the most well traveled (and well paid) wine lovers can’t possibly gain expertise in every—or even most—wine producing regions. A danger lies in sampling a wine from a new location, one that’s unfamiliar to us, and letting this one experience color our judgment and lead us to evaluate the entire region on the taste of that one bottle.

I fell into that trap recently after ordering my first Austrian Zweigelt. After writing my tasting notes on this wine for the New York Cork Report, someone asked me what I thought of Zweigelt, and I quickly provided a glib assessment, as if I had deep qualifications. It struck me only several days later that one bottle does not bestow a Ph.D. I had overstepped my bounds.

Here’s another problem: when tasting some harder-to-find wines, one often encounters only the largest producers of a particular region—rarely the marginal ones. There’s nothing wrong with large producers, but they might not bring the most carefully crafted wine to market, or represent the range of the region’s offerings. And yet we often based our judgment of an entire region’s terroir in one or two glasses of that producer’s wine.

Right now, with winemakers preparing to complete the 2009 harvest in regions around the world, many are considering whether to create new single-vineyard bottlings. In a recent blog post, Wine Spectator’s Harvey Steiman wrote:

“Too many single-vineyard wines aren’t nearly as good as the same winery’s less-expensive blend. A statement like mine would send a terroir-driven Frenchman up the wall. After all, the French, and quite a few American wine connoisseurs, prize a wine’s sense of place above all else. Call me a hedonist, but shouldn’t a wine be judged first on how much pleasure it can deliver?”

Steiman makes an important point: Just because a grower or winemaker has discovered qualities that make a site unique does not mean the resulting wine will be better than a blend.

The old barn at Magdalena Vineyards, with the vineyard manager's motocycle in foreground
The old barn at Magdalena Vineyards, with the vineyard manager's motorcycle in foreground

And yet I’d argue that a single-vineyard wine can offer two benefits that even the best writers like Steiman might overlook. First, some wine lovers are more interested in a wine’s individuality than any sense of how much “better” it might be. Second, the very existence of a single-vineyard bottling is a like a flashing neon sign to the average wine drinker: “Hey, friend. This comes from a very specific place, and that place has something to say. Listen up.”

Sadly, single-vineyard bottlings can easily become nothing more than a marketing ploy. In the Finger Lakes region there are a few single-vineyard wines with no apparent reason for the designation; even the growers can’t explain what the particular site has to offer. And yet we also have bottlings like the Magdalena and HJW Rieslings that tell tremendous stories about what the land can do to the wine.

In all, I’d like to see more producers offering single-vineyard wines—as long as they have discovered something unique and consistent about a site. Until then, I’m going to continue to remind myself that tasting one bottle of Aghiorghitiko does not make me an authority on Greek wines. And I’ll also recall fondly the late afternoon in Tuscany—an afternoon that became a long wonderful evening at Gianluca’s table—where I first understood the glory of wine’s diversity.

evanEvan Dawson is the Finger Lakes Editor for the New York Cork Report and is completing a book about Finger Lakes winemakers. His paid job includes offering his best Ron Burgundy impersonation as a morning news anchor and political reporter for WHAM-TV in Rochester, NY.

All photographs courtesy Morgan Dawson Photography.

Edited by Meg Houston Maker.