Some of you fellow Bacchanalian hedonists and quaffers may have stumbled across the mysterious word in wine producing blurb – “Terroir”. As to what exactly this exotic word means won’t elicit a very lucid response if asked of a Frenchman – they prefer to remain ambiguous and mysterious and to accompany any answer they do give with vague Gallic shrugs and arm waving. The weighty wine tomes you may want to wade through will waffle on that it is a alchemic combination of soil type, drainage, micro and meso climate, aspect and well, its just “terroir”! The reason the French, for example, have long resisted the move to varietal labelling their wines (you know, that useful little trick that gives you some hint as to what the bottle might contain!!!), preferring to stick with just the Appellation or Village name, is that a bottle of Sancerre is not just any old Sauvignon Blanc – how can it be, when the specific chalky limestone soils of the vineyards of the village of Sancerre mean that it can never be just Sauvignon Blanc? It is the fact that it is produced in Sancerre, from the soils of Sancerre, in the climate that is Sancerre that makes it Sancerre and the grape variety is frankly secondary in this explanation. Hmmmm – clear as mud?
Cut the c**p – we are simply talking soil here and a recent excursion into Germany made all my years of studying and trying to get to the bottom of the concept of “Terroir” absolutely crystal clear – a revelatory experience! My foray into the German wine regions was desperately exciting – I think I alluded to my “cold turkey” symptoms from lack of Riesling in my last blog! The highlight of the trip, though, was a trip to the Mosel river – for those of you trying to get your head round your European geography – the Moselle river of Lorraine and Luxembourg becomes the steep sided, winding and very pretty Mosel river in Southern Germany. This is one of the most northerly wine growing regions in Europe and the home of the purest expression of the Riesling grape. Here, taut, steely, racily elegant crisp wines with a hint of apple sweetness are just gorgeously expressive of their “Terroir”. Right, to get down to it – a private tasting, organised by a mate of mine in the Wine Trade, led us to the door of the Weingut Dr Ernst Loosen on the outskirts of Bernkastel in the Middle Mosel. His family estate includes some of the most prime Grand Cru vineyards in the Mosel – all just mere kilometres apart from each other.
Picture please, the steepest vineyards you can imagine (they even have cables swung across to hang on to while it is all harvested by hand), the glinting reflectiveness of the Mosel river bounces sunlight and warmth back up to the grapes. We tasted different quality levels and sweetness levels from two different Grand Cru vineyard sites: Riesling at its best at the hands of a Master! Same grape, same vintage, same alcohol level (a delectable 8% ABV), same PH and acidity – analytically mirror images BUT the soils from the two vineyards were ostentatiously different. We got to fondle a chunk from each – a jagged, metallic looking shard of the shiniest blue grey slate from the Wehlener Sonnenuhr vineyard and a knobbly, pumice like chunk of red speckled volcanic rock from the Urziger Wurzgarten vineyard just two bends along the river further on.
The wines tasted extraordinarily and astonishingly different! Surely, if soil (or “Terroir”) was just gobbledegook, these wines should taste pretty much the same – but no. the first actually tasted stoney, and smoother and more delicate. The Urziger wines were more complex, spicy, fuller flavoured and more honeyed. Wow – we were truly bowled over by the experience – and after tasting first the Kabinett and then the Spätlese levels from each vineyard, I swear we could actually tell and anticipate what the Auslese wines from both vineyards would be like before we tasted them.
I have to confess, as this was more holiday than work trip, I didn’t exactly spit much of it out. The car did make the return journey to the Riviera slightly more weighed down with boxes of wine than it left, but it was worth it to have the wine rack and the cellar looking a little healthier here at home. Whether any of these wines reach their full potential, I doubt it (I won’t have the patience to resist them). Fine Riesling is one of the longest lived of any White wines, and if you do stumble across a fine Mosel Auslese on the dusty back shelves of your wine merchant, don’t worry if its 10, 20 or even 30 years old – buy it, it will repay your eagle eye with the most supreme wine tasting experience ever – heaven!!
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