Location, Location, Location: New World winemakers discover a sense of place

Have you ever had a plant die and wonder what went wrong? You feed it, water it and talk to it consistently yet it dies anyway. It’s one of life’s mysteries for me. “New World” grape growers from California, Australia and Chile, whose livelihoods hinge on finding the perfect growing spot for grapevines, have to deal with this every day. And since they get only one shot a year to get it right, it’s a painstaking process. France, Italy and Germany have had hundreds of years to figure out the sweet spots for their fruit, but the New World is catching up.

In wine geek lingo, the sweet spot, in the widest sense, is called terroir [tair WAHR]. Originating from French, the word terroir encompasses all the natural factors involved in grape growing — sun, rain, altitude and soil characteristics. It encompasses, in other words, the factors that essentially define the unique soul of each grape. Terroir is the reason the French divided up their land long ago into quality-designated plots, since they realized fruit from one vineyard could be completely different from that of another 50 yards away. They call these plots “appellations,” and when the appellation ends up on a label, only grapes from that specific location can be used in the wine. A French Burgundy example is “Chambolle Musigny ‘Les Amoureuses.'” To legally label this wine, winemakers are only allowed to use grapes from a small appellation named Les Amoureuses located in the district of Chambolle Musigny.

The reasoning behind this mind-blowingly complicated idea is that it provides an assurance of quality and consistency; the more you know about the grapes inside the bottle, the better informed your decision about purchasing that bottle will be. It kinda makes sense, in a pain-in-the-ass sort of way.

New World wines have only recently begun learning the terroir of their land and defining their appellations. When you see a label that reads Napa Valley, Yarra Valley or Maule Valley, you’ve stumbled upon an appellation. While Burgundy lists the appellation as the name of the wine, we generally name ours by the grape variety and include the appellation. For example, central California’s Paso Robles is a hot place. In the heat, grapes tend to ripen quickly, making them plump with sugar and big flavor. Although there are certainly exceptions, Paso Robles wines tend to be higher in alcohol, very ripe tasting and full bodied.

Some appellations, such as “California,” are fairly useless. The grapes in a single bottle could actually come from a number of areas in the state, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the wine is of lesser quality. We have more liberal laws about blending and labeling different wines than Old World countries do, so the winemaker could simply want to blend the grapes from two, three or 10 different areas to create a unique flavor profile. Laws just don’t let a winemaker label the wine more specifically than “California.”

In the following weeks, I’ll be exploring the different general appellations the New World has to offer. Although we’re not even close to defining all our vast areas, we’re getting close. Stay tuned.


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