The first thing I wish I had known before I approached the car rental kiosk: Almost all cars in Europe are manual. The second: European car rental companies don’t really care about silly Americans like me that don’t know how to drive them.
Many young Americans are just like me. I learned how to drive in an automatic car. Five years have passed and I still cannot operate one with a manual transmission. At home, in my good old automatic, this is never an issue. But when I arrived in Europe last fall for a self-guided tour through wine regions in Spain, France, and Italy, my inability to manage a stick shift suddenly became a hindrance. Luckily, one rental company offered a solution to my problem: the Smart Car, which has an automated manual transmission and can be driven in either mode. It was extremely tiny, like a toy car — much smaller than any car I had ever driven. I wondered where exactly I was supposed to put my oversized suitcase. But while it wasn’t the most comfortable ride for a lengthy journey through wine country — certainly not very impressive to roll up to a winery in — the little car took me far.
In Spain, I drove through the dry, desert-like terrain of Toro and its neighboring region, Ribera del Duero, which is higher in altitude and surrounded by forests. Both regions are known for the powerful tempranillo wines they produce. I visited the nearby small town of Rueda, where the star grape is verdejo, a white variety that flourishes despite the area’s blistering heat. And in France, I conquered the left and right banks of Bordeaux on each side of the Gironde estuary.
Americans mostly don’t understand small cars,
and they certainly don’t
Northern Italy presented a new challenge: hills. While the Smart Car might be an appealing option for city living, it isn’t made for the mountains. But it still somehow managed to climb the foggy hills of Piedmont, home to the finicky nebbiolo grape. It carried me through the volcanic ash ridden vineyards in Soave, and up the steep, complex slopes where glera grapes for bubbly prosecco are grown. While definitely a struggle, the tiny car hauled through the several hundreds of sandy soiled kilometers in the Veneto, and up to Alto Adige, where some of the highest vineyards in Italy are.
In six weeks, I experienced the varied climates of every region, saw the diversity in terrains, and tasted the characteristics and cultures unique to each area through their wines. With help from my little Smart Car, I finally began to grasp what’s known as terroir — a complicated concept in the world of wine.
Americans mostly don’t understand small cars, and they certainly don’t get terroir. At home, I had heard crowds of wine people throw around the word “terroir” when they talked about great wines: “It’s like I can taste the limestone in the vineyards!” or “This is the most terroir expressive wine I’ve tasted all year!” Although I recognized what the word referenced — a wine exhibiting the specific place it was made — never had I seen, or tasted, what they meant. I could barely even pronounce the fancy French word, let alone taste vineyards in a glass.
But then the wheels began to turn. With the help of my tiny rental car, I started to appreciate why certain grapes are grown in specific places, and after tasting many of them, understood how wines are able to showcase the place where they’re made. Tempranillo, a warm-climate grape, doesn’t belong in the Piedmont next to nebbiolo, which very much relies on the region’s typical lingering fog to shield it from the sun. Glera, the grape used to make prosecco, wouldn’t survive in the dry, flat terrain in Rueda like verdejo does. And the garganega grapes of Soave couldn’t communicate the mineral tastes of the region’s volcanic soil if they were grown anywhere else.
The idea of terroir is as romantic and dreamy as wine itself. There’s no exact translation of the French word, but when loosely defined, “terroir” refers to a wine exhibiting a distinctive sense of place, the specific place that it comes from. Basically, when people talk about terroir in terms of wine, they’re referencing the wine’s growing environment — soil composition, climate, altitude of the vineyard, amount of sunlight it receives, and its closeness to bodies of water — which can all contribute various aspects to a wine.
It explains why a chardonnay from California can taste radically different than one from France, Chile, or Australia. Just like the origin of coffee beans can influence the outcome of their taste, a wine can possess traits derived from where the grapes that made it were grown. The same type of grape grown in different places can end with distinctly different results. In the case of chardonnay, the wine could have intense minerality and acidity or be fruitier, riper, and much higher in alcohol. It can flourish in cooler-climate regions as well as warmer ones, and it adapts well to a range of differing terroirs. Other grapes — like syrah, sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, and riesling — express terroir also.
No greater obsession with dirt exists than the wine world’s infatuation with terroir. It all began in France, where winemakers developed the concept after observing that some wines from the same region tasted better than others, despite all being made the same way. The reasoning was simple: Some plots of land are superior to others, and they believed wine got its flavors from the soil in vineyards. The French started classifying their vineyards based on the composition of their soils — the highest-quality sites were given the title “grand cru,” still some of the most coveted vineyards in the world.
“Every woman needs a different type of man, and every terroir needs a different type of winemaking.”
The theory that great wine essentially comes from tradition and special vineyard sites is very much an Old World thing. But French winemakers aren’t the only ones that emphasize the importance of dirt. I once attended a Chilean wine tasting that preached how well their wines reflected the terroir. The event included a presentation by Pedro Parra, one of the leading terroir experts outside France. He lead us through the tasting, wine by wine, and showed us photos of the beautiful mounds of dirt in which they were grown — limestone, gravel, granite, and the funny-sounding schist. Through power point slides and glasses of wine, we visited places like the Maipo Valley, Colchagua Valley, and San Antonio Valley. We saw photos of a wide-smiled Parra standing in various holes in the earth, each time surrounded by different colored soils. Chile, like most New World wine regions, is still discovering its terroir, and Parra is involved in helping various wineries explore the soil that make up their vineyards.
But where was all this talk about dirt going? As far as I could tell, none of the wines I was trying tasted like soil. They were full of beautiful, ripe fruit, and rich tannins. The 2008 Concha y Toro Don Melchor had hints of bittersweet chocolate, the floral 2009 Santa Rita Casa Real Cabernet Sauvignon tasted like juicy plums, the 2009 Lapostolle Clos Apalta was full of blueberries and raspberries, and the 2007 Seña had notes of black pepper. But then Parra went on to explain that great terroir wines should express not only the soil of the vineyards, but the character, conditions and culture of their particular region.
“Terroir is the same everywhere. The interpretation of the terroir is what changes,” said Parra. “Every woman needs a different type of man, and every terroir needs a different type of winemaking.”
Yes, it is true that a great wine begins in the vineyard, with a high-quality growing environment. “Wine is made in the vineyards,” is a phrase I heard from almost every winemaker I met in Europe. But the process the grapes go through to become a great wine continues during the winemaking process. Just as the barista in one coffee shop may drizzle more caramel on top of your latte than in others, winemakers may tailor their wine a bit differently with the use of oak, aging or fermentation styles. In both cases, the foundational ingredients stay the same, but a personal touch is added to the drink.
While terroir is venerated and honored by many winemakers and wine lovers, not everyone accepts the concept. There’s a crowd of anti-terroirists who don’t buy into the whole idea that the place a wine is made should define a wine’s greatness. They see it as a marketing buzzword for wines from esteemed places that might not be so desirable without the sophisticated description. For terroir naysayers, the quality of a wine doesn’t rely on soil and climate and culture. These people, in my opinion, are wrong. And you most often see this anti-terroir argument from winemakers from less-coveted regions, who do not believe that “wine is made in the vineyards,” but rather through clever modern techniques in the cellar.
Of course, not every wine expresses its unique terroir greatly. Some grapes are less successful than others, and most mass-produced wines like Barefoot or Cupcake lack a sense of place completely. Sometimes, I like to think the terroir of these wines are like a Walmart parking lot in comparison to the esteemed French grand cru vineyards in Burgundy, Bordeaux, or Alsace.
When I’m on the hunt for a new wine to love, I search for one that not only tastes like something, but someplace. Usually, I desire wine that expresses at least a hint of its terroir — the soils it came from, as well as the people and the cultural traditions that made it. And sometimes, I find a wine that brings me back to the places I visited in my silly little Smart Car in just one single sip.
A STUDY IN TERROIR
The chosen wines below are great examples of wines that showcase their respective terroir for a bargain price.
Chardonnay, one of the most widely grown grapes in the world, can often show a special expression of place. Depending on where it is grown, chardonnay is capable of making wines that have intense minerality and acidity or ones that are friendly and fruitier. It can flourish in cooler-climate regions as well as warmer ones, and it adapts well to a range of differing terroirs. Ones from Burgundy in France smell like lemons and wet stones, with elegant tastes of chalk. This is a result of the clay and limestone that makes up the majority of the area’s soil composition. Australian chardonnays typically have zippy aromas of lime with flavors of fleshy fruits like peaches. And the classic California chardonnay is luscious, with ripe tropical fruits and a touch of creaminess.
Chablis, France, 12.5% ABV, $18.99
These minerally aromas of crushed seashells are classic for Chablis, the cooler northern most appellation in Burgundy. Green apples and lemon in the mouth with bright acidity and a long, creamy finish. Unique soil composition of limestone, clay, and crushed oyster shells.
Casablanca Valley, Chile, 13.5% ABV, $12.99
Light-golden in color with rich aromas of melon and tropical fruit on the nose, with peach flavors and a hint of oak. A sense of the earth is evident on the spicy finish. Casablanca Valley is Chile’s leading white wine region, located near the Pacific Ocean. It’s a cool climate area with clay, sand, and granite.
Central Coast, California, 13.9% ABV, $12.99
A non-Napa chardonnay without over-buttery or over-oaked flavors, this chardonnay is pineapple-y and nutty, with a touch of lemon curd and creaminess. The Central Coast appellation is south of the San Francisco bay area and bordered by the Pacific Ocean. It has a slightly cooler climate than Napa Valley, with sand, limestone, and rocky soils.
Sauvignon blanc is another grape that beautifully expresses the nuances of the unique terroirs in which it’s grown. It’s strikingly aromatic with crisp acidity. Sancerre, in France, produces complex ones, with bright minerality, some steeliness, and herbal notes. You get the sense that you’re tasting the area’s limestone soil itself from this area’s best wines. In Bordeaux, the grape is commonly blended and oaked, which adds richness, texture, and hints of vanilla. Sauvignon blancs from New Zealand exhibit strong aromas of grapefruit, lime, or green pepper, and have a tell-tale cat piss aroma (No, I’m not making this up). And in Chile, a characteristic minerality shines through the wine’s classic grassy aromas.
Sancerre, France, 12.5% ABV, $19.99
Fresh and vibrant, with hints of straw and stones on the nose. Fresh herbs and striking acidity in the mouth that lingers on the finish. The terroir of Sancerre — in the eastern part of the Loire Valley — is classic territory for sauvignon blanc. It’s full of clay, limestone, and gravel.
Graves, Bordeaux, France, 13.0% ABV, $16.99
Golden in color, with concentrated aromas of apples and citrus flavors. Not overly acidic or fruity, but a little funky — just the way I like it. Bordeaux is generally known for reds, though it produces many dry whites as well. White Bordeaux wines are usually blends of sauvignon blanc and sémillon, but this one is 100 percent sauvignon blanc. Soil in Graves is full of gravel and white quartz.
Marlborough, New Zealand, 13.8% ABV, $14.99
Full of grass and grapefruit — a textbook example of New Zealand sauvignon blanc. Juicy, with piercing acidity, which makes this a great food wine. The unique climate of Marlborough — plenty of sun exposure without much heat — results in a special expression of terroir.
Casablanca Valley, Chile, 13.8% ABV, $11.99
Another Chilean white from the up-and-coming Casablanca Valley, located close to the Pacific Ocean. Super expressive of lime, melon and flint. With great minerality and freshness in the mouth, this sauvignon blanc gives New Zealand a run for its money. Grown in a cool climate area with clay, sand, and granite soils.
Illustration by Claire Jelly