As the head of a winery, I am very frequently asked about terroir. Does the concept really exist? Is it real?

Of course it is, I answer, but it’s difficult to understand. But, it has actually helped me to define myself while I strive to better my knowledge of wines. Finding terroir in wine is an existential and personal study, and very rewarding. For me, it sharpens the mind — here your senses are tested along with your memory, as you try to find nuances in a wine, and categorize them. While you sniff and swirl the glass, you are digging in the earth a bit, eliminating from your mental picture of it that which you already know (it was cool, it was hot, it was in oak, it was in steel etc.) and trying to find the essence of the wine that man or winemaker cannot erase from it.

Terroir, or more specifically in French, “Le Goût de la Terre” means literally the taste of the earth. In wine, that has little or nothing to do with tasting dirt, but I have been surprised before! It’s been said that the monks in medieval France would in fact taste the soil in an attempt to determine what sort of qualities it possessed, and how that would show itself in the wine. Fortunately we know just a little more now than they did back then…right? Or do we?

Terroir is actually the coming together of various important aspects of winegrowing, not the least of which are the soils, the climate including the sun, wind and water, the vine type, the situation of the vineyard and the farming practices. When it is reduced to a glass of wine, or multiple glasses of wine, terroir is the common thread that makes the wines SIMILAR to each other — as opposed to different from each other. That’s an important point — terroir is what is COMMON to wines from the same place.

Let’s take the North Fork of Long Island for an example. The land our vines grow on is part of the Haven-Riverhead Association, which means the glacier that scraped over us thousands and thousands of years ago (called the Ronkonkoma Moraine) left us “Deep, nearly level…well-drained medium textured and moderately coarse textured soils on outwash plains.” Or so says the USDA, Soil Conservation Service from a 1972 study with Cornell University.

The operative word in that statement, for us as wine growers, is well-drained. This makes the higher levels of rain we experience quite tolerable, especially if you happen to be a grapevine, because grapevines do not like wet feet. Too much water that doesn’t drain away quickly will inspire molds and mildews, or possibly drown the roots. And while comparisons between Long Island and Bordeaux happen here all the time, the fact is Bordeaux has much higher levels of clay (which retains water) in their soil, and much less rainfall — a balancing act. It is the similar amounts of sunshine between the two places that gets people thinking that somehow the “terroir” will be the same.

It’s so much more than just that.

Wind, or air flow in general is part of the terroir too. Here on the North Fork, the breeze off of the sea is nearly constant, increasing in intensity around 3 o’clock or so, almost every day. This is like a blow dryer for our vines. It can rain all it wants, our well drained soils will handle the water, and the wind will keep the vines and grapes dry, and as a result of being dry, they will be clean. When moisture sits, mold and mildew will take hold, but not on dry grapes. This air flow is what makes the sea and the bay such a fine moderating influence on our temperatures — a slight cooling effect in the summer, and a slight warming effect in the winter.

Of course we can help the plants by removing some of the leaves and setting the fruit in an open area allowing the breeze to flow through it. But also recognizing the “situation” of the vineyard is important. That is, the direction of the airflow, and the direction of the sun’s rays on the field — increasing the light and warmth on the grapes, or possibly avoiding sunburn. This too is part of the terroir. So is the type of grape and the rootstock it grows on. Some rootstock is better suited to well-drained soils, and some take advantage of the moisture underground. Some push the vine harder, and some rootstock is a moderating influence on the plant. Naturally, the top of the vine (the type of grape it grows) is significant. Some grapes are early to bud, early to harvest, late budding (good for cold climates) and late harvest (not always so good!) Mashing all of these man-made decisions with all of nature’s randomness is terroir.

Now that we’ve established what terroir is made of, what does it taste like? In the wine it is a hallmark or a signature. It can be obvious, or it can be subtle, but it “tends” to be there. Long Island merlot tends to have earthy tones, black soft plums, minerals and weightiness. Long Island cabernet franc tends to have red fruits like cherry, both sour and sweet, evergreens and pine, as well as brisk acids and notes of quinine (think tonic water.) What is different is who made them and who grew them; what is the same is the terroir of Long Island’s North Fork.

Recently we sat down to taste vintages of Peconic Bay merlot from 1995 through 2009, with just a couple of vintages missing. While weather every year was different — the 2000, 2004, 2006, and 2009 were cool years while 1995, 2001, 2005, and 2007 were very warm years — the wines had a ‘sameness’ that was undeniable. Specifically, a heady, swirling aroma of blackberry pie, cedar wood, salt air, warm green moss, and baked plum. Here on display was our terroir — that combination of naturally occurring things that takes years to recognize — or if you’re lucky enough to sit for a ‘vertical’ tasting of many years of the ‘same’ wine you can find it -hiding right under your nose.