“Musings” are a series of columns by co-founder and co-owner Robert Muse that are devoted to viticulture and wine making at Muse Vineyards
Those of you kind enough to have perused our website may have noticed that we use the term domaine frequently, and usually in connection with the warranty that every wine we sell is made only from grapes grown at Muse Vineyards. In saying the latter we are illustrating what a domaine wine is— the product of a delimited space that you can take in with a few turns of the head or, in our case, 30 contiguous vineyard acres.
In French, the word domaine is defined as both a “field” and an “area of control.” When used in connection with wine, the word combines both to mean a parcel of land under the control of a wine maker. Over time the word has become closely associated with the Burgundy region, an area of small family domaines that have been meticulously mapped and ranked meter-by-meter, according to the quality of the wines they produce – for example, from simple Bourgogne to Premier Cru to Grand Cru.
Because a domaine wine is grown in a uniform micro-climate with the same vine stock and is subject to identical, viticultural practices has the potential to be a terroir wine.¹ By contrast wines that can never honestly use the term are the industrial products derived from grapes sourced from different, mechanized vineyards and then so homogenized and adulterated in the wine making process as to have lost any vestige of their place(s) of origin.
By the way, the word terroir is much abused of late. It may be encountered in a small tasting room in an exchange that can go like this:
Proprietor: “And this is our 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon.”
Taster: “You know it sure doesn’t taste or smell like the Cabernet Sauvignon.”
Proprietor: “Hey man, that’s my terroir!”
The proper reply to this might be: “Have you thought about getting a better one?”
The point is that to be small is not enough. (We’re going to assume in this discussion that the offending winery is part of a vineyard property that actually grows at least the majority of the grapes used in its winemaking. You may, gentle reader, be surprised how many don’t. And you might be astonished that some tasting rooms buy “their” wine in bottles from Virginia wine factories and slap their labels on them. Yes it’s true (By consensus, such miscreants are not allowed to have the word terroir in their mouths.)
In addition to limiting grape production to a defined vineyard, a terroir wine’s vines must be suitable to the soil and climate of the place they are being grown, and they must be tended properly. If all that is true, the variety will be recognizable anywhere in the world; Grown well in the right place, Cabernet Sauvignon is identifiable, whether its origin is Bordeaux, Napa, Chile or Virginia. If it isn’t, the word terroir is as irrelevant to the resulting wine as it would be to a discussion of the Coca-Cola produced in Baltimore versus Baltimore.
But while the grape variety should always be identifiable, that is only the beginning. To be a terroir wine it must be a distinctive expression of that variety; that is, it must reflect the circumstances of its growth and conversion from grapes to wine. At this point, it interesting to consider how a domaine wine differs from almost every other agricultural product.
- It is processed into a final, consumable product at the place it is grown.
- It is never mixed with the products of other farms, during processing.
- The same people who did the agricultural work will do the processing work.
Of how many other agricultural products can this be said? Olive groves to olive oil, perhaps. And grandma’s homemade strawberry jam!
Let’s, for now, end with the knowledge that it isn’t surprising that her jam is better than anything you can buy in a supermarket. It’s a product of a single plot, so it possesses a pure unalloyed taste. Her berries are traditional varieties, not hybrids capable of producing vast amounts of strawberries weighing five ounces each. The fruit is handpicked and sorted so there are no bad berries in the mix that require preservatives and other adulterations. It’s made from strawberries processed while still fresh, so sterilizing chemicals are not needed to burn off the rot and bacteria engendered by hours of crushing weight in a bin sitting in a hot field 100 miles from the processing facility. (Over 95% of strawberries in the U.S. are grown in the warmest parts of California and Florida.) It reflects the growing season, bright acid in cool years, voluptuous depth in others. Again, factory jam is derived from strawberries grown in hot places and it is the product of applied chemistry to ensure it tastes the same every year. Grandma’s jam is by contrast a domaine jam, and she may be pleased to learn that it might even be a terroir jam!
(1) The word microclimate is used in this piece in a common-sense way to mean a subpart of a larger, regional climate, as in, “Muse Vineyards has a microclimate influenced by a contiguous river and a mountainous rain shield a quarter of a mile away.” The Muse microclimate is found within a mesoclimate of the upper Shenandoah Valley; in the macroclimate of Northwestern Virginia. Readers, however, should know that many viticulturists confusingly take the term microclimate down to the conditions within the foliage of a given vine.