Grapevines are rooted in the earth and reach toward the sky. They require both to thrive, through nutrients and minerals from the soil and photosynthesis from the sun. That duality is reflected in the glass: the yin and yang of wine, distinguishable yet inseparable as essential to a wine’s character.
We associate Old World wines with the earth. Cistercian monks first divined the best plots in Burgundy for growing pinot noir and chardonnay, while vintners in Bordeaux planted cabernet sauvignon in the sandy, gravelly soils of the Médoc and merlot and cabernet franc in the limestone and clay of St. Emilion and Pomerol. Any Mosel winemaker worth his salt will talk your ear off about the differences between Rieslings grown on gray and blue slate, and Austrian vintners are proud of their igneous rocks.
Yet their stellar wines are nothing without sunshine. The Mosel’s best vineyards face south along steep slopes. Burgundy’s finest plots lie on inclines that give an advantage, however slight, toward the sun. In short, Europe’s best wines, however rooted in their soil, are inseparable from the sun.
The French word “terroir” suggests earth. Ask any French winemaker to explain why a particular site has good terroir, and the answer will probably focus on the type of soil. But the site’s elevation and the number of hours the vines are exposed to the afternoon sun will also figure prominently in the response.
We often associate New World wines with the sun. Viticulturists from the University of California at Davis delineated the best wine regions in California according to “degree days” that measure temperature and sun exposure throughout the year. Cooler areas with fewer degree days, such as the Russian River Valley, were deemed best for “cold-climate grapes,” such as pinot noir and chardonnay, while areas with more degree days, such as Napa Valley, were dominated by cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Any book about California’s wine regions will describe temperatures, fog lines and wind direction through the valleys in sweeping terms but will barely touch on soil types. Yet California’s most thrilling wines tend to be grown on rugged, rocky hillsides rather than fertile valley floors.
Argentina’s vintners are in a madcap race to plant vineyards ever higher up the Andes mountains, like Icarus soaring toward the sun. Yet along the way, they’ve discovered that the finest vineyards for ripening their signature malbec lie in the gravelly soils left behind by retreating glaciers.
You can taste these differences. New World wines taste fruity, often jammy and almost sweet, while European wines are earthier. European wines do not lack fruit, but the dominant impression is often of stones. It can be difficult to describe these wines when they are not overtly fruity. If you are one of the many people who say they don’t like European wines because they taste bitter, it might be because your American sweet tooth is unaccustomed to those wines’ savory, earthy quality.
Here’s an experiment, and a good excuse to open two bottles of wine for dinner. Compare a sauvignon blanc from Chile, such as Veramonte, to one from the Loire Valley in France — the Domaine des Corbillières from Touraine, for example. The Veramonte is juicy with grapefruit flavors, while the French wine has a mineral quality. For an even starker (if pricier) contrast, try a California sauvignon blanc, such as Merry Edwards or Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc Reserve, against a Sancerre, the top Loire Valley appellation for sauvignon blanc. Another easy comparison would be an unoaked chardonnay from California vs. a Mâcon or Chablis from Burgundy.
For reds, contrast a malbec from Argentina with the French version from Cahors. Or a California pinot noir with a Bourgogne rouge from Burgundy. Maybe the most striking comparison would be a syrah from the Rhone Valley — a Crozes Hermitage, perhaps — against an Australian shiraz.
To take this experiment to the next level, add a dash of wine geek fun: Have someone pour you a glass of each, then see whether you can guess which is a wine of the sun and which finds most of its inspiration in the earth.