The holy grail of serious winemakers around the world is terroir. That French word (pronounced “teh-RWAAR”) means the unique taste in a wine of the place where its grapes were grown. With one sip, it’s possible to recognize the distinctive flavor that comes only from a certain vineyard.
Winemakers are constantly searching for ways to bring out terroir in their wines. Unless a wine has the flavor of its place of origin, it’s just a pleasant beverage that’s indistinguishable from thousands of other pleasant beverages on the shelves of the world’s wine shops—and it’s not worth the extra money that wines of terroir can command. There are a thousand and one Merlots, for example, but only one Château Pétrus, and you’ll pay dearly to taste it.
So how does a grape grower get vines to produce grapes that reveal terroir? One answer is to grow those grapes organically. That’s what Paul Dolan does in Mendocino County, California. Dolan has been called “America’s leader in organic and biodynamic wine.” For the past decade, he has farmed biodynamically on his own 160-acre ranch (with 70 acres of Demeter-certified vines) in the rolling, golden hills above the Russian River.
“The question isn’t why a specific place shows a specific taste,” he says. “It’s why shouldn’t a specific place have a specific taste?” In other words, every vineyard has a terroir waiting to be discovered if only the site is handled properly. The trick, he says, is this: “Feed the soil rather than the plants. The overarching idea is that as farmers, our responsibility is to create a healthy environment so the vines can fully express themselves.
“To promote terroir,” Dolan continues, “you have to get the chemicals out. Why would you put petroleum products on the soil and kill soil life? The goal is to have the same diversity above ground as you have with soil microorganisms below ground. Organic farming contributes to terroir by getting out of the way of the plants’ natural metabolism.”
One of the chief tasks of the wine-grape grower is to manage vines’ vigor. Too much vigor is as detrimental to fruit quality as too little. What’s needed are thrifty, well-behaved vines that produce a modest but high-quality crop. So between the vine rows, Dolan plants clover, oats, vetch, and bell beans to become green manure—which provides fertilizer for the vines and erosion control. Where vigor is too great, he disks down (turns the manure) only every other row. Where vigor is too little, he disks down every row. Then he cultivates the vines so that their feeder roots extend into the aisles to either absorb that manure or search for it in vain if less vigor is wanted.
Dolan’s wines feature ‘Sauvignon Blanc’, ‘Chardonnay’, ‘Pinot Noir’, ‘Zinfandel’, and ‘Cabernet Sauvignon’ grapes from his vineyard and other local family farmers. Each variety is cultivated according to its specific habits and needs. Needless to say, this takes a wise and deep relationship between the grapevines and the viticulturist.
That same deep relationship exists between the vines of Renaissance Vineyards and Winery in Oregon House, California, and viticulturist and winemaker Gideon Beinstock. Renaissance wines are unusual in many ways, none more so than in their terroir. His Bordeaux and Rhône varieties struggle in thin soils that overlay the granite ridges of these Sierra Nevada foothills, and you can taste the rock and dust and sheer will to live that the vines express. The vineyards are 100 percent organic. The wines are not fat and fruity, but resolute and lean, aged for up to 4 years in old oak barrels and released up to 12 years after the vintage. After a glass or two, you’ll always recognize a Renaissance wine.
“Every intervention reduces terroir,” Beinstock says. The most dramatic interventions are pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, but also conventional fertilizers, and even too much water that pumps up the fruit, increasing yields but diluting flavors. “Even starting fermentations with outside yeast obstructs the development of terroir. So I use whatever yeast naturally colonizes the grape skins in the vineyard.”
Dolan and Beinstock agree: To find the holy grail of terroir, promote health in the vineyards and let the vines dig it out for themselves.
Paul Dolan Vineyards, Paul Dolan, winemaker: Mendocino Wine Co., 501 Parducci Rd., Ukiah, CA 95482, 800-362-9463 (website visitors can join Dolan's Wine Club or order a range of wines if the customer's state has a reciprocal shipping agreement for wine with California).
Renaissance Vineyard and Winery, Gideon Beinstock, winemaker: 12585 Rices Crossing Rd., Oregon House, CA 95962, 800-655-3277 (wines can be purchased online if the customer's state has a reciprocal shipping agreement for wine with California).