What is it that makes wine so special? If you ask collectors, sommeliers, and winemakers, it isn’t the alcohol. It’s terroir, the unique elements of a place that are smell-able and taste-able in the finished wines. I caught up with four winemakers to discover what they think really matters. Just as their winemaking styles differ, so do their thoughts on the elusive terroir. From Pet-Nats to Super Tuscans, read on for a glimpse into the methods (and madness) of expressing a single place in drinkable form.

The Soil Fanantic

Stefano Ruini, Luce della Vite, Montalcino Italy

Known for: Big, Bold, Age-able Super Tuscans

How do you try to express terroir?

Before all, I think that we have to understand where we are and what we do. We cannot do the same things in Burgundy, Médoc, or Montalcino. Grape growing requires time and patience, but if you have both of those things, you are able to interact with more respect towards the terroir, learning from it and harnessing its qualities.

Montalcino has vine-growing soils of excellent quality, whose vocation for wine production goes far back in history. With such a precious legacy, we have to manage the soils as best as we can. My work at Luce will be part of this ongoing, long-term approach.

What processes (if any) do you believe help the grapes showcase themselves?

In nature, it is important to manage the balance between natural and man-made forces in order to produce the best quality grapes possible. One of the most important factors is the soil.
The soil has two components, inorganic and organic matter. The quality of the soil depends on organic matter — which is in itself a result of man-made practices. Soil is alive as a result of what is living in it, including plants. This life has to be managed in favor of the plant.

What processes hide terroir?

To avoid hiding the terroir, you must avoid all which could disturb or prevent the natural expression of the vine. Among those factors that have the potential to disturb, I place chemical weed killing and chemical-spread diseases among the top culprits.

How should everyday drinkers approach this lofty idea of terroir?

Our 21st century sees people isolated behind computer and television screens, telephones and more. This isolation severs emotional ties between individuals. But wine resists this isolation. It is here, in wine, that humanism, friendliness, and, most of all, physical and mental health thrives.

The Philosopher

Tyler Thomas, Dierberg and Star Lane Wines, Happy Canyon California

Known for: California Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, & Chardonnay

What’s your definition of terroir?

A confluence of climate, soil, variety, and culture​ that produces unique changes to the governing components of wine’s taste.

How do you try to express terroir?

Expressing terroir is challenging because while I may have defined the term terroir above, that is very different than knowing what a particular terroir is. Or, that is, how does one know whether you’ve expressed terroir without already knowing how a particular terroir tastes? Sorry to get philosophical on you, but I think you’re really asking a great epistemological question that many producers don’t even ask themselves!

How do you benchmark your success, or failure,​ in relatively young terroirs?​

Terroir is discovered ​through humility. One has to recognize wine isn’t about me. I think ​this is achieved b​y​ making sure you understand how your choices as a winemaker influence the governing components of a wine’s taste.

Therefore, by ensuring I know how those things taste, I can then ensure that their taste is not a primary driver of a wine’s unique qualities. And by doing that, I can have greater confidence that the unique qualities are coming from something other than my actions, i.e., increase the chance that those flavors are coming from the place itself. That is how I try to express terroir and it will be a life-long adventure!

What processes can you use to enhance terroir, or hide it?

Most processes can do both! But first it should be noted that processes that enhance pleasure often enhance terroir in this sense. If your wine doesn’t taste pleasing, people are less likely to care about your terroir. If the wine’s pleasure isn’t compelling, do you even go the next step to ask where it was from? Therefore, certain choices like stem inclusion or new oak can improve the general pleasure of wines. However, they can also quickly become such a dominant force in wine​ as to relegate the finer and more subtle qualities of the site to the background. It is the winemaker’s role to leverage the opportunity and minimize the risk.

Is there anything you think the average drinker should take into account when it comes to the idea of “terroir” and the wines they normally drink?

​This is a tough question because sometimes discussion of terroir ​feels like such an insider’s game — pardon the snobbish expression. Do people really consider the concept of terroir when having a glass of wine at a restaurant? I think if an average drinker is enthralled with a wine because of its pleasure and they find themselves asking “Where is that from” instead of “What is this,” they have now begun the exploration into terroir. The next step is probably partnering with the right retailer to help you begin to uncover the stories behind wines so you can learn who really values place and which wines are a particular representative of that place.

The Minimalist

Craig Haarmeyer, Haarmeyer Wine Cellars, Sacramento California

Known for: Showcasing Natural Chenin Blanc

How do you define terroir?

I think of terroir as everything authentic that goes into a wine. Not just the dirt. Soils are literally the foundation for terroir but I think that the microbiological influences outside of the vineyard contribute. Terroir may also include ideas or ideals that may not always be apparent to us as we make farming and vinification choices.

How do you try to express terroir?

I try to let the expression of terroir happen by getting out of the way — by doing as little massaging and manipulating as possible in the cellar. The vineyard is where the sculpting takes place. Once the fruit has been picked, I let Mother Nature take over, guiding here and there to make sure the must dries out sufficiently.

For me, the things that stand in the way of terroir are adding acid, water, cultured yeast, enzymes, coloring, oak products, and so on. Some yeasts and bacteria can create flaws that mask not just terroir but the essential flavors and aromas of wine.

If everyday drinkers want to better understand terroir, what would you tell them?

Pick a region and taste only wines from that region until you can identify three aromas and three flavors that you find are common to those regional wines. And repeat that with other regions.

The Straight Talker

Bill Easton, Terre Rouge & Easton Wines, Plymouth California

Known for: Old Vine Zinfandel

What’s your definition of terroir?

Defining terroir is tricky. It is everything that comes to bear on a particular grape or other agricultural product in a particular place. It is the specific identify of a site. It is finished wine from the site that has the personality of that growing site. It is more site than winemaker input. It’s a fashionable idea now.

How do you showcase terroir in your wines?

We try to capture the essential qualities of a site. We have chosen sites to work with that suit our end game for particular wines and express the characteristics we are looking for in each variety.

Are there processes in the vineyard or cellar that you believe help showcase terroir? What processes mask terroir?

I think excessive anything detracts from terroir. This is where some people miss it altogether. Too much crop, too much chemical fertilization, too much irrigation (water), too much canopy, too much chemical use, too much ripeness (on the vine too long), too much acidity (not on the vine long enough), not enough flavor in grapes (picked too soon), raisiny dehydrated flavors (picked too late), etc. It is all about balance. I am a big believer in building the health of a vineyard’s soil and the role of soil fungi as translators of flavor into the vine roots and finally the grape.

Is there anything you think the average drinker should take into account when it comes to terroir and their everyday wines?

Seriously, I don’t think the average drinker knows squat about terroir and everyday red wine. Everyday red wine for the average drinker is fresh, fruity, sweet tasting, with little noticeable acidity and tannin. There will be some wood tone from oak adjuncts. People don’t really pay attention to details that much.

The most important thing in making great wine is pleasure. One wants to make wine that is hedonistic and invites the next glass. Table wine also needs to be able to match with the other food that is being served at the table. This is missed in a lot of American winemaking. Table? Wine and food? The sweet-sour continuum? Americans have a proclivity to excess and overdoing everything. Understatement is not an American cultural attribute.

These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.