Wine Guy Explains Wine Things: Tasting Tuesdays, the Concept of Terroir and Benedictine Monks Who Say, "Eat My Dirt"
Recently, at LOU: A Wine Bar, owner Lou Amdur instituted "Tasting Tuesdays," a weekly celebration of the concept of "terroir" that offers a flight of wine paired with a flight of genuine US farmstead and artisanal cheeses at $14. In honor of that, this week Amdur returns to the Squid Ink lineup to answer all the questions about "terroir" that you never knew you had.
Squid Ink: What's the proper pronunciation for "terroir"?
Lou Amdur: Teh-wahr.
SI: Terroir has to do with how soil and climate make a wine taste the way it does, right?
LA: There's one thing you neglected - and people often do - is that there is a human component as well and that is having to do with human tradition or the technique of growing grapes. We are standing on the shoulders of giants. We've been growing grapes now for several thousand years to make wines and even the largest scale commercial winery is leveraging that intellectual capital that we've built up over thousands of years.
SI: Let's say I want to use terroir in a sentence. Would I say, "Man, what a lovely terroir"?
LA: It's not an adjective. [long silence] If I was comparing two wines, let's say champagnes. The terroir of champagne makes it the finest sparkling wine in the world. What is the terroir of champagne? It is the soil, which is chalky but also contains small prehistoric micro-organisms - skeletons of pre-historic shellfish that add something to the cell structure. You also have the climate, which is very cool and you also have a human practice. The best champagne is aged very slowly under cool, cool conditions so the bubbles are much finer. There's a more radical notion of terroir, which I subscribe to wholeheartedly which is that growing grapes to make wine, you are participating in something that wants to happen and you are part of the way of making that happen.
LA: When you grow grapes do you spray your fields with fungicide and synthetic fertilizers and all the things that are used to grow commercial grapes? Or do you refrain and wherever possible use compounds of organic origin? Why would you do that? Because you like the earth? What if you had a more hedonistic relationship to the earth and say, "If we treat the earth better my tomatoes taste better." Or "If we treat the earth better, will my wine be more complex?"
SI: According to Wikipedia, the concept of terroir was developed by Benedictine monks and sometimes it involved tasting dirt. True or false?
LA: Yes, in Burgundy where you had a tradition of grape growing that came from the Romans there was a systematic survey that was done over hundreds of years by Benedictine monks who would walk around, observe, look at the dirt and sometimes taste it.
SI: Are we talking about a bunch of monks in long, hooded robes snacking on dirt clods?
LA: It's more like they were out there, walking around in the vineyard and they'd scoop up some [dirt] and put it in their mouths and then spit it out. Maybe it's just to get the texture. If you put soil from my back yard in your mouth and chewed it around you'd say, "Oh, clay!" So it was about a textural component and a taste component.
SI: What happens on Tasting Tuesdays?
LA: For $14, you get a flight of natural wine -- typically three wines, it might be four -- that explores some dimension of terroir. For the first few weeks we'll be exploring white wines grown from chalky soil paired with sheep milk cheese from California's central coast In the beginning of September, for probably about six weeks, we're going to be pouring all sorts of crazy old-vine wines. We're going to be pouring some pre-phylloxera vines.
SI: Um, phylloxera?
LA: Phylloxera was a louse that was an inadvertent import from the new world into the old world and it basically destroyed the lives of grape growers and destroyed the majority of vines all throughout Europe during the turn of the 19th century. There were a few patches that were not affected.
SI: By louse you mean like LICE, as in what turns up in young children's hair in elementary school?
LA: Meaning it's a little insect that feeds on the juices of the grape vine roots. The native grapes that grow here in the New World, in North America, are immune to it, but the Old World wines were not. It was brought over accidentally and it just spread and spread. Eventually, it infected vines throughout all of Spain, France and Germany, pretty much everywhere. It was economically devastating for people growing grapes. It took a while to come up with a solution. Some old varieties were not replanted after phylloxera because they were only planted traditionally so there was a loss of biodiversity. There are some fans here and there of very old vines. We're going to be featuring wines made from these very, very old vines. When vines get old, very old, the wine changes.
SI: So Tasting Tuesdays is like a teaching event?
LA: I'm not, like, dinging a glass with a spoon and clearing my throat and saying, "Excuse me. I'm now going to tell you about..." It's just a little bit of a curatorial effort on my part. But you can go to a museum without knowing about abstract expressionism and still enjoy an Ad Reinhardt. I'm always very self-conscious about boring people. You know me: I talk fast, but I'm also aware of the glazed eye factor. The takeaway is that it's a flight of wine paired with a flight of cheeses and there's thought behind that pairing. There's no pedagogical moment.
SI: There's no test afterwards.
SI: Let's hear about the cheeses you'll be serving.
LA: Right now we're doing sheep milk cheese from Rinconada dairy from the Central coast. They are a farmstead cheese family, Christine and Jim Maguire. They have their own herd of sheep. They make one mixed milk cheese, one from a goat and the rest are pure sheep. When I say terroir, I'm talking mostly about the wine. But one of the cheeses is quite grassy - and that grassiness is the terroir. It is really lovely. It's also my feeling that when you have wines that are grown on chalk and have really fresh acidity in them and some fruit, they work really wonderfully well with sheep milk cheeses. That's because the nature of sheep milk fat which is different from cow and goat milk fat. With sheep's milk the cheeses come off differently in your mouth, they feel kind of dry, sort of almost flaky. But after you hydrate them with a little squirt of Chenin blanc from France's Loire valley, they just bloom. I'm not super into food and wine pairing but this is an example of something that's just a really great thing to do.
As Americans, I think we gobble things - just gobble, gobble, gobble. We just put food in our mouths and swallow it down as opposed to chewing it and eating it and savoring it. With sheep milk cheese, if you just chow on it you're not going to get it. It's weird instructing you how to eat something, but, on the other hand, if you take a piece of sheep's milk cheese and chew it and let it warm up in your mouth and hydrate it with some wine, it completely transforms. [long silence] I know it sounds like I'm saying, [grumpy parent voice] "Chew thirty times!" but I'm not. [laughs]
For more of Lou Amdur check out his wine blog at www.louonvine.com.
Get the Squid Ink'd Newsletter
Sign up for our weekly food newsletter, which features top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips and a link to our print review.