Much has been written about terroir, a French word that takes in all things about what affects style and nuance in wine. It includes sun exposure, drainage, rainfall, temperature and, most importantly, soil type. The world’s classic grape varieties show their adaptability and variation in different soil types. Americans tend to think in terms of grape varieties in wine and view all wines from a single variety as the same. Of course, there is a family note to wines from the same variety but there is a vast difference beyond that elemental point. Europeans think more in terms of region, district and even single vineyard due to the differences in soil.
Chardonnay rules in America. We drink oceans of it from all over the world. Burgundy is the traditional home of Chardonnay but it has been carried around the world by settlers and shows its nuances wherever it goes. The predominantly chalk-limestone soil of Burgundy yields mineral driven wines, crisp and long. Chardonnay in America is best in the cool climates of the Sonoma Coast, Carneros and the valleys of the Central Coast that open to the Pacific. Soil types and resultant wine styles vary greatly. Much inexpensive Chardonnay is grown in other places that yield the bulk but little character.
Merlot was thriving in America until a movie lambasted it and suddenly Americans viewed it as if it were poison. I have served the wines of St. Émilion and Pomerol in tastings and always waited to tell the taster the wine was nearly or 100% Merlot. “That isn’t Merlot” is usually the response. Even in St. Émilion the soil varies from the chalk-limestone of the plateau around the village to the edge of the appellation bordering Pomerol where the soil is more gravel and clay. Pomerol’s soil varies in this small district with clay and pebbles to a vein of iron slag, the crasse de fer, running under some of the vineyards. In America it thrives in Washington and the gravelly soil of Napa’s floor.
Cabernet Sauvignon is another variety that calls Bordeaux home and has spread around the world. In Bordeaux it shows its best in the gravel soils of the Médoc and Pessac-Léognan. In America it has been planted in many varying soil types but thrives in the gravel soil of the Napa Valley and similar sites. On the mountain sides bordering the valley Cabernet tends to produce smaller, thick-skinned berries that yield firm wines with dark color that often need aging.
Pinot Noir calls Burgundy home and the Côte d’Or produces a huge range of the best of Burgundy. Often the soils vary from tiny, neighboring vineyards and even across a road. The prices reflect the differences. The same movie that disparaged Merlot elevated Pinot Noir to an American favorite and plantings soared. Some of those plantings were in sites that were more conducive to good potatoes and artichokes than Pinot Noir. The variety needs a cool climate and lean soil as in its native ground, and Oregon has emerged as a top source with the Sonoma Coast, Carneros and the southern coast valleys of California.
Riesling is another of the world’s classic grape varieties that can vary from insipid to phenomenal. Germany is the native land of Riesling but even in that country the styles vary greatly. The Mosel Valley’s top sites are on steep slopes of slate that yield steely, mineral-based wines that can be extremely long-lived. Even within the Mosel, the slate ranges from black to blue to red and the wines show the subtle differences. The soil in the Rheingau is more loam and pebbles and the wines are generally rounder and with a richer note but the same aging ability. America has few places where Riesling rules but Washington has been the standard bearer.
Try wines from same the grape but different home soils to get a feel for the nuances the variety can offer.
Brad Lewis, ABC Fine Wine & Spirits wine guru