Swiss Wine Regions

Terroir, and Music on my Tongue

Grapevines on Hill near Zurich, SwitzerlandWine is like jazz, it can have finesse, variety, nuance, and surprise. terroir is one the players in the band. What is terroir , and should we care? The answer is yes, no, and it's a matter of opinion. Many opinions. Just like jazz.

First we need to agree what terroir is. I say agree - and not define, because terroir is one of those concepts that's hard to nail down because it can have an almost philosophical quality. The word terroir is French for soil. Simple enough, but the concept "terroir " in the context of wine encompasses numerous factors that influence the taste of wine.

It's generally agreed that the environment: climate (rainfall, number of sunny days); soil (well draining, chemistry, heat retention); topography (altitude, slope, large bodies of water), are part of terroir . One French wine maker uses the term ecosystem to define terroir , which works for me. In this context it can be viewed at various levels; macro - a large Swiss wine region like Valais for example, meso - a sub-region such as Sion, and if you're inclined to split hairs, micro - a specific vineyard or even a particular row of grapevines. This is the historically held definition.

Modern arguments start, possibly fueled more by marketing than oenology, with whether human interaction should sit under the terroir umbrella. This interaction begins in the vineyard with such decisions as plant density, canopy management and harvesting time, and moves into the cellar with choice of barrels and fermentation temperatures. Vintner know-how, in other words. The point being that know-how and technology can dramatically influence the final wine, therefore should be considered part of terroir .

In my definition, terroir is best related with the ecosystem, not the decisions or actions of the vintner, and not something that can be changed within one season or production cycle. That's why we have vintages, after all. The best empirical evidence may be the oldest. Benedictine and Cistercian monks around Burgundy, with plenty of land and time on their hands, conducted methodical, well documented, long-term observations. Dedication of the monks was such that they were said to go as far as tasting the soil. They divided and subdivided their vineyards, tasting and testing, and even building walls around particularly successful terroirs. Some of these ancient walls still exist.

How important is terroir ?

Here we are back at a philosophical question again. It's true that a bad winemaker can make lousy wine out of good grapes, but it is equally true that a good winemaker cannot make a great wine if the raw materials are not there. The raw materials in this case are the molecular compounds in the grape, which ultimately comes from the root system and photosynthesis, which of course is dependent on terroir .

I'll stay with my musical analogy. If we consider the terrior as a musical score that changes with the weather, then we can think of the vintner as the conductor interpreting that score. He has plenty of musicians and instruments to play with, starting with how the grapevines are managed in the vineyard, through to final bottling in the cellar. Depending on personality (plus legal and business requirements), he may interpret it in an infinite number of ways. The purist may strive to honestly express what the composer - Mother Nature - had in mind, or one may prefer the classics, or regional traditions. New World wine makers have more leeway than their Old World mentors, and are more likely to experiment and improvise, playing with volume, balance and highlighting certain notes.

The Wine Grapes of Switzerland

Chasselas

In contrast to its native France where it wasn’t too successful as a wine grape, the Chasselas shines in Switzerland. Basically neutral in character, it reflects the nuances of the terroirs where it’s grown. Chasselas may be one of the first grape varieties ever cultivated and is one of, if not the dominant wine grapes grown in Switzerland.

Goron de Bovernier

Goron de Bovernier is a red grape, which according to José Vouillamoz is probably a natural hybrid of Cornalin du Valais and an unknown variety. The grape gets its name from the municipality of Bovernier, in Valais. Small quantities are still found in lower Valais.

Chardonnay

A vigorous and adaptable vine from Burgundy, Chardonnay grows pretty much everywhere that wine is made. Although production is not so high in Switzerland, award-winning wines have come out of Geneva, Valais and Neuchâtel.

He who loves not wine, women and song remains a fool his whole life long.

Martin Luther

Swiss Alps, cows, wine bottle and large clock face in Bern, Switzerland

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