Wine and Place: What’s So Special About Napa?

By October 5, 2016 Wine No Comments


What’s So Special About Napa?

Growing into wine appreciation can wake us up to many sensory details we would otherwise miss. You may, for example, start enjoying the aromas you smell in a wine glass as much as the flavors you taste. One concept that has captured the attention of every winemaker I know (and many wine lovers) is the idea that a good wine is a reflection of the place it came from.

A good wine-making region has a set of qualities stemming from the geography and climate of the region and these environmental factors interact with plants s to unique effect in wine. We need a whole sentence to describe this in English, but in French, only one word can do the trick: terrior. It is the combination of these factors along with number of days of sun, and thermal amplitude (grapes are affected by the change of temperature in a single day) that makes a wine region unique. Few people in the world study wine so carefully that they are able, in a blind tasting, to determine a wine’s variety, place of origin, and vintage (year the grapes were grown). If you have ever tried a blind tasting, you know this is mind boggling.

History of Terrior

This ‘sense of place’ is really important in wine, and comes from French winemakers (monks of the Benedictine and Cistercian orders) who developed the concept of ‘terrior’ centuries ago by observing the differences in wine from different regions, vineyards, or even sections within a vineyard. They began to crystallize the concept of terrior as a way of describing the unique aspects of a place that influence and shape the wine made from it. But long before the French, the Ancient Greeks developed a system of stamping wine from the region they came, and soon different regions established reputations based on the quality of their wines. The ‘new world’ of wine (outside Europe) does not have the benefit of hundreds of years of vineyard observations.

Not Just For Wine

Terrior is an idea that has relevance for other agricultural products including Cognac and a few other spirits, coffees, chocolates, hops, tomatoes, and teas. It has even crossed over to other products that have protected places of origin, like cheeses.

Commercial Impact

The importance of place affects the price of products. Branding plays a big role in wine. The vineyards within the Champagne region are more valuable than those just down the road, where they must call their sparkling wine Cremant (more on this in a future post on Bubbles).

What This Means For You

The next time you open a bottle of wine, pay attention to where it came from. You may soon be trying to taste and smell the differences between Chardonnay from France (a white Burgundy) vs. Sonoma. After a while it is fun to begin to see how the same wine grape behaves differently based on place. Cheers!

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