Understanding how wines taste of growing place increases enjoyment
Terroir — the interplay of grape varieties, geology, climate and wine-growing culture — provides all great wines' foundation. Using terroir as a prism offers intriguing and thought-provoking insights to enhance wine appreciation.
Two excellent books embrace this approach in examining leading wine regions. Ana Fabiano delves into northern Spain's famous wine region with “The Wine Region of Rioja” (Sterling Epicure; $45), while British wine writer Remington Norman focuses on arguably France's most esteemed region in “Grand Cru: The Great Wines of Burgundy through the Perspective of Its Finest Vineyards” (Sterling Epicure: $35).
The authors dedicated much of their careers working in their respective regions. As U.S. Trade Director at Vibrant Rioja, Fabiano holds a mastery certification in the Castilian language. Remington earned an Oxford philosophy degree, so naturally, he sold Burgundy wines in London for many years. Previously, he wrote the highly acclaimed “The Great Domaines of Burgundy.”
From a purely aesthetic perspective, the books' ravishing, evocative photography transports readers to the vineyards. Classic Continental climates shape each region with changing seasons creating vivid vineyard scenes.
The first green shoots of spring unfold to the summer's lush foliage. Autumn's eye-catching reds and yellows precede snowy winter tableaus with vines standing solitary and barren while awaiting rebirth.
Rioja and Burgundy feature charming wine-growing villages as depicted in each book. Well-kept wine-grower homes flank narrow, cobbled streets leading to ancient monasteries and churches. But modern architecture and technology have crept into both regions as the authors observe.
Primarily, though, each writer highlights factors in the vineyards that render wines to enthrall and delight wine drinkers.
“With a country so large and arid, Rioja is a diamond in the rough,” Fabiano says. “It contains rich terroir and biodiversity.” The same could be said of Burgundy's biodiversity.
Topography — mountain ranges in Rioja's cases and little hills known as combes in Burgundy — significantly shapes each region's vineyards. The formations affect winds and seasonal temperatures profoundly.
In both cases, topography helps grapes achieve their most important characteristic — balance. The perfect proportion of juice to solids in mature, perfectly ripened fruit is a perquisite for profound aromas, flavors and freshness.
The authors cite other important factors adding complexity to the wines. In Rioja, the Cantabrian Sea to the north and the Ebro River cutting through region's center create telling influences. In Burgundy, limestone soils and sun exposition shape the grapes' personalities.
These conditions combine with cultural and historical influences, Fabiano says, to create three subregions known as Rioja Alavesaa and Rioja Alta in the north and Rioja Baja in the southeast.
“The diversity of terroirs and producers' styles makes it fun to try the wines to see what you like,” Fabiano says. “When you drink the wines, you can taste the place and recognize the indigenous grapes.”
In “Grand Cru,” Norman documents how Burgundy takes the notion of place to even greater extremes. He meticulously examines Burgundy's traditional Grand Cru and leading Premier Cru climats — specific vineyards such as Chambertin and La Tâche — that merit special designation for consistently producing distinctive grapes and vivid wines over the centuries.
Exalted vineyard classification alone does not, as Norman notes, guarantee great wine. It remains each individual vineyard owner's responsibility to perform the necessary work in the field and winery that allows the grapes to express the distinct terroir of their origins.
While reading these terrific books, try the following for a taste of terroir:
2004 Baron de Lay, Rioja Gran Reserva, Spain (Luxury 38617: $37.99): Made from a traditional blend of primarily tempranillo, the wine's ripe, spicy black cherry and subtle oak notes from 24-months aging in American and French barrels lead to soft, yet elegant, dark-fruit flavors. Silky tannins and acidity balance beautifully through a fruity, dry finish. Recommended.
2009 Etienne Sauzet, Puligny-Montrachet, France (Luxury 36558; $55.99: The vines for this chardonnay-based jewel grow just down the slope from Le Montrachet, Burgundy's most illustrious white wine vineyard. This wine's light golden color offers white flower, citrus and toasty aromas with a touch of pleasant earthiness. Ripe, yet refined apple and citrus flavors layer with stony mineral notes and soft creaminess. The vibrant, perfectly balanced finish delivers fruity, lingering pleasure. Recommended.
Dave DeSimone is the wine writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com.