The concept of terroir can be difficult to grasp for the budding wine enthusiast, and further self-study and googling will find conflicting opinions, from those who swear by it to others who claim that it’s all bullshit.
Fortunately, there is a simple method for you to decide for yourself once and for all – the Horizontal Tasting.
Whereas the Vertical Tasting focused on the effects that vintage variation imparts, the Horizontal Tasting gives you a chance to explore geographical differences and how these affect the wines made there.
Control your variables so as to reduce the number of factors that could influence the character of the wines being tasted.
Pick one vintage year and choose one varietal. The only variable should be the region. Notice how the three underlined criteria are the same as your “navigation tools” I wrote about in the previous article.
For vintage years, I would recommend to stick with something young, about 1-3 years of age, as long as all of the wines chosen are from the same year. There is nothing special about this suggestion – younger wines are more likely to be affordable and easier to find. If you could find (and afford) six bottles of 1980-vintage wine, all from different regions yet made from the same varietal, be my guest and give them a shot.
While all varietals will be influenced by their region, climate and culture, some will express differences between terroir more readily because of their inherent characteristics. So when you are just starting off, you will want to make it as easy as possible for yourself to perceive these differences.
The first white varietal I would recommend is Riesling, with Chardonnay being a close second.
Riesling is a light yet highly aromatic wine with a comparatively simple flavour profile. Therefore, any differences between Rieslings can be readily attributed to regional, climatic and cultural differences.
The reason Chardonnay is my second choice is because it has become a victim of it’s own success. For a long time it has been treated like a blank canvas, with people applying various winemaking techniques (oak usage, malolactic fermentation, lees stirring) to influence its flavour.
While this can occasionally produce a higher quality of wine, it could be argued that the wine’s intrinsic character is being covered up by over handling. Winemakers have begun to understand this for the past few years, but if you don’t know what to look for you might get confused. However, feel free to experiment with various Chardonnay wines to get a feel for differences imparted by these various techniques.
Pinot Noir is the obvious choice of red for Horizontal Tasting purposes. There is a reason why Burgundy has captivated so many wine enthusiasts, creating an entire category of “Burg-hounds” dedicated to exploring the wines of this complex, multi-faceted region.
Like Riesling, it is comparatively light yet highly aromatic, so any differences between Pinot Noir wines from different regions should be fairly easy to spot.
Cabernet Sauvignon is my second recommendation, for similar reasons as Chardonnay expressed above. It is prone to overhandling, but can be taken as an exercise to explore how different winemaking techniques affect a wine.
How deeply can we go into exploring regional differences? There are three main levels of detail we can focus on:
Variations between wines from completely separate countries will be the simplest way to begin. A Riesling from Germany will readily display similar-yet-different characteristics to one from New Zealand. A Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile will likely show subtle yet perceptible profiles that make it stand out when compared to one from, say, Lebanon.
Separate Regions Within One Country
Even within one country there will be wide variations in soil types and climates. I’ve reviewed many wines from Australia on this blog mainly because of their availability, but I would never claim that they were all the same or one-dimensional. That’s one of the reasons why Australia Wine Month started, to promote awareness of diversity in wines even within one country.
Single-Vineyard Sites Within One Region
Now this is where things get tricky, and where you will need to do your research. When you are faced with two wines, of the same vintage, of the same varietal and from the same region, but from different vineyards and producers, how does one tell them apart?
Does a separation of 100 metres or less, or an altitude difference of a similar magnitude, really have that much of an impact? Do nearby bodies of water or mountains in the distance play a part in a vine’s maturation process? And most importantly, can these influences truly be perceived by the human palate?
Rather than give you an answer, I encourage you to get out there and explore these differences of your own volition. In short:
- Gather 3-6 bottles of wine together…
- make sure they are of the same Vintage Year…
- and of the same Varietal…
- and from Different Regions…
- and take notes after rationally breaking down each into their core components
Maybe the differences are so slight that you may decide that regional differences don’t matter, that you would be happy to drink any wine regardless of where it came from.
Or you may find differences so profound that you become a die-hard follower of a particular region, much like the burg-hounds of today.
Only experience will tell what will happen for you.
Read more: The Main Attribute of a Wine Snob