I recently attended a tasting of Terry Theise’s grower Champagnes held at Ame Restaurant in San Francisco. I especially enjoyed Chartogne-Taillet, Goutourbe, and Vilmart, but all the wines I tasted were excellent. If you’d like to read Terry’s champagne catalog from this year, you can find it here. Although I enjoyed the tasting immensely, I’m not inspired to recreate the experience on this blog.  However, detailed accounts can be found here, here and here.

Laurent Champs of Vilmart holding court with his admirers:

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Vilmart Coeur de Cuvée 1997:

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Terry Theise, the irrepressible importer of German, Austrian and grower-Champagne wines, writes and speaks about wine beautifully. I recently posted about wine vocabulary and prose and neglected to mention Terry’s rare style. He certainly uses the current arsenal of comparisons to fruit, rocks, and flowers, but he also conjures up neat analogies and beautiful imagery. 

For instance, regarding top vineyard sites he said, “I like to say that Grand Cru vineyards are the earth’s erogenous zones. They are special places that tingle when sunlight hits them.” He believes that the more birdsong heard while walking in a vineyard, the more of a trill will be found in the wine. He describes Riesling as “birdlike” — it “sings and flies.”

I recently attended a seminar titled, “Why Terroir Matters,” held at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco. It was mc’d by Terry and the panel included four talented Riesling producers: Johannes Hirsch, Christine Saahs, Johannes Leitz, and Helmut Donnhoff. I was very excited to attend this seminar, not only because I have a lot to learn about the many vineyards devoted to Riesling in Germany and Austria, but also because I love a good lecture! Listening to a lecture/discussion among experts and taking notes is what I loved most about school, and I wish that sort of academic approach was applied to wine more often. At any rate, this seminar did not disappoint me. 

Terry opened by saying that this would not be a defense of the existence of terroir.  He believes (rightly so) that we should move beyond debating its existence, and instead discuss what about it is interesting. He started this discussion with his personal definition of terroir: “A cause and effect relationship between soil components and wine flavors for which no other explanation seems possible.” The New Oxford American Dictionary supplies this definition: “The complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate.

Terry and the winemakers kept making the point that they do very little to the grapes, juice and wine to determine the final outcome. To further elucidate what they meant, he made a series of analogies: the vineyard determines the text and the winemaker chooses the font; the vineyard writes the music and the winemaker conducts; the vineyard gives birth and the winemaker is a midwife. 

Winemaking is simply the preservation of flavor, rather than the creation of it.  Finally, he emphasized that terroir should not be used interchangeably with the term, “minerality.” The terroir signature could be expressed as minerality, but is not limited to that — it could also be expressed as fruit or flowers or anything.  Whatever the signature may be, it only matters that it is repeated vintage to vintage and cellar to cellar. 

Johannes Hirsch, of Weingut Hirsch in the Kamptal region of Austria spoke next. He described terroir as a “special fingerprint.” To highlight the difference between his vineyards, Heiligenstein and Gaisberg, he poured wines from each from the 2003 and 2006 vintages. It was an excellent opportunity to see what sort of signature or footprint a vineyard leaves on a wine year after year. Both Heiligensteins were smoky, incense-like, and tightly wound.  The Gaisbergs were fruity, floral, and open.

Christine Saahs, of Weingut Nikolaihof in the Wachau region of Austria, had a unique perspective on terroir. Because she farms her vineyards biodynamically, she sees terroir and biodynamischer landbau as completely intertwined.  One could argue that she has restored her land to its most natural state, which is possibly the fullest expression of terroir.  She showed three wines from the Steiner Hund vineyard, from three different vintages (2002, 2003, 2005).  The wines were all very different from each other, and I’m afraid they showed vintage variation more than vineyard signature without having another of her vineyards to compare to Steiner Hund.  If I could generalize, I’d say they all had a steeliness, with floral notes.

Johannes Leitz, of Weingut Josef Leitz in the Rheingau region of Germany, made the point that “everything” has terroir. If white asparagus tastes differently from village to village, why not wine? He showed wine from three different vineyards, all from 2007 vintage. Here too, it was difficult to suss out the vineyard signature without comparison to another vineyard.  The Berg Kaisersteinfels Alte Reben and the Berg Roseneck Spatlese shared a smokiness, and they apparently share quartzite soil, albeit at different elevations. The honeyed nose of the Berg Schlossberg Spatlese showed that this slate covered vineyard was affected by botrytis, something not shared by the other two wines.  But these distinctions were not quite as pronounced as the examples from Hirsch, and above all the Leitz wines shared, regardless of vineyard, a sumptuous peach aroma and rich sweetness.

Helmut Donnhoff, of the Donnhoff estate in the Nahe region of Germany, impressed me greatly. He possessed a wisdom and a sense of history that his younger colleagues failed to convey. He started off by saying that his father would not have known the word, terroirWhich makes sense of course, because it’s not German, but a French word cum buzz word. But the concept of terroir was understood as the business of wine was conducted. As an example, he pointed out that in his father’s day, the word “Riesling” didn’t even appear on the label, only the name of the vineyard, indicating that the vineyard signature was the more meaningful thing. Helmut’s explanation of why Riesling is such a good conduit of terroir is that it is a late-ripening grape that gets to spend a longer period of time in its environment than other grapes.  For instance in 2007, his grapes had 150 days of hang time between flowering and harvest.  That’s 150 days of exposure to birdsong!  Helmut makes 20 different wines from 20 hectares (about 50 acres) of vines.  A visiting Australian colleague expressed surprise at this: why not just one wine? In the Nahe, there are dozens of different soil types within six and half square miles. Each vineyard plot creates a different wine.  We tasted five of his vineyard expressive wines, all from 2007. My favorite was the excellent, steely, racy, limey Oberhauser Brucke Spatlese, but we also tasted the Estate Riesling, the Oberhauser Leistenberg Kabinett, the Kreuznacher Kahlenberg Kabinett, and the Kreuznacher Krotenpfuhl Spatlese.  They were all extremely mineral and lean, with such perfectly balancing acidity that they “drank dry” despite being Kabinetts or Spatlesen. As far as deciphering the vineyard signatures, I again found it difficult without another vintage to compare them to.  Regardless, after tasting fourteen unique Rieslings the point of the seminar was well made – terroir matters.

I propose a series of follow-up seminars: starting with a comparison of Heiligensteins and Gaisbergs not only across vintages, but also across wineries.