There’s no place like home: Dorothy was right. Although my idea of home didn’t crystalize until my teen years, I know when I’m here. The first time I came through Bennington I was a child, maybe nine, and while it was quick something stuck. As a teen I spent a month at Bennington College and fell in love with everything about Vermont: fresh air, green grass, mountains and rivers and rocks and freedom I’ve never experienced anywhere else. Sure, I love the city. And I obviously love to travel. But coming back to Vermont is always the most refreshing of moments – a peaceful release I feel throughout my body and my mind as if every cell knows that yes, we’ll always return.
Understanding Terroir: The South of France & its Place in Wine
Terroir is one of the most frightening parts of wine to any newcomer. Not only is it tricky to pronounce at first (tayr-wahr) but it often seems impossible to describe. How does one taste “place” in wine? It takes practice. Concentration is also a factor. But more than that, it requires tasting not simply with your palate and your nose but with your skin and your eyes and, most importantly, your heart.
While in Languedoc, Roussillon and the Loire Valley last month I spent quite a bit of time outdoors with winemakers. Driving through vineyards and stopping to observe the land, putting our hands in it and sniffing and being shown “garrigue” was my first true experience of terroir. Finally, I had a word for those earthy and herby notes in the reds we drank.
In the Loire, one dug a large trench and had us look at, feel and smell every layer the roots of his vines stretched through. He then took us to another of his plots and had us do the same thing. And then we tasted wine from both – and things solidified more.
We obsess over grape and climate. There’s worry about vintage and rainfall and the timing of harvest. We wonder if it was a late frost. And these things are important. But terroir is more.
The Moment I Grasped Terroir
After a boat ride to Banyuls, we hiked from the road to an old church where outside winemakers from Roussillon had set up rosé. And anchovies and tapenade. We took in the gorgeous views of mountain meeting bay while sipping and pairing.
A winemaker and I began to chat about the area and his experience as a new winemaker, one with just seven years experience since retiring from the tech world.
His warmth made sense—the people in and around Perpignan were some of the warmest I met on my trip. He had intimate knowledge of the land and climate, but more than this I felt a kindredness with him: this was someone who also valued home. Valued the place he has carved out as his own. After a while, our group walked down the trail a bit to a clearing we’d passed. A man in a chef’s coat, Michelin-starred cef Pascal Borrell, ducked close to some logs and rocks, stoking a fire and then stirring the pot of stew he’d held to the side while getting the slow blaze exactly where he wanted it. Another connection to the place: simple, good food from the area.
As the afternoon stretched before us I drank local wine and chatted both with winemakers and the other writers on my trip. At some point, sun and wine and welcome had me feeling philosophical so I looked to my Norwegian compatriot and said, “This. This is terroir.” By forgetting everything except the vines, wines, people and moment I was in—by opening my heart as I tasted—I truly understood the sense of place that is vital to making quality wine.
Teach Yourself to Taste Terroir
If you’ve wanted to get a sense of what people are talking about when they throw around “terroir”, there’s a way. Find wine from the Languedoc or Roussillon.
Languedoc-Roussillon is a crescent of land that lies on the Mediterranean coast and inland spanning Spain to Provence. It’s where one-quarter of French wine is made. Look for red wines. They are rustic, juicy and will give you a taste of the distinct Sud de France terroir, namely garrigue.
We drove around a bit and handled much of this: it’s low, scrubby plants like thyme, juniper, rosemary, and lavender that do well in the coastal limestone. It also has an earthy/minerally bite to it and is balanced with a resinous, woody quality. As soon as you smell and taste it you’ll know what it is and never forget it. You’ll also know, in a blind tasting, that you’re tasting something from the south of France or a place with a similar landscape. Avoid bottles labeled “vin de Pays d’Oc” – grapes can be sourced from anywhere in the region thus you might not get a terroir-driven wine.
Look for the Crus de Languedoc: Corbieres, Boutenac, Minervois La Liviniere, St.-Chinian Roquebrun and St.-Chinian Berlou. For a splurge, look for Mas de Daumas reds.
Just like I can sense, on a cellular level, when I’m back in Vermont it’s more than just seeing a sign, or reading a label. You could be the best winemaker in the world but if you don’t know what home feels like, smells like, sounds like, looks like and how it tastes, you’ll never capture terroir in your wines. The winemakers of the South of France know these things and love them. They think about it and bottle it – allowing the rest of us to taste the love they hold in their hearts for their place, with our hearts.
Upon returning to the States I started planning The Bennington Wine Tasting Meetup’s next event, Vive la France. I’d known I wanted to share what I’d learned about the region and terroir. And as I was preparing for the evening I felt a familiar warmth. This small group of diverse people, transplants and natives alike, have become a part of my feeling of home, of my place in Bennington and the world. I didn’t realize until Tuesday night just how much I missed them when I was in France and being with them all again to taste and chat and laugh was a good reminder. There really is “no place like home.”
“I’m going where the living is easy/and the people are kind/a new state of mind…”
Tasting and Pairing Suggestions
We tasted five wines from Languedoc Roussillon – read on for tasting notes on the four reds and the recipes I paired with them.
La Croix de Saint Jean Lo Paire 2013
The belle of the ball, this was everyone’s favorite of the evening. The wine has won awards and while drinkable now, but I’d also consider holding for a few years. Beautifully complex nose of garrigue, black and stewed fruits. Well-balanced on the palate: it’s strong but knows itself well enough to retain charm. Imagine the person in the room who is forceful but gets everyone to follow her lead. We know she’s right. So does she. That’s this wine. About $28.
Orin Swift Cellars D 66 2009
Critics think the time to drink this one is now, but our group would hold it another 3-5 years. This is a big wine. Cherry, plum, raisin and spice first gave it a medicinal shock but as it opened and warmed its complexity showed. The tannins are still pretty strong, which is why we thought it could stand more time in the bottle. This wine is great with rich foods and could pair just as easily with charcuterie as a steak au poivre. About $35.
Bila-Haut by Michel Chapoutier Cotes du Roussillon Villages 2016
Another beautiful expression of fruit and spice, this one with a little leather. It was lighter than the first two reds but not thin. Garrigue is present along with pepper and blackberries. A nice sipping wine or with a charcuterie I’d give this one another 3-5 in the bottle although it was very enjoyable. About $14.
Gerard Bertrand Grand Terroir 2013
I’m usually a fan of Gerard Bertrand but this one fell a little short for me – I was expecting big and bold but I got a thin wine that was, well, disappointing. It’s scored high with critics and the tasting notes I’ve found from others are so different from my own that I’m going to go out on a limb and say this bottle was flawed. I’d definitely pick up the next I saw and borrow a Coravin for future tastes. There’s no way it tasted the way it was intended to. About $18.
I made three French munchies that all paired beautifully with the wine.