One of the most-revealing ways to visit a winery is to walk its vineyards. This long has been popular as a way to get close to the very land that grows the grapes. You may smell, touch and even taste what it is winemakers are talking about when promoting the importance of terroir, “minerality”, and the like.
The concept of “terroir” can encompass many variants but it has been best served by several writers as the “somewhereness” of a wine, meaning the sum of those factors contributing to a sense of place from which a wine comes.
I’ve spent hours in vineyards with grape growers explaining the differences in soil texture, color and mineral/chemical content and then retiring to tasting rooms where all the strands converge and are revealed in the glass.
If, as it often is, the grape grower and the winemakers are the same person (or work closely together), the message you received in the vineyards is the same message speaking to you from the glass.
However, with the recent discovery of the vine-devastating phylloxera louse in Colorado’s vineyards, the opportunity is gone to walk vineyards (the louse can spread from one vineyard to another by the soil on your shoes) but you still you can look from a distance and, of course, talk to the winemakers about the most-basic of the tools they work with.
While the type and condition of the soil is a common topic of discussion in other winemaking regions, I’ve rarely heard the topic presented in Colorado tasting rooms. Maybe the hosts and hostesses just don’t get asked, or maybe there’s a feeling that the audiences may quickly go glassy-eyed at the very mention of soil chemistry.
And, indeed, some wine critics are skeptical of the concept of terroir or that a vine’s roots can absorb and transfer flavor-enhancing compounds from the soil to the roots.
There’s an interesting article (at least to the stone-suckers among us) about the role of soil to terroir and wine flavors on the wineanorak.com site. The New York Times’ wine critic Eric Asimov recently wrote about the “many variables” that go into “making a wine from a particular place can often be overwhelmed by grape-growing and winemaking decisions.”
This, he argues, loses the “intricacies of terroir” that one finds in wines from, say, Burgundy where that expression “has been raised to a high art.”
He does emphasize, terroir not withstanding, that “the human element” remains uppermost in winemaking. A talented winemaker (the human element) can make good wines no matter where the grapes come from, that’s a given. And that same winemaker learns to use the flavors of the terroir to the wine’s best advantage.
Now let’s return to Colorado wines. I’m often asked (it’s the nature of the job) for my favorite Colorado wine and over the years I’ve discovered there isn’t one, only favorite winemakers.
I’m a firm believer in the role of terroir (I wrote about it here) and this valley and the North Fork Valley have immense ranges of terroir. The Grand Valley has sandy terraces on the west and heavy clay soils on the east, with a few ancient riverbeds, floodplains and long-dry lakebeds thrown in.
The most-obvious example might be in the North Fork, where the Gunnison River divides the landscape into distinct geological regions, volcanic on one side, lots of Mancos Shale across the river, and the wines reflect those differences.
The wines might not taste exactly alike, depending on their origin (part of the terroir). Even grapes from within the same vineyard can taste differently, which is what French winemakers learned centuries ago.
You can test this: Find a winery that makes estate-grown wines and also makes wines from purchased grapes and see if you can distinguish place-of-origin (estate grown) vs. winemaker’s touch theory.
It’s certainly not a bad thing that the human element has a determining role in a wine’s finished product, and you may find it’s not the place or the grape but the winemaker that lifts your spirits.
– Story and photos by Dave Buchanan