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The Shakespeare of Terroir

“Oh my God,” Terry Theise says, walking over to me, the only guy in the room with a laptop, with a twinkle in his eye. “You’re not going to actually write down what I say, are you? Please promise me one thing, that you won’t keep track of how many F-Bombs I drop.”

And that is how I first met the guy whose writing and wines I have admired for several years, ever since I was first introduced to his portfolio and his writings by distributor Hiram Simon, who runs the well regarded WineWise & The Vienna Wine Company in Oakland.

Terry Theise, despite how his first words to me might suggest otherwise, is in my estimation one of the most articulate people about wine on the planet. And he doesn’t even write about wine for a living. He spends most of his time finding fantastic German and Austrian wines (as well as small Champagne producers) and making them available to wine lovers in the U.S. via his annual catalogs, which are absolutely some of the best reading on wine I do every year.

Theise’s catalogs are to standard wine catalogs as Rolling Stone Magazine is to an inventory list of CDs at your local music store. They’re hilarious, thought provoking, sometimes moving, and entertaining reading, in addition to being sources of some of the best wines on the planet.

Last week I had the opportunity to sit in on a seminar Theise was running in San Francisco with a few top Riesling producers from Germany and Austria, and was delighted to learn that Theise is as articulate, entertaining (and mischievous) as he comes across in his catalogs. The guy is simply a poet when it comes to wine.

So I’ll stop praising him now, and simply do what he was afraid I might do: transcribe some of what he said, at least as best I could, while typing furiously in the back of the room with a mouthful of Riesling.

“The working title of this seminar is ‘A Meditation on the Importance of Terroir’. Which is to say that we’re only going to be talking about the meaning of terroir. Really. Under no circumstances will this be a demonstration or a proof of terroir. I will never do that sort of tasting again.”

He pauses and looks at the audience. Waiting.

Finally someone takes the bait. “Why won’t you do that sort of thing again?”

“It’s been proven. Get over it.”

“It’s essentially been proven, and continues to be proven vintage after vintage after vintage. Let me tell you a little story to explain where I’m coming from and then we can move on. When I got into wine, I was studying in Germany at the time and wine wasn’t uncool yet there. I got into exploring the wine regions that were close to me, and started learning both from experience and from the way people thought about wine there, that the flavors in Riesling came from the soils that the vines grew in. That was simply part of my understanding of how wine worked.”

“It came as a great shock to me when I first learned that some people believed to the contrary.”

“Indeed, terroir has become something you need to fight for. And this fight has frankly become tiring. There are two types of people out there. There are those who understand that the soil makes the wine, and then there are those who are idiots. So let’s move on.”

“Here’s my definition of terroir. Terroir for the purposes of this and other discussions is: a cause and effect relationship between soil components and wine flavors for which no other explanation seems possible. That’s it.”

“Obviously there are things that act upon terroir – geologic structure, drainage, the soils warming properties, the pH of the soil, et cetera. Weather acts upon terroir, and of course humans act upon terroir.”

“Saying weather acts upon terroir is like saying some years Elvis was skinny, some years Elvis was fat. Elvis was still Elvis. The components are there and they are creating the flavors, modified by everything that happens to the grapes in that vintage, including our own actions. But the components are there.”

“Of course there’s no way of proving that scientifically. We haven’t figured out how yet. But it’s true. Truth to me means that all ravens are black until you see a white raven. If I see evidence that contradicts my hypothesis I will change my opinion. I’m still waiting for a white raven.”

“When all other variables are removed, we see that one type of soil creates this flavor, and other soils create that flavor. And Riesling is perfect for this, of course, because the variables involved in the winemaking are so few.”

“We should probably talk a bit about minerality for a minute. Terroir is NOT flavors of minerality in wine. Terroir can produce many flavors in wine: certain fruit flavors, floral nuances, and yes, sometimes the flavors that many people describe as minerality.”

“When we speak about minerality, though, we are not actually speaking about minerality. What seems to us tasters as flavors or aromas of wet stones, crushed rocks, or minerals are almost certainly NOT that. But that sense of minerality arises for lots of tasters nonetheless. We call it minerality because that metaphor is useful, but let’s get one thing straight: we’re not talking about the literal translation of minerals from the soil, through the roots, into the grapes, and manifested as flavors of THAT mineral in the final wine. In the fullness of time, such a direct correlation may be proven. But we will have to wait and see.”

“So why do we need to talk about terroir at all? Sometimes, I don’t think we do. I certainly get tired of it. It is not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Here’s what I think. Terroir is simply a portal through which we can pass and experience a world of humane, civilized, and reasonable values. Think about that for a while. Life is better because of terroir.”

“I like to say that the text of what the wines say is in the ground. The grower determines the font. Or maybe the flavor is the musical notes, and the cellar master is the conductor. The score is written before the conductor gets it. The ground writes it, and the conductor interprets it. I once asked a winemaker I respect what the single most important bit of knowledge he had as a winemaker, and he told me, ‘to know when to do nothing.'”

“Winemaking is the preservation of flavor that is already there. I like to say that Grand Cru vineyards are the earth’s erogenous zones. They are special places that tingle when sunlight hits them.”

Amen, Terry. I only wish I got to stay to hear the end of the seminar and finish tasting all the wines.

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