Episode 039 - Intro to Terroir
What’s shakin, cocktail fans?
Welcome back to another episode of the Modern Bar Cart Podcast.
Today’s subject is terroir, which is probably a word that many of you haven’t encountered before, especially if you haven’t spent a lot of time learning about wine.
In brief, terroir refers to the effects that climate, landscape and other living organisms can have on the overall character, flavor, or experience of wines and spirits. And really what this episode is designed to prepare you for is the next time you’re visiting a winery or a distillery and the tour guide maybe drops this term on your group. Or maybe you’ll be tasting a wine or spirit with someone who really knows their stuff, and suddenly they launch into a monologue about why they prefer left bank Bordeaux to right bank Bordeaux, or California Cabernets to Australian Cabernets. The goal isn’t to make you an expert on terroir – because that would take a lifetime of dedicated study. Instead, my hope is that you take 2 things away from this episode:
1.) Develop a solid enough understanding of terroir to keep up with more experienced others during a tasting or a conversation.
2.) Have the tools to identify the effects of terroir in wines and spirits as you experiment with them on your own.
Featured Cocktail: The Rusty Nail
Today’s featured cocktail is the Rusty Nail. And we selected this cocktail because it’s a classic drink that can really show off the effects of terroir in the glass.
To make a Rusty Nail, you’ll need to pick up one sort of uncommon ingredient, and that is Drambuie, which is a Scotch-and-Honey liqueur. It’s sweet and a bit herbal, and it pairs really well with scotch because of the shared malted barley base spirit.
And the recipe for this drink is simple:
- 2 oz Blended Scotch
- ½ oz Drambuie
And that’s it. Stir those together in a mixing pint over ice, strain into a rocks glass over a single large ice cube, and enjoy. This is kinda like the Scottish version of the Old Fashioned.
And the reason we're featuring this cocktail in the terroir episode is because the Scotch you choose is going to have such a huge effect on the outcome of the drink. The recipe calls for blended scotch, which is something like a Dewar’s or a Johnny Walker, or a Cutty Sark. And these are all very similar, standardized products that have almost no variation from batch to batch. That’s the point of blended Scotch – consistency. But if you start subbing in some single malts from different regions of Scotland, you’ll very quickly start to see how the character of your Rusty Nail is going to change drastically from region to region, depending on the terroir and maturation styles employed by the various Scotch Houses.
Just like an Old Fashioned is an excellent way to test out a new bottle of Bourbon, the Rusty Nail is definitely a nice way to ease your way into different bottles of Scotch. Definitely tag us @modernbarcart on Instagram and Facebook if you have the chance to make one of these, and share your thoughts!
Terroir - An Overview
Wikipedia defines Terroir as:
“The set of all environmental factors that affect a crop’s phenotype, including unique environmental contexts, farming practices, and a crop’s specific growth habitat.”
Now, if any of you listeners out there can think back to your high school or college biology courses, you’ll recall that this word is part of a pair: phenotype and genotype. With the genotype referring to the literally cellular genetic makeup of an organism, and phenotype referring to the big-picture outcomes of each set of genetic realities. In humans, this can mean the difference between brown or blue eyes, or in the original Mendelian genetic experiments, the difference between green and yellow peas.
So, the genotype is like the code that makes things run, and the phenotype of an organism is the result of all the little changes and realities that exist at the chemical building blocks level.
If you’re thinking that this is starting to sound a lot like the age-old nature vs. nurture debate, you’re right.
Consider this: just because you have a gene that predisposes you to cancer doesn’t mean that that gene is being expressed at the moment. In many cases, there’s a set of conditions that must exist for that switch to be flipped and for that potential to become a reality. The same is true for the crops we use to make wine and spirits.
Just because a grape could taste a certain way doesn’t mean it will. What if there’s a drought? What if there’s 20% less sunlight than average this growing season? These and many other realities can affect the chemical composition of the end crop, which, in turn, will affect the flavor.
THIS is the concept of terroir. And just like the expression of a human phenotype is a specific biological reality like red hair or sickle cell anemia, the expression of a grape or barley phenotype is certain chemical flavor reality like acidity, or sweetness.
Just like you and me, that grape has DNA, and depending on how things shake out during that grape’s lifespan, it could end up turning out any number of different ways.
Some of the factors that affect a grape are relatively constant – like soil, overall climate, microbiome, and human practices. But some factors are a bit harder to control – like more specific weather events (forest fires or hail storms, for example).
This is one of the reasons why people are intrigued by terroir, especially in the wine world. Because if you put in the time, you can learn some of the easier terroir-related traits to identify, and then start working your way into the nuances. And for people who really like to nerd out and dive deep into their hobbies, there’s almost a limitless number of nuances that can be encountered. That’s why people build entire careers in this industry by developing this type of knowledge.
So. What are some of those big-picture traits that you can start to identify in your wines and spirits that will impress your friends?
If you’ve ever looked into planting a particular type of flower or shrub in your yard or garden, usually there’s some specs you need to look into.
Is this a sun-loving plant or a shade-loving plant? How much water does it need to flourish? What about drainage or fertilizer?
The same goes for grapes, as well as for base grains and fruits used in distilling. To get a good output, you need to consider the conditions.
Now, different types of grapes are referred to as “varietals,” and different varietals are more suited to growing in different climates. That’s why you see Cabernet Sauvignon grapes thriving in warm, dry places like Napa Valley and Australia, and Pinot Noir grapes thriving in cooler climates like Washington State and New Zealand.
But there’s also a decent amount of flexibility. Just because Pinot Noir tends to grow best in cooler climates doesn’t mean you can’t grow it in a more moderate climate like Sonoma, for example. And this is where things get interesting, and you can start to pick out the differences between a Sonoma Pinot Noir vs. a Washington State Pinot Noir.
In general, and we’re just talking about grapes here, grapes grown in a hot climate tend to have higher alcohol, fuller body, more tannins, and less acidity. Whereas grapes grown in cooler climates tend to display lower alcohol, lighter body, less tannins, and more acidity.
And just a quick sidebar here:
If you’re not familiar with the term “tannins,” this basically refers to the woody, or astringent notes you get in a wine or spirit. Think about drinking a really strong black tea. You know how it kind of dries out your mouth? That’s the experience of tannins.
So knowing all this, you could, in theory, take two bottles of wine made using the exact same grape varietal, but grown in two different climates, and perceive a vastly different flavor experience between the two.
Sommeliers and other wine professionals, at the higher levels of certification, must be able to identify these characteristics without seeing the bottle in a process called a “blind tasting.” And it’s actually part of the test. You fail the blind tasting, you can’t be a Somm. That just goes to show you how serious people are about identifying these nuances.
Soil also has a major effect on the outcome of the grapes, and it also has a sort of reciprocal effect on certain aspects of climate as well.
Different types of soil tend to drain differently, which has a direct effect on how much water the grape vines have access to. Then there’s the actual chemical makeup of the soil, which impacts what types of minerals will be absorbed by the grapes and incorporated into the flavor profile of the end product.
Sometimes you’ll hear more advanced wine tasters give tasting notes like:
Chalky, graphite, mineral, and even petrol.
For example, South Africa has a lot of granite in the soil, which has a couple of different effects. It absorbs a lot of heat, which reduces acidity in the wine, and it also yields flavor characteristics that taste like wet stone or concrete in some instances. And just to put it in context, those aren’t criticisms. There’s lots of crazy tasting notes out there, like “Forest Floor,” or “mushroomy,” or even “barnyard.” And these things don’t mean that the wine tastes like a mushroom or smells like manure – they’re just small aspects of the overall flavor experience of the wine.
The final major way that soil, or I suppose, “geology,” can impact the outcome of the wine is called “exposure,” which simply means how much sun the grapes get. South-facing hillsides tend to be ideal, producing the greatest amount of sunlight. However, not every vineyard has exclusively south-facing slopes. This all affects the end product.
The most popular example of soil differences affecting flavor outcome is the case of left bank vs. right bank Bordeaux wine. The premium wine producing region of Bordeaux is located close to the Atlantic Ocean on the Gironde river, which is actually an estuary, which is a place where a river meets an ocean.
One thing to remember is that most Bordeaux reds are blends, and the question of flavor depends largely on what percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon and what percentage of Merlot are in the bottle. There are some other varietals in there as well, but those are the two big ones.
On the left bank of the Gironde, you’ve got really gravelly soil with deep limestone deposits, and so the wines of the left bank, are really Cabernet driven. Whereas on the right bank, you’ve got more available limestone and a lot more clay in the soil. These wines tend to emphasize Merlot over Cabernet Sauvignon, making them softer, rounder, and more drinkable earlier in the lifespan.
I don’t want to turn this into our “intro to French Wine” episode, so I’ll let it drop there, but the important thing to take away here is that soil is important.
One other really fascinating aspect of terroir is how the microorganisms in a given area interact with the grapes. And this is actually an emerging field of inquiry in the wine world, with lots of new data coming out. I’ll link to a really cool set of studies in the show notes that aim to connect the common microorganisms in a given region with the primary flavors of those wines.
And “microbiome” extends also to a critical area of overlap between wine, beer, and spirits:
All alcohol is the result of fermentation that is kicked off by yeast, which convert sugar into alcohol. For wine and beer, this is where the buck stops. But with spirits, distillers take that fermented brew and then further process it to transform it into a higher proof spirit.
Like with most microorganisms, there are different strains of yeast, and brewers, winemakers, and distillers all have their favorites. I don’t pretend to know very much about this at all. But, I can tell you that picking your yeast is an important decision because once you let that yeast loose in your production facility, it’s there. You’re not getting rid of it, and it’s going to affect all your brewing or distilling or winemaking projects for perpetuity.
The Story of Sour Beer
There’s a particular strain of yeast called “Brettanomyces,” or “Bret,” for short. And this yeast produces a really distinct sour flavor, but a lot of brewers who want to experiment with this strain are forced to build completely separate facilities so that they don’t risk inoculating their clean beers with this very funky, wild yeast.
Just goes to show how the weird little bugs and fungi you’ve got chilling in your particular part of the world can have a major impact on the character of the beer, wine, or spirits you produce.
One final and crucial aspect of terroir involves the decisions that humans make when it comes to growing or harvesting crops.
Grapes grow in clusters, and if you think about it, the more clusters there are on a given vine, the less resources (in terms of photosynthesis and nutrients) there are to share between those clusters. So if you’re a grape grower who is concerned more with flavor than with volume, it would make sense that you’d want to carefully control the number of clusters on your vines so that you can ensure optimal flavor in those grapes. That’s why a lot of wine makers prune their vines to achieve a specific output – both in terms of volume and flavor quality.
And then there’s, of course, the decision of when to harvest. At what point are the grapes perfect? Maybe last year it was September 30th, but maybe this year it will be October 5th. Maybe the south slope will be ripe a week before the southeast slope. And then there’s ice wine, where the grapes are allowed to freeze before being harvested and pressed, which results in a sweeter product because the water is in a solid form and can be separated out, which leaves a lot of very sweet juice. But if you mess up that kind of very technical harvest, you could very easily find yourself looking at an entire year’s labor down the drain, which is devastating.
Sauternes - A Terroir Case Study
I’d like to round out the wine-driven part of this episode by giving you a case study that shows how all these aspects of terroir work together. What follows is the story of Sauternes, a French dessert wine that’s only grown in a small sub-region in Bordeaux.
Remember how earlier I mentioned that there’s a right and a left bank of Bordeaux, located on either side of the Gironde estuary? Well, if you follow that body of water upstream, it actually splits into two separate rivers (the Garonne and the Dordogne) that veer off in different directions almost like legs of the Gironde. And if you follow the Garonne river even farther upstream, you’ll encounter a very cold little tributary called the Ciron river.
It’s here that our story begins.
Sauternes wine is made using the Semillon grape, which is a native white grape varietal that has a rich flavor and one very special attribute when it occurs in this particular landscape.
In late September, when temperatures begin to fluctuate more widely than in summer, morning mists are generated overnight as the warm air that is absorbed by the soil meets the cool microclimate generated by the cold Ciron river. These mists create an ideal climate for the formation of a fungus called Botrytis Cinerea, also known as “noble rot.”
And what happens is, during the cool, damp mornings, the noble rot eats away at the skin of the Semillon grapes, leaving tiny perforations in the skin. But before it can get to the flesh, the warm sun burns off the mist and the water in the ripe grapes evaporates, resulting in more sugar in the harvest.
The grapes are harvested at the perfect stage of rot, then fermented. The result is a sweet, syrupy dessert wine with relatively low alcohol (due to the high residual sugar content). Because of the low output and small growing region, Sauternes are some of the most expensive wines in the world, and they’re extremely well suited to aging. I’ve had a few in my time, and it’s always an incredibly decadent treat to be able to break out a bottle of Sauternes, especially knowing the truly unique set of terroir features that make it possible.
Terroir and Spirits
Now comes the big question for us here in the cocktail world:
Can terroir apply to spirits and cocktails?
A lot of people are going to argue that the process of distillation saps a lot of the unique character out of a particular base grain. So, let’s say you’re using a specific type of corn that’s really unique to your region and has a really special flavor character. Many people are going to claim that distillation takes away from that uniqueness, or at least makes it harder to perceive.
And then there’s the question of barrel aging and other flavor-enhancing techniques in certain spirits. How are you going to be able to pick out the character of the barley in a particular single malt Scotch, for example, if you’ve suffocated that barley with stinky peat smoke, distilled it to an extremely high proof, watered it down, then stuck it in a charred, used bourbon barrel to age for 10-18 years in the salty sea air?
So what do we do? What happens when you’re touring a distillery or doing a tasting and some master blender or distiller starts talking about the “terroir” of his or her spirits?
Maybe the best answer is to avoid making hard judgments before you’ve taken the time to listen and to taste. Because ultimately terroir is a sliding scale. With some products, it’s going to make a huge difference, and in some others, it’s barely going to be a factor at all.
Some of the questions you can ask that will help you understand the role that terroir has in a given spirit include:
What is the “Mash bill” of this product? i.e. If it’s a vodka, what is the base grain? If it’s a Bourbon, what percentage of corn does it have, relative to other grains? And how might that affect the flavor. A mash bill isn’t really a terroir, but sometimes there are regional differences that can start to look like terroir. For example, the traditional difference between Pennsylvania style rye whiskey and Maryland style rye whiskey is that Pennsylvania distillers didn’t add corn, and Maryland distillers did. The result is two very different types of products, but the driving force has more to do with human preference than soil or climate.
Another question you can ask is: How was this spirit flavored or aged? How charred was the barrel? Was it “finished” in a brandy or sherry cask? Was it infused with botanicals?
And a final question you might consider is how this product is situated relative to its historical ancestors. Is it cutting against historical trends, or trying to resurrect a style that was once popular but has since vanished? Is it trying to jump on a popular bandwagon (like the sour beer craze), or is there some aspect of real originality in this product?
All of these questions, when it comes to spirits, require really deep listening to the story of the spirit and the process that brought it from grain to glass or fruit to glass. So instead of memorizing wine regions and soil composition charts and memorizing what years produced great crops in the wine world, you’re spending your time with the distiller and the process, and the history.
Which isn’t exactly terroir, but it isn’t…exactly…not.
I guess what I’m trying to say is:
It’s really neat that the spirits we use in our cocktails are actually the result of sun, and rain, and soil, and human intention, and creativity, and toil. That’s why I enjoy making drinks with spirits that have a cool story. I think it enhances the intellectual and aesthetic pleasure I get from making a cocktail.
So I’d encourage you to take the time to learn about the chemical and biological forces at work behind the scenes in your wine, beer, and spirits. Because the more you understand what you’re drinking, the more you’ll savor it.
Whether you’re contemplating the terroir a silky glass of inky purple right bank Bordeaux, or a Rusty Nail made with a briny Islay single malt, I wish you happy drinking.
Please see below for the music credits that pertain to this episode: