What are these words "appellation" and "terroir," and why should we care?
In the wine industry, an appellation is a governmentally recognized viticultural region, such as Oregon's Umpqua Valley or British Columbia's Okanagan Valley. Terroir (pronounced tehr-WAH) literally means "soil," but its broader definition refers to wine grapes and how they grow under specific conditions. This takes into account soil, elevation, weather patterns and slope direction.
In this issue, you'll read about Red Mountain, a special place in Washington wine country. Red Mountain's vineyards are famous for red wine grapes, particularly cabernet sauvignon. Tom Hedges of Hedges Cellars knows about Red Mountain's terroir and, in fact, began using that funny French word in his marketing material years before it became vogue. Now, it seems, everyone is using terroir to describe vineyards and regions.
David Lett of The Eyrie Vineyards in Dundee, Ore., also knows a little about terroir. He spent years studying the best vineyards in Burgundy and realized Western Oregon's Willamette Valley also was a great place to grow pinot noir, pinot gris and chardonnay. Thanks largely to Lett, Oregon is globally famous for its pinot noir.
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Appellations, terroir and specific vineyards become important to us as we make wine-buying decisions. Granted, if you're a new wine drinker, a cabernet sauvignon from Inniskillin Okanagan's Dark Horse Vineyard probably won't matter much unless you think it sounds cool. But as we grow in our knowledge and sophistication in wine appreciation, these nuances can make the difference between an average meal and a memorable experience.
This summer, I had one of those memorable experiences when I took the opportunity to taste various wines produced from grapes grown at Champoux Vineyards, the former Mercer Ranch Vineyards, which is across the Columbia River from northeastern Oregon. The lineup was a veritable Who's Who of Washington red wine producers, including Hogue Genesis, Powers, Woodward Canyon and Quilceda Creek. As I tasted each wine, I was astounded by the quality, especially Woodward Canyon and Quilceda Creek, which along with Leonetti Cellar are considered among the best cabernet sauvignon producers in the nation, nay, the world.
This little demonstration further solidified in my mind that I am blessed to live in a corner of the world where nature and fate conspire to create truly great wine-producing conditions.
When we talk about terroir and appellations, we talk about Red Mountain, the Willamette Valley's Dundee Hills and the Okanagan Valley's Black Sage Bench.
So, again, why do grape growers and wine producers care? And, more importantly, why do we?
Because I'm more likely to buy a bottle of wine if it's from Champoux Vineyards, Klipsun Vineyards or Black Sage Vineyards. Even if I don't know much about the winery, I'll be more willing to give it a chance. For instance, you can't get much farther from Red Mountain than Cave Junction, Ore., and still be in the Pacific Northwest. But I've purchased many bottles of cabernet sauvignon from Foris Vineyards specifically because the grapes are from Klipsun, arguably the most prestigious vineyard in the Northwest. And I've never been anything but thrilled with the wine.
In Oregon's venerable Yamhill County, WillaKenzie Estate knows a little something about terroir. First, many of the folks there are French, so they have an easier time pronouncing it. But more important, they respect the soil and understand how the climate on their rolling hills affects the grapes they produce. They've even gone to the trouble of naming their winery after the soil. Winemaker Laurent Montalieu is quick to insist that even though he's a Frenchman producing pinot noir, his style is not Burgundian despite the parallels. He takes what the climate gives. Taste his wines and you'll thank the soil and understand the whole point of terroir.
Terroir is very specific. And it doesn't get much more pointed in the Northwest than at Columbia Winery in Woodinville, Wash., which is producing a Bordeaux-style wine called Peninsula, from grapes in an area of Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley. If you can find it, Peninsula runs around $60 a bottle. That's a little spendy for everyday wine, but Peninsula isn't for sipping with a cheeseburger - unless it's your last meal. It's something special, something to be savored. And it's no accident. Winemakers know they can make great wine with great grapes. They can't make superior wine with inferior grapes. And great grapes come consistently from great vineyards in great growing regions.
That's why appellations and terroir are important.