Wednesday, November 25, 2015         


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'Terroir' infuses wines with the taste of a place

By Chuck Furuya


A customer asked me the other day, "What is 'terroir'?"

The word is a French term that refers to a sense of place one can smell and taste in their wine.

Why the fascination?

By Request

Betty Shimabukuro is on vacation. Her column returns next week.
It comes from the same reason we in Hawaii cherish the Kula onion. For some reason, onions grown in the region result in something truly special and unique. Is it the soil or the way the sun warms the area? Does it have something to do with the rainfall and drainage? Who knows. And really, who cares? We just know that the Kula onion tastes special.

The French would refer to that "specialness" as the terroir of Kula.

When I was growing up in the wine business, I remember hearing a French Pinot Noir master from Burgundy saying, "I am not looking to produce Pinot Noir. I am looking to produce a Vosne Romanee" -- the name of his village and, therefore, his "terroir." And indeed, that is one of the big differences between Pinots grown and produced in America and New Zealand and those of Burgundy.

Another interesting learning experience for me came from the absolutely brilliant wine "mind" of winemaker Andre Ostertag of Alsace, France. Ostertag chose to categorize his wines in a different way -- "vin de pierre" (wine of the stone or terroir), "vin de fruits" (wine of the grape) and "vin de climat" (wine of the sunshine). I have taken this concept and applied them to the wines I happen to be tasting. It helps me better understand what I am tasting and why.

Common examples of vin de pierre (terroir wines) include French Chablis, French Sancerre, Champagne, German Riesling and Italian Barolo.

Examples of vin de fruits (wines largely about the grape variety) would include many of the wines from the New World (New Zealand, Australia and the U.S.).

Vin de climat (wines of the sunshine) are what most professionals would refer to as "fruit bombs," and these can come from all parts of the world.

To better understand firsthand what all of this is about, consider buying a French Chablis (from a producer such as Lavantureux, William Fevre, Raveneau, Dauvissat, Laroche or Louis Michel) and compare it side by side with a New World Chardonnay AND an Australian Chardonnay. Most tasters would be surprised with their first whiff of the French Chablis -- and I would venture to say that most would not even guess this to be a Chardonnay in a blind tasting.

This is a good thing. Why? Because it is a wine not of the grape variety (vin de fruits); rather, it is a vin de pierre (terroir wine) and therefore smells of the light, meager limestone soils in which it is grown. This will be further highlighted when tasting it side by side with the Californian and the Australian.

And that is my explanation of terroir. Until next time, please enjoy.

Chuck Furuya is a master sommelier and a partner in the dk restaurant chain. To contact him, visit

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