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Wine Importer Terry Theise Discusses the Land’s Influence on Wine Flavor

The Truth About Terroir


Thursday, August 21, 2008

Something in the land imparts flavor: Wine from one site will taste different from its neighbor.” With this straightforward phrase, Terry Theise-the premier importer of wines from Germany, Austria, and the Champagne region of France-launched into a thought-provoking presentation on Why Terroir Matters. A man of strong opinions tempered by lively wit, Theise recently shared his expertise with an audience of wine professionals at the Gordon Ramsay restaurant at West Hollywood’s London Hotel.

Terry Theise

Accompanying Theise were five winemakers: two Austrians, Christine Saahs (Weingut Nikolaihof) and Johannes Hirsch; and three Germans, Johannes Leitz, Caroline Diel, and Helmut Dnnhoff. Each presented a flight of their Rieslings for tasting and comment. Few wines are as eloquent in reflecting their place of origin as those made from this aromatic white, and these excellent offerings served to vividly illustrate the theme. These producers should be sought out by serious wine drinkers, but the discussion points of the afternoon were even more insightful.

Analogy abounds in the wine business, and Theise is a master of the form. And in the wine world, where terroir is a word with no concrete definition, the allusions that abound in my notes of the tasting are instructive. There is general understanding of terroir as referring to the elements-soil, climate, exposure, etc.-that affect wine flavor, but the concept remains open to interpretation-the inclusion or exclusion of various elements.

In addressing the definition issue, Theise offered engaging observations:

• “Terroir is equal to a vineyard’s potential energy.”

• “Terroir gives flavor its text; the vintner chooses the font.”

Acknowledging the emphasis placed on soil as a primary aspect of terroir, he noted:

• “Soil components are like the hour hand on the clock: They change only very slowly. As agents acting upon flavor, they are the least ephemeral.”

Outlining the winemaker’s role in the process, he added:

• “Winemakers preserve and delineate vineyard flavors.”

• “Flavors appear to be locked in the land; vintners release them”

When the conversation turned to more specific aspects of flavor, another somewhat ambiguous term came up: minerality. Most wine drinkers have used the word, but would be hard pressed to say exactly what it means or where it comes from. I liked Theise’s take on the matter:

• “Minerality, as a flavor component, is irreducible to literal translation, as opposed to say, peach or Bosc pear.”

• “A bit of lime, flowers and minerality-you might say these describe the genre of Riesling, but there are fragrances in here that are beyond the fruit. They are sort of para-sensual and those we refer to as mineral.”

Speaking to the current popularity of big, over-the-top style wines, Theise is clear:

•”If intensity and power are our only aesthetic criteria, it’s like saying that all good meat must only be beef. : There is a time and place for it.”

With a respectful nod to the producers he represents, each with a generations-long connection to winemaking, Theise contrasted their approach as being based on a “value system arising directly from terroir.” With a verbal flourish, he observed, “It’s by wines such as these that nature becomes articulate.”

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For more about Terry Theise and his portfolio, see skurnikwines.com/msw/theise_catalogs.html. Also, look for the Terry Theise Estate Selections label on the back of your next wine selection.