Why Terroir and Vintage Matter, and Why They Do Not

Sunday, August 9, 2015

It’s been a minute in me writing another article for you to learn more about wine, but I came up with this idea the other day as I found the best way to make it relatable.

Terroir, which consists of the elements of the land and the climate that the grapes that make up a wine come from is pretty much a standard as to understanding what you’re really getting.  This highly influences the overall potential of the grape, and thus the wine, as things like soil, amount of water, temperature during night and day [and growing season] have a huge impact on what the grape brings to the party.  The best wines are always determined by terroir because they are not mass produced fare which is easily normalized by the use of production processes which might involve the use of chemicals, or totally diffusing down the individuality of the grape; this usually happens when you have a large scale production and are purchasing grapes from all over.

Vintage, which stands for the year in which the grapes for a wine were harvested, is also a key player because vintage deals more with the weather and how it affected the growing season that year.  Too much heat or too much rain [as well as not enough of either] can ruin a crop, and thus the amount of salvageable grapes to make the wine.  Sometimes, a year is so good in regards to the growing season that the average wines will be good, the good wines will be great and the great wines will be exceptional.

These are two of the most talked about things in the world of wine, and as much as they are important, they can be equally nothing to consider as in the end, you have the fruit used, the winemaking process, and whoever is in charge of the final product.  I am sure that we all know someone that given the right ingredients, will still make a crappy meal, as well as those given crappy ingredients that can still make a great tasting meal.  You can overcook food or undercook it.  You can make a drink too strong or too weak.  Too much salt or spices?  We can all understand this.

Let me better explain and relate this to you, and I need to throw in something called “viticultural areas.”  These things, known in the US as AVAs, tell you more about the terroir and in certain countries, the actual grapes used.  AVAs can contain other AVAs, sort of like a Russian nesting doll.  I have seen them easily four levels deep [and in rare cases, five]. 

I come from the East Coast, which is too big to be an AVA, but you know East Coast ain’t the West Coast, nor is it the Midwest or the Dirty South.  Looking smaller, I am from the Northeast, and I can easily call people south of Delaware “bamas” because the Mason-Dixon line actually runs along the southern border of Pennsylvania, the state I am from.  Both of these – the Northeast and Pennsylvania – could be called or classified as AVAs.  Now, while I am not like those folks who grew up in New Jersey or Delaware, I belong to the both Southeastern Pennsylvania as well as the Greater Philadelphia arena, which includes Philly, it’s suburbs, and part of New Jersey and Delaware.  Going further, I am from Philly, not some cat from the suburbs claiming Philly when they didn’t actually grow up there.  But I am not just from Philly, I am from West Philly.  Furthermore, I am from Wynnefield [not some Wynnefield Heights crap].  The opening scene to “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” where Will Smith gets beat up; I used to play ball there.  I am from 54th Street, the region between and including Montgomery Avenue through Columbus Avenue and Upland Way. 

The sun used to set right behind the homes on the western side of 54th Street and the neighborhood was essentially a great place [when I lived there]. There were the folks that lived on those streets named, as well as Georges Lane, Hazelhurst Street and Ruby Street.  When you passed out of those boundaries, you were now dealing with another set of people.  Gangster rap was invented by Schooly D who hailed from Parkside, right down the hill.  If you went up a couple of blocks from me, you essentially came across people who made more money, as the houses got better in construction and block by block you started to find semi-detached homes and those fully detached from anything else.  But they weren’t as tough as us, because they had a little more and didn’t have to fight as hard.

I remember when winter was so bad that the 52 bus couldn’t make it up the hill.  And I remember when busses didn’t have air-conditioning.  And I remember the first busses that did have it.

This is my terroir and my vintage. 

But once you take me, and then take others who grew up essentially in the same place and time, you don’t always get the same outcome.  This is why sometimes they don’t matter at all.

Vintage could be like that line that crossed in a sorority or fraternity, where most of the members displayed something so phenomenal where you had to admire them all, but in all reality there were a couple of bums who just survived long enough to be carried over with the rest.

At the end of the day, no matter what was said, let me also point out that there are a slew of people who really know very little, or just a small focused amount of information – notice that I did not say knowledge—that when they start talking vintage and terroir, and they are not themselves farmers, you can usually dismiss it as nothing more than mental masturbation.  It takes years to understand wine, and even for a certain area, the amount of wines that you need to taste across certain vintages, as well as understand the grape/varietal, is not something that can happen in the space of less than ten years.

Anyway, that’s my words of wisdom for today.


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