Fruit set is underway in Napa Valley

Fruit set is underway in Napa Valley

Friday, September 24, 2010

Terroir and a very personal appellation

For the last several years, I’ve been exploring the subtle and interesting flavors of full-leaf, white, green and other oolong teas from China and Taiwan. While reading about Tea, I noted the following: “As with the production of wine, the final taste and quality of the product are influenced by many important contributory factors—climate, soil, altitude, conditions, when and how it is plucked and processed.” Card-carrying wine enthusiasts will immediately recognize the similarity of the above quote to the French wine concept known as terroir (tare-wah), which literally translated means “soil,” but in serious wine discussions and literature implies significantly more.

Terroir has been variously defined. “Somewhereness” is the most concise, with “Taste of Place” not far behind. Both imply something extraordinary, and both impute underlying factors like microclimate, topography, orientation to the sun, subsoil, proximity to bodies of water, to name a few. These and other aspects are what account for the distinctive differences between one wine from another, particularly the good from the great, and especially when they’re made from the same grapes.

Even within the same appellation, fine-tuned, experienced palates can discern differences between vineyards, between plots of the same vineyard, and, apparently, even from one string of vines to another. You and I, of course, can only swirl and sniff and muse inconclusively. As such, the message of wines that speak of their terroir, asserts that their unique, nuanced qualities that can never be duplicated—by anyone, anywhere.

The early Greeks were the first to tame the vitis vinifera vines, the wild grape vines that grew haphazardly in nature. Instead of letting them continue to randomly intertwine around shrubs, bushes and trees, they developed organized planting and trellising systems. In time, a thriving wine exporting industry resulted, and soon thereafter, the special attributes of certain vineyard locations became known and coveted throughout the Mediterranean. Where the wines came from, and the terroir they revealed, was how early connoisseurs and aristocrats selected their favorite wines. Unique and distinctive wines were, then as now, to paraphrase the Michelin Guidebooks, “Wines worth seeking out.”

Lesvos, a beautiful and historic island tucked into the North-Eastern Aegean Sea, the Wine-Dark Sea of Homer's epic poem Odyssey, produced wines with just such distinction. Numerous amphorae that have been unearthed from ancient excavations contain special seals and inscriptions confirming Lesvos as the wine’s provenance—its place of origin.  It was, in effect, an “ancient appellation.”

The inscriptions do not mention, for example, Xynomavro, or Assyrtiko, or whatever the local grapes were named. No, those writings confirmed that the amphorae contained something very specific and noteworthy—the wines of Lesvos. Sadly, however, Lesvos’ flame of fame of has long been extinguished. Blights, overrunning conquerors and other disasters of man and nature have long since eradicated those celebrated vineyards of my forebears. But beyond that tragedy, I will always wonder if my mother knew, but was consumed with caring for her family, and forgot to talk with me about those ancient and famous wines of her birthplace. 

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