Hang out with wine folks long enough, and eventually someone will start talking about terroir. Wine's typically not something to be scared of, so what are they talking about. No, not "terror" -- "terroir!" It's pronounced "tare-WAHR" and is the backbone of any wine. Specifically -- it's where the bloomin' grapes actually come from.
The term is often used in discussions of the soil in which grapes grow, but I prefer the broader definition. Terroir certainly include the soil itself, but it also encompasses the climate in which the grapes grow and the topography of the region. The most obvious example of the expression of terroir is the classification system of French and Italian wine.
For instance, the terroir of the Bordeaux region produces a certain, general type of wine. That's then further divided into the specific area of Bordeaux (Pomerol, Margaux, etc.) and then even further into the various Chateaus - like Lafite-Rothschild. American wines will do this as well. You'll see wines labeled "Central Coast" or "Willamette Valley" - and these wines often get down to listing the individual vineyards from which the grapes are harvested.
So, why does all this matter? What difference does it make where these wines are from - especially wines like the ones we've got here - wines that aren't the tippy top of the scale?
Why? Because where grapes are grown can tell you almost as much about what's in that bottle than the grape itself. If you've been with me for awhile - or even if you've just worked your way through Wine School, you know that there are huge flavor variations between wines of the same grape. The largest flavor differences are reflected by geography. For instance, a sauvignon blanc from New Zealand will generally have flavors of tropical fruit, a white Bordeaux often has a lighter, minerally taste, and an American sauvignon might taste more like grapefruit.
Terroir also explains why some regions grow certain grapes. Pinot noir, for instance, needs a very particular type of climate. That's why so few regions produce the grape. And it's no accident that New Zealand is about as far south of the equator as Oregon and Burgundy are north.
I bring all this up because knowing a wine's terroir (and the general flavors of wines from that area) comes in very handy when you're trying to find a wine either to pair with food or just to have on its own. As a rule of thumb - wines grown in cooler climates tend to be more delicate and have more complex flavors. Warmer climate wines tend to be higher in alcohol and have much more powerful fruit tastes.
One of the complaints you'll often hear about wines in the price range we're most interested in is the "uniformity of flavor" that these wines often have. "One tastes like another," you'll hear many people say. Even among wines at this price point from the same country, you can find significant differences. As an example, I tasted three American syrahs -- often considered to be fairly uniform. I looked at three, all between $10-12:
I started with the J. Lohr 2005 South Ridge Syrah. J. Lohr's syrah comes from Paso Robles, which is slightly north of Santa Barbara. While the Santa Barbara area is best known for pinot noir, once you get a little north of there, the weather turns considerably warmer, and you start seeing a lot more Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. This syrah is similar in character. The nose of this wine is big, fruity and smoky. It tastes much like it smells -- with flavors of blueberries, blackberries and leather. The finish is tannic, leathery and dry. If I hadn't known better, I'd thought I'd been handed a cabernet initially. As the wine opens a bit, the tannins soften a bit, but you could certainly see this wine being a big first cousin to cabernet.
From there, we move on to the Rock Rabbit 2004 Central Coast Syrah. Rock Rabbit grows most of its grapes in California's "Central Coast" region -- near Monterey. The wines from this region tend to be big and juicy, and this syrah follows right along. According to the winemaker, this wine is made in "Australian style," and I would concur. The nose is big and plummy -- a fruit bomb to be sure. The flavor is very fruit dominant, although it mellows a bit after a sip or two. Plenty of plums and licorice, and the finish is only slightly dry. It's quite a difference.
Finally, I went with the Hogue 2005 Syrah. I expected a big difference, and I wasn't disappointed. Hogue is from Washington State, where the weather is considerably cooler than what you'll find in California. As such, the wine is much more balanced and almost delicate. The nose has much more subtle fruit -- raspberry comes to mind, with a smoky undertone. The flavor is "smooth earthy" -- blueberries and caramel. The finish is long and not very dry. A very pleasant wine, and a much more complex one than the other two.
So, have no fear of terroir -- it's your ace in the hole when it comes to finding exactly the wine you want, and is an easy way to impress your friends.