Nothing stirs up more intellectual ferment within the world of wine than the concept of "terroir." Terroir is, in essence, a captured "sense of place" manifesting itself as unique and distinctive flavors and aromas in the glass based on where and how the grapes were grown.
Detractors refer to this as "viticultural voodoo." Yet, Master Sommeliers and Masters of Wine must blindly identify wines as part of their certification process, intimating that somehow the grape translates soil and climate into a signature and identifiable flavor profile.
It's heady stuff to be sure, but you don't have to be a wine professional to explore the subject. The wet work is as simple as popping a cork. And if personal experience is all that is required to make a terroir-ist out of you, these wines will make you true believers.
In the Rheinhessen wine region of Germany, near the village of Nierstein, lies a special parcel of earth known as Rotliegend. It is a narrow strip of iron-rich clay and sandstone that delivers a smoky grilled peach character to its wines. Other vineyards surrounding Nierstein do not deliver the same flavor profile as the grapes are grown on different soils.
In the following wine pairing, the only significant difference between the two wines is the soil. The grape and producer are the same. The first wine shows the nature of Riesling grown on limestone; the second on iron-rich clay. There is a world of difference between the two, yet one is not better than the other. This is simply a matter of terroir.
Georg Albrecht Schneider Niersteiner Hipping Riesling Kabinett 2009, Rheinhessen, Germany ($18). Pure lime, talc and linden blossom with a pithy mouth feel...lots of grip.
Georg Albrecht Schneider Niersteiner Hipping Riesling Spatlese, Rheinhessen, Germany ($22). All pineapple, peach and passion fruit with a touch of smoke.
Compare these two wines with the Erlenz Ayler Kupp Riesling Kabinett 2010 ($12) from the Saar. This German Riesling is floral, flinty and tart and accented with slate, the soil upon which it is grown. It is markedly different in nature from the Niersteiner Rieslings. Yet again, it's not a question of which is better. At issue is how each wine captures the environment in which it is grown.
Lastly, compare the three German Rieslings to a Riesling from Austria. The Huber Riesling Berg 2008, Niederosterreich ($37) hails from 25-year-old vines. There is pronounced minerality and pith due to the limestone soils. Yep. There is lots of grip and mouth feel, but unlike German Rieslings that cushion their tight acid core in floral and fruity aromatics, Austrian Rieslings are high-tensile strength; pure steel and bone. The wines are glacial in their purity and diamond-etched in their construction.
All four wines have a story to tell, but it is not the tale of the grape. It is the saga of how site, soil, climate and the hand of man can take the grape, in this case the same grape, and craft it into very, very different wines. This is terroir.