Finding my Terroir | November–December 2012

Terroir is a French term that is not accurately translatable. I define terroir as wine’s expression of the influences of climate, soil and winegrower choices. All sites have terroir, but it may not be of high quality, or its full potential may not have yet been realized. My own land is 76 acres. Some of this land I have deemed unacceptable for grapes (lousy terroir). Some of my land has good terroir, but was not initially understood and planted with the wrong variety. What follows is a practical biography of my quest to define, understand, and ultimately express terroir in the bottle.

Over the last thirty years my personal relationship of the concept of terroir has evolved from nebulous theory to a more defined set of parameters. There are three factors involved: climate, soil, and me. I cannot change my site’s climate or soil, but I can make informed planting and management decisions that have the best chance of resulting in a wine that expresses my terroir. Taking a cue from the Old World, I consider a wine of terroir to be superior to a wine of cépage (varietal wine). A terroir wine is singular and cannot be reproduced. A varietal wine is easily reproduced (the goal is to be “varietally correct”) and therefore ordinary.

I purchased this worn out, abandoned hardscrabble farm in 1983. I had been doggedly searching for just the right site since arriving in Virginia three years prior. Like so many other New World winemakers of a generation ago, my quest for the ideal site was centered around microclimate with only a casual nod to soil.

In those pioneer days success was measured by consistent yields and unflawed wines. Slowly we matured, as did our customers. We became less afraid of our weather, more confident in the potential of our site. Encouraged by customer loyalty and America’s newfound romance with wine, the obstacles to producing great wines began to diminish.

About 10 years ago I had a paradigm shift. The way I looked at my vineyard and my wines changed. My approach became more organized and influenced by a more European approach to vineyards and wines. It revolved around defining rather than simply conceptualizing terroir. Climate, soil and me were still the three players, but with greater focus and definition.

Climate. I learned that hot and dry might be ideal for production viticulture, but undesirable for terroir driven wines. High quality grapes need to ripen under cool conditions. “Ripe, but barely ripe” grapes produce the most complex and long-lived wines. With the combination of climate change and improved viticulture, we as an industry have seen our grapes ripen earlier and earlier. The sweet spot for harvest in this region is September 15 through October 15. This is when the nights are cool and ripening is slow. Under these conditions white wines are more aromatic and have fresh, mineral acidity. Reds have better color, more elegant structure and more complexity.

Over the past decade I have been re-organizing my vineyard so that the majority of harvest will happen from mid-September to mid-October. Early ripening varieties are being removed entirely or re-planted on cooler slopes. Late ripening Cabernet, originally planted on cool clay has been re-planted on rocky, thin warm soils in order to accelerate ripening.

Soils. In the Eastern United States, soils are much more significant in their contribution to producing high quality wines than on the West Coast. This is because of rain. We have lots of rain during the growing season. How soils hold or evacuate water after a rain is the most important aspect of understanding a great terroir. In fact, some industry leaders challenge the notion that terroir can even exist in dry climates. I have learned to read my soils and match variety with soil characteristics. Good drainage is critical in all wine grape soils. Too much available water not only results in poor wine quality, but also will often kill a vine due to complications from excessive growth.

White wine grape varieties are happiest in a relatively vigorous, cooler soil. A bit more growth in the canopy can delay harvest and give the wines more aromatics. Red wine grapes produce the best wines under more stressful conditions. It is critical for these vines to stop green growth by late July. This is best achieved by lack of water, which is most likely to happen in well-drained, thin soils. I save the rockiest steepest sites for Cabernet. Cabernet needs to be water stressed to produce great wines. Merlot however likes more clay as it is delicate and can easily become too water stressed in the late summer. This results in a fruity, high alcohol, flabby wine. These are relationships that I wish I had understood decades ago when I first planted.

Me. The third leg of the terroir stool is the decision maker. 30 years ago I didn’t have the information necessary to get the best potential out of my terroir. It was there, but greatly underutilized. Unlike the Old World, I couldn’t build on the foundation of my ancestors. I’m desperately trying to cram many generations of experience into one lifetime.

Through travel, reading and tasting, my goals and intentions change, perhaps too frequently. Steep slopes, high-density plantings, revised trellising and pruning are all practical reflections of philosophical evolution. More vines are being removed to make room for improvement as I try to get it right before I die. But deep down, I know that I will never be content.

In my opinion, the world’s best wines are “vins de terroir.” They are expressive of a place and a time rather than a grape and a process. If the terroir is not good, or poorly exploited, the winemaker is relegated to make a “vin d’effort” (a wine of effort). This involves varying degrees of manipulation in the cellar, which can make a correct, serviceable wine, but a wine without soul or a story to tell.

Flavor, November–December 2012

Jim Law