Terroir. What is it exactly? According to Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine, terroir is the “much discussed term for the total natural environment of any viticultural site. No precise English equivalent exists for this quintessentially French term and concept.”
Oenophiles love to talk about terroir—even Anglophone oenophiles. The discussion in Ms. Robinson’s tome fills almost two pages of tiny type.
Why do Cabernet Sauvignon wines from Bordeaux and Napa County differ in flavor? Terroir. Why do Pinot Noir wines from Chile and Oregon differ? Terroir. Why does Zinfandel from one Sonoma County vineyard differ noticeably from Zinfandel grown a mile away? Terroir. Many other things affect a wine’s flavor, of course. Winemakers use various strains of yeast, ferment at diverse temperatures, and age their wines differently. But terroir—soil, slope of the vineyard, drainage, latitude, east-facing or west-facing vineyard, weather, etc.—really is the basis of everything. As one distinguished winemaker said to me, “Good wine is made in the vineyard, never in the winery.” I take her word for it.
Does anybody else talk about terroir the way wine lovers do? Yes.
Whisky aficionados will tell you that Kentucky bourbon is much different than Tennessee whiskey. A Kentucky distiller opines that the water in his state is “full of micronutrients, which feed the yeast and result in the light floral flavors in the whiskey.”
Coca-Cola drinkers are particular, too. Coca-Cola exported to the United States from Mexico is made with cane sugar rather than the high fructose corn syrup used here. Mexican- Americans and other Coca-Cola cognoscenti like to drink imported Coke made with Mexican sugar and sold in glass bottles. They pay extra for it.
A few months ago I received an intriguing invitation. “Please join us for an oyster pairing event featuring oyster guru Rowan Jacobsen and the wines of William Fèvre Chablis,” it read. “Oysters have met their match.” I learned later that this was to be a “unique oyster shucking and sublime Chablis pairing extravaganza with expert Rowan Jacobsen and the William Fèvre team.” A unique extravaganza! Who could resist?
When my wife and I arrived on the appointed afternoon, we found a bar set up along one wall of the courtyard behind the host restaurant. Near the entrance, cheerful representatives of William Fèvre were pouring three of Fèvre’s excellent Chablis for the thirsty guests. A bit farther down, Rowan Jacobsen himself was holding forth, assisted by a gentleman who was busy shucking oysters at lightning speed in the background.
Author of A Geography of Oysters (and now, The Essential Oyster), Mr. Jacobsen is a genuine oyster guru who seems to have tasted and enjoyed every species of oyster to be found in every corner of the world. He writes knowingly and compellingly about their various sources and flavors. Indeed, Jacobsen reports that oysters grown in diverse locales—even oysters of the same species—have distinctly different flavors. In other words, their flavors reflect the terroirs in which they grow.
Oyster lovers (ostreaphiles) typically pair their oysters with a refreshing liquid—beer, wine, sake or even water. Wine is a particular favorite, of course. Perhaps you have enjoyed your oysters with Sauvignon Blanc from California or New Zealand or Muscadet from the Loire. Champagne is a good partner, too. (Try your oysters with a blanc de blancs.) In his book, Mr. Jacobsen discusses the pros and cons of pairing these wines with particular species of oyster which vary considerably in flavor. Of course, the theme of the big “oysters have met their match” event was pairing oysters with Chablis. Why might this be a particularly felicitous partnership?
Jacobsen explains: “Chablis, a classic Gallic pick for oysters, has the proper focused sharpness. This far northern island of Burgundy grows only Chardonnay grapes, but makes them into a lean-and-mean style of wine unrecognizable to people used to the fat, vanilla Chardonnays of Australia and California. Chablis wines [generally] aren’t aged in oak, so they don’t develop buttery flavors. They do develop a steely pointedness, thanks to their cool northern climate and unique chalky soil. That soil, rich in limestone, was once seabed. It is the remains of trillions of tiny shellfish. Scoop up a handful of whitish soil in a Chablis vineyard, and you’ll find fossilized oyster shells. Chablis derives its unique flavor from ancient oysters. That seems as good a reason as any to drink it with oysters.”
Indeed, one of Fèvre’s representatives had brought to the tasting a rock from one of Fèvre’s vineyards—chock full of very old seashells.
Further Taste Tests
I found Mr. Jacobsen’s theory convincing: Oysters grown along the eastern coast of the United States pair wonderfully with Chablis. (The oysters we sampled at the big event were from the East Coast.) On the telephone later, I asked Jacobsen whether Chablis is the right wine to pair with oysters from Charleston. He responded that he has many friends in Charleston, and local Charleston oysters, which have an attractive salinity, pair especially well with Chablis.
My wife and I wanted to taste William Fèvre’s Chablis again. I obtained bottles of two that are widely available—in Charleston and elsewhere. No, I did not obtain living oysters to shuck in my kitchen; I need both my thumbs and all my fingers to hold wine glasses and to type. We paired the Chablis with other foods.
The William Fèvre Chablis Champs Royaux AOC 2015 ($25) is quite delightful. Pale straw in color with a faint honey hue, it offers peach aromas with a subtext of vanilla, yeast and wet stones. Its flavor evokes peaches (and peach stones) brightened by citrus elements— tart grapefruit and grapefruit rind—with green apples. Minerality is apparent but subtle, increasing as the wine opens up. Suave and rich in flavor, the Champs Royaux has a luxurious feel in the mouth. An online commentator describes it aptly as “generous yet refreshing.”
The William Fèvre Chablis Premier Cru Montmains Domaine 2014 ($60) is lean and elegant. Perhaps a bit paler than its straw-colored Champs Royaux sibling, it exudes fragrances of flower blossoms, green apples, hay and crushed leaves floating above a plane of crisp minerals. The flavor is equally complex, comprising elements of peaches, oranges and green apples with even a hint of mushrooms. It offers pleasant and subtle acidity, perfect to pair with all manner of seafood.
Robert Calvert drinks and writes in Louisville, Kentucky. Questions or comments? Email Robert: RBCalvert@ att.net.