What Does Terroir Mean For You?

There has been a lot of talk this week about the passing of our founder, Jess Jackson. This is a sad time for all of us. Jess was certainly a great man, a visionary, a leader. One of the things for which I admired him most was his commitment to the land. It was his firm conviction that the land was more important than anything else: More important than the brand and more important than any one man.

This notion of the intrinsic value of a piece of land is central to the concept of what the French call terroir. This term is hard to define, but in general it refers to the inherent difference between any two places that is expressed in the fruit of that land. This could mean grapes, of course, but could also apply to many other agricultural products. We have come to understand the difference in terroir for many different things such as coffee or truffles. Even things such as cattle or hogs can express differences of terroir.

So what does this word really refer to? Surely it has something to do with the difference in soil type and structure found on a piece of land. But it also has to do with weather, or microclimate. You could not grow Grand Cru Pinot Noir on the island of Hawaii, for example, even if you imported container loads of the best soil directly from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Still, terroir is more than just soil and climate. For me it also has to do with the interactions of the humans, first with each other, and also with the plants that express this fruit.

Humans make the decisions we have talked about over my previous posts. We decide what to plant, what type of training system (trellis) to use, how to prune and how to fertilize and encourage the crop. We decide what to feed our animals and whether, in the case of Kobe beef, to massage their flesh. We also interact with each other and learn from our neighbors. Terroir isn’t only about differences. It also refers to similarities. It is likely that some commonality or regional character that exists in fruit from an appellation is due to the human component just as much as the similarity in soil type and climate.

I first really understood about terroir while working as an intern in Burgundy. I spent the harvest of 2003 at Maison Joseph Drouhin in Beaune, France. Drouhin is a formidable producer of both white and red Burgundies from a phenomenal number of the Grand Cru vineyards there. I had the opportunity to work on the fermentations and observe their character. I also had the opportunity to taste many of the 2002 wines in barrel as we topped or racked them after harvest.

It was there, tasting the Chambolle-Musigny in barrel, that I really got it. I had tasted several other finished examples of this 1er Cru appellation, and there in those barrels of unfinished wine was unmistakably the imprint of the land. This is Chambolle-Musigny. No question about it.

Jess understood the ‘thing’ about great pieces of land. He strove to surround himself with them, and to make certain that we could produce the very finest wines possible from that land. I have been extremely fortunate to work on making wines from some of these vineyards. It is one of my most treasured experiences; to sit in a lineup of wines from distinct areas in Sonoma and Napa Counties and delight in the terroir they express.