A few weeks ago, I read a blog post that stopped me in my tracks. The Joseph Report’s “The Irrelevance of Terroir (to most people)” goes against one of the tenets we winos hold dear – that the place a wine comes from matters a lot. Soil, climate, and tradition all come together to create qualities in wine that we love to examine, taste, and discuss.
But Robert Joseph contends that terroir doesn’t matter to most wine drinkers, who are looking for wine that’s a particular style and intensity. As long as the wine has the flavors people like at the strength they’re looking for, they’ll be happy with wines from nearly anywhere.
Of course you could argue that some aspects of terroir are built into both the style and intensity of wine from the get-go. But we also know that a winemaker can take his or her grapes and vinify and age them to bring out certain flavors rather than others, and also vary the intensity. This is part of what proponents of so-called “natural” wines claim is happening more these days, and that some winemakers are changing the style of their wines to conform to what particular critics like. So in theory it’s possible that a customer could get a wine with the qualities he or she likes from nearly any wine producing region, within reason.
But Joseph’s point is a good one. He’s not saying that people can’t taste the difference terroir makes in two wines tasted side by side (good thing, since that would put most wine educators out of business). And he’s also not saying that repeated exposure to wines of different terroirs doesn’t create an appreciation for their individuality (as the wine tourism industry breathes a sigh of relief). Rather, that it isn’t going to be a deciding factor for most wine buyers. And because of that, maybe we who sell wine should think about providing more information on the label about the things the average buyer looks for in wine if we want to sell more of it. Not a bad lesson to keep in mind.
What really made me think, though, was Joseph’s second point: even people who go on about terroir in wine aren’t necessarily going to look for terroir in other products like coffee or chocolate (to name two he mentions). As agricultural products, these all should have some reflection of where their ingredients were grown. But Joseph argues that with few exceptions, most winos don’t seek out particular terroirs in these products, even if you’d think they’d be the kind of discerning consumer who would. So I thought I’d take a quick look at why winos like me don’t consume single-plantation coffee and chocolate as much as I could.
A lot of it has to do with availability. Walk into any reasonably good wine shop or even a very well-stocked grocery store and you’ll find a variety of French wines made by independent producers. You can buy a Sancerre (made from Sauvignon Blanc) and compare it to a Bordeaux-grown Sauvignon Blanc, or a Chablis (made from Chardonnay) and compare it to a Languedoc-grown Chardonnay, and see the influence of where it’s grown on the wine. Not to mention being able to compare them to wines made by independent producers in other countries. But with coffee and chocolate, you’re much more likely to find products labeled as made from beans grown in a particular country as the smallest geographic designation. Rarely can you find something down to the level of a single farm within that country, let alone be able to compare individual farms within a single country.
Joseph doesn’t address chocolate in his post. But for coffee, he starts with a pretty funny rant on Nespresso, and how even the finest wine châteaux in France serve Nespresso to visitors. Not that it’s bad coffee, but most of the coffee in those shiny Nespresso pods isn’t single-origin by country, much less by specific plantation. (Joseph says he’s seen only three out of Nespresso’s 15 espresso varieties that could be single-origin). It’s a little tongue-in-cheek, because it’s one thing to take time to hand-make a lovely single-origin cup of espresso for yourself, and quite another to have to make them for a crowd. Still, you’d think that a winery proclaiming its terroir as special would also consider that there might be a particular coffee terroir that would be well-suited to drinking after tasting their wines.
The same goes for people he has observed in Italy, who take coffee VERY seriously. Most market customers (and even coffee bars) buy Lavazza or Illy, two of the big Italian-based international brands. These companies buy their coffee beans from all over the world, and roast and blend them to ensure consistency. Consequently, customers talk about liking the “Lavazza Roast” or the “Illy Roast” rather than buying coffee from Sumatra or Columbia. And even if a coffee bar has a special blend, it’s likely to be multi-origin.
In the U.S., we can find single-country-origin coffees in a lot of places. And there are some coffee shops that serve coffee grown at individual plantations when they can get them, although they’re tougher to find and you generally have to ask for them. The exceptions for us in the U.S. are Kona coffee grown in Hawaii and, to a much lesser extent, Blue Mountain coffee from Jamaica. While coffee roasting does require some specialized equipment, it’s not out of reach financially for Kona producers to roast their own and sell it. Each coffee plantation may roast its beans a little differently, but you can get Kona coffee grown on individual farms and, all other things being equal, you can taste the difference between them and decide which you like better.
My husband Cy and I got a package of coffee from our friends Chuck and Lynn Bernstein after they made a trip to Hawaii. It came from Kona Mountain, and it was delicious. But what I didn’t realize is that Chuck and Lynn had tried a number of Kona coffees before deciding they liked this one best. Not only did they visit other coffee companies, but they even asked about the brands of coffee they tried in restaurants. Then, when they were back, they ordered different ones to try at home. While there was some variation due to roasting, Chuck says that much of the differences between coffees was clearly due to terroir. Kona Mountain was still their favorite, and that’s what they continue to drink today.
Thanks to the internet, this kind of comparison is easy to do, although not cheap (which is why you don’t see me buying Kona coffee). But it’s available partly because Kona beans come from a first-world country. As I mentioned, while some coffee sellers in the U.S. do business with and package coffee from individual farmers in coffee-growing countries, most don’t, so it’s a lot tougher to find single-farm Ethiopian coffee than it is Kona.
The same goes for chocolate, since cacao is grown in many of the same countries as coffee. My friend and chocolate expert Biagio Abbatiello is a flight attendant who has traveled the world tasting chocolate as he went. He created a landmark chocolate shop that was the first in DC to stock chocolate from all over the world. Biagio told me that while single-country-origin chocolate is catching on, most of the final chocolate product making it to the market is produced by companies in Europe and America, regardless of where the beans originated. (While it’s tempting to think of this as economic colonialism, it really started because of the weather – cacao is grown in hot climates, and it requires a lot more energy to keep things cool enough to make chocolate.) These companies have particular styles to their chocolate achieved through roasting, conching, and blending. So a 70% bar of Venezuelan chocolate from Michel Cluizel would have a lot of the Cluizel influence, as a Valrhona or a Guittard would show the influence of their makers, and it takes away some of the individuality you’d find from the beans’ country of origin. Biagio says that some of these producers now also make single-plantation chocolates, although it’s rare to find more than a couple of single-plantation chocolates from a particular country. And since each producer has only one single-plantation chocolate from a specific country, at least some of the difference in taste between single-plantation bars is due to the maker’s methods rather than the terroir of the cacao beans. (We’re lucky here in the DC area — a local chocolate company brings in beans from its own farm in the Domincan Republic.)
According to Biagio, it’s becoming more common these days to find chocolate product made in the countries where the beans are grown. That’s a good thing, because finished chocolate products have more value-added than cacao beans and bring a lot more money. But he couldn’t think of an individual cacao farm that makes its own chocolate in quantities large enough for export, so it’s unlikely we’ll be able to get them here in the U.S.
This post is already too long, so I’ll give you a preview of the follow up: the adage “what grows together, goes together.” This is essentially the root of the importance of terroir in pairing food and wine that we don’t look for in coffee or chocolate. While we can’t always buy ingredients that were grown in the same region as the wine we’re drinking, we can certainly get their local versions to try. So for this week’s recipe, I’m pairing a wine from northern Provence with a Provençal version of Beef Wellington. The original Beef Wellington is a beef filet coated with paté and mushrooms, then wrapped in puff pastry. Making a whole one is a real pain – it’s much easier to make individual Wellingtons. And you can fill them with practically anything you like. In this case, a mixture of roasted eggplant and mushrooms, and topped with soft goat cheese mixed with fresh thyme, all ingredients you’ll find in the area where the wine is made.
Domaine Fond Croze Shyrus 2007 ($20) is made by Bruno Long in St. Roman de Malegarde. The village got its name because the feudal lord of St. Roman preferred hunting, drinking, and womanizing to protecting his land – so it was “poorly guarded” (mal gardée in French, which became Malegarde). The wine is made from Syrah and has some of the fruit and spice you’d expect from Syrah or Shiraz made elsewhere, but also an earthy flavor due to its terroir.
A few hints about the Wellingtons – you can make the different filling elements ahead of time and refrigerate them, just let them all come to room temperature before you assemble and bake. And I think it’s worth using an all-butter puff pastry. I can find Dufour brand at Whole Foods, but if you can’t, go ahead and use whatever frozen puff pastry you can find and brush a little cooled melted butter on the beef. And finally, use a baking stone if you have one – put an oven rack at the lowest level and set the stone on it, then preheat the oven for at least 45 minutes. If you don’t have a baking stone, put a baking sheet the same size as the one you’ll be baking the Wellingtons on into the oven upside-down when you preheat it, then set the pan you’re baking right on top of it.
4 six-ounce beef fillets, about 1-1/2 inches thick
Salt and pepper
1 sheet all-butter frozen puff pastry, thawed overnight in the refrigerator (or other puff pastry)
1 medium-sized eggplant
3-4 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stems removed
4 ounces soft goat cheese, at room temperature
1 tablespoon (or more) heavy cream
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
1 teaspoon chopped fresh parsley leaves
1 egg, lightly beaten with 1 tablespoon heavy cream
2 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled to room temperature (optional if you’re not using all-butter puff pastry)
- Lightly flour the countertop. Unwrap the thawed sheet of puff pastry and place it on the floured surface. Lightly flour the top of the pastry. Roll it into a 14-inch square. Then cut the large square in quarters to make four seven-inch squares. Stack these on a plate and put them in the refrigerator until you need them.
- With a vegetable peeler, peel off half of the eggplant’s skin in strips alternating with leaving the peel on. Cut the peeled eggplant in ½-inch slices. Rub a little salt into both sides of each slice, and let them sit in a colander for 45 minutes to drain some of the liquid. Wipe the slices with dry paper towels and cut the slices into ½-inch cubes.
- Put an oven rack at the lowest level and one in the middle of the oven. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.
- Put the cubed eggplant on a sheet pan near one end. Drizzle with olive oil and some black pepper, then toss the cubes to coat them (they should already have enough salt). At the other end of the sheet, drizzle the shiitake caps with olive oil, then salt and pepper them. Spread out the eggplant and the mushrooms into a single layer on opposite ends of the sheet. Bake for approximately a half hour, turning everything over after 15 minutes. The mushrooms should be nicely browned. Remove them, turn over the eggplant again, and continue roasting it for another 10-15 minutes until the cubes are lightly browned. Remove the eggplant to a plate to cool, and slice the mushroom caps into ¼-inch slices.
- Heat a tablespoon of vegetable oil on high heat in a skillet large enough to hold all four fillets. While the oil is heating, dry the fillets with paper towels and sprinkle them with a little salt and pepper. Sear them in the hot pan for 2 minutes on each side, then put them on a plate to cool to room temperature.
- While the beef is cooling, combine the goat cheese, thyme, parsley, and a tablespoon of heavy cream in a small bowl and mix well. Add a little salt and pepper. The mixture should be spreadable – if not, mix in a little more cream.
- About 20 minutes before you’re ready to assemble, put a sheet pan upside-down on the bottom rack of the oven and bring the temperature back up to 425 degrees F.
- Place one of the beef fillets on a clean plate. If you’re using regular puff pastry, brush the beef with some of the cooled melted butter (if you used all-butter puff pastry, you can skip this step). Completely cover the meat with one-quarter of the cheese mixture, then a quarter of the mushroom slices and up to a quarter of the eggplant cubes (they may not all fit, use as much as you can). Take a piece of the chilled puff pastry and lightly stretch it. Brush the edges with some of the beaten egg/cream mixture. Center it on top of the covered fillet (egg wash side down)and bring the four corners of the puff pastry together under the beef, overlapping them a little so they’ll stick. Press firmly together, and then firmly crimp the edges of pastry sticking out along the beef and press them into place on the sides of the beef package. Place the Wellington on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Repeat with the other three Wellingtons. Brush the tops and sides with the egg wash, make two small slits in the top of each one, and sprinkle the tops with a little salt and pepper.
- Put the pan with the Wellingtons right on top of the upside-down baking pan on the bottom rack and bake for 25-30 minutes, until golden brown. Serve immediately.