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In search of a unique terroir

As Colorado wineries mature, they have become more comfortable with making wines that reflect their places of origin. Photo taken at Stone Cottage Cellars, Paonia, Co., elevation feet, the second highest elevation vineyard in North America.

As Colorado wineries mature, they have become more comfortable with making wines that reflect their places of origin. Photo taken at Stone Cottage Cellars, Paonia, Co., elevation 6,200 feet, the second highest elevation vineyard in North America.

One comment you once would hear with regularity at any of the tasting rooms around Colorado wine country would come when a visitor put down his or her glass to remark, “Well, this doesn’t taste like a California Cabernet Sauvignon (or Pinot Noir or Chardonnay or whatever was being poured at the moment).”
While at times such comments were taken as a put-down of high country wines, winemakers today simply shrug, smile and say,”Yes, isn’t it nice? It really tastes of Colorado.”

The winemakers and tasting room attendants may stumble a bit when asked “What exactly does Colorado taste like?” since there’s really no universally accepted definition of what makes a specific wine taste the way it does.

Most of us fall back on the French word “Terroir” to cover a multitude of possible answers, none of which may the sole reason for a wine’s individuality.

Wine writer Jamie Goode on his blog Wineanorak.com said terroir “consists of the site or region-specific characteristics” of a wine.

And the well-respected – if a bit wine curmudgeonly – Jeff Siegel, in a well-done post on his blog, generally commits to saying terroir “includes not just a region’s soil, but its weather, tradition and history.

But is all that what makes a wine identifiable with place?

If you don’t know the traditions (sociologists spend their entire careers learning local customs and traditions) or the history or the weather, can you even mouth the word terroir and get away with it?

Colorado winemakers (just like those everywhere) would love to find whatever it is that identifies a wine from the Centennial State. What makes a Chilean Cab different from a Napa Cab, or an Argentina Malbec differ from a Cahors Malbec?

We know they don’t taste alike, but the differences go beyond the simple storage or transportation conditions.

When acclaimed winemaker Warren Winiarski was in Colorado recently for the Governor’s Cup wine competition, he frequently commented about the importance of a winemaker’s intent and vision (I am indebted to state enologist Stephen Menke of the Colorado State University Research Station for his notes).

Winiarski’s proposition was that while terroir plays a big role, the end result also depends on what the winemaker does with the grapes he gets, a sort of vinous “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

“You can’t help making regional wines,” Winiarski said to Kyle Schlachter of the Colorado Wine Press blog. “That’s the region (substitute ‘terroir’) they’re grown in. They will betray their origins some way or another.”

“Betraying your origins” sounds like terroir.

When wine writer David White of The Terroirist blog wrote that terroir is “omnipresent in wine marketing,” he was not being complimentary.

It’s over-used, White said, “to signify the relation of wine to soil and climate where that relation is essentially uninteresting (and sometimes) used to obfuscate the hard reality of overt flaws like Brett infection.”

What’s more, he said, “The vast majority of claims made about terroir in the wine world are, frankly, bogus. This does not in any way mean, however, that terroir is not an ideal worth pursuing.”

When I first started getting serious about Colorado wine, I had the feeling that many Colorado winemakers were trying hardest to re-create that special wine which may have sparked their initial interest in winemaking or simply trying to satisfy a market that had nothing on which to base a definition of Colorado wines except wines from elsewhere.

Those days are over, for the most part, helped greatly by winemakers gaining two decades of experience in the vineyards and with the grapes they were getting.

We’ll talk more next time about what makes a Colorado wine a Colorado wine.

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