When I first began drinking wine, I heard a lot of talk about terroir.  I assumed at that time that “terroir” just meant the soils in which the grape vines are grown.  Over the past several years of study, I have come to understand that terroir is sort of a short hand for the entire environment in which a grape grows and ripens.  It is about the climate, the winds, the amount of sunlight, the change in temperatures from day to night (“diurnal range”), the amount of water that gets to roots and so forth.

So, when you hear that a wine expresses its “terroir,” what does that mean exactly?  It means that you should be able to taste certain characteristics of its home if it is a well-made, carefully handled wine.  That is the difference between a small-batch hand made wine and a mass produced wine, but more on that another time.

When you taste a wine, do you feel like it is balanced?  Is there some sourness (“raciness” or “acid” or “mouthwatering crispness”)?  Are there flavor characteristics that balance out the acidity?  Fruit, floral aromas, minerals – which can often give wine a faint saltiness, herbaceousness?  Is there any sweetness in the wine?  Does it feel a bit hot on your palate in a way that you know you are drinking alcohol?  Is that in balance with the other sensations or does it overwhelm the wine?  Is the taste after swallow pleasant or do you detect a lingering bitterness?  If so, is the bitterness a welcome sensation?  And most importantly, does it please your palate?

Each of these questions potentially addresses a different aspect of terroir.  If you detect acidity, it could very well be underripe grapes.  But it could also indicate cool nights that enhance the development of acids in the grape, which is a desirable trait.  If you taste some sugars, it could be that it is a low alcohol wine where the fermentation was stopped in order to preserve some sugar or it could mean that is made with grapes that received a great deal of warmth and sunlight and were able to ripen to a great degree.  If you taste minerality, it could be that the wine was made in a cool climate using neutral vessels such as stainless steel or concrete or it could mean it was a coastal wine that somehow expresses the wet stones and salty breezes of its home.  If the alcohol is well integrated, even at high levels, the wine will taste round rather than prickly.  If you detect the alcohol level right away, you know it is unbalanced.  So each aspect of a wine can have multiple explanations but you can learn a great deal about it from taking a minute to savor all the sensations and smells and tastes it imparts.  And you can decide whether this wine has individual character and interest or if it is made to cater to the consistency of certain palates.

Mystic Wine Shoppe steve bird
Which brings us to this week’s wine, the Steve Bird Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand.  It is first and foremost, delicious.  But more than that, it is a carefully made wine that expresses its terroir beautifully.  It is grown in the Wairau Valley zone of the Marlborough wine region.  This is the area that saw the birth of the New Zealand wine industry in the 1970s and has since showcased its best Sauvignon Blanc wines.  It is a warm, dry area that has bright sunlight during the day and is cooled at night by the ocean breezes from Cloudy Bay.  This means you get plenty of ripe fruit flavors such as passion fruit and grapefruit as well as plenty of sugars for balanced alcohol (13%) while retaining many of the acids and more delicate aromas of apricot, gooseberry and herbs that are so characteristic of the Sauvignon Blanc grape.  And the finish is marvelous, tangy and lingering with a fruity mouthwatering end.  All this adds up to a luscious, round and satisfying glass of wine.

Cheers! Seema

Photos from Steve Bird Website