Which is more important: grape or place the grape grows? Depends on who you ask and how much argument you want.
Music analogy to frame the discussion: variety of grape is the song; place grape grows is the singer.
Terroir (ter-wahr) is French word for effect of natural environment—soil, topography, climate—on a wine’s taste. There is no comparable English word; “taste of the land” is best we can do, but is not inclusive enough.
Terroir is central for Old World wines (France, Italy, Germany, Spain). That’s why their labels typically stress the specific place where grapes were grown and wines made. Taste descriptions often include soil and mineral adjectives.
New World wines (U.S., Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, South America) typically name grape variety on their label; winemakers strive for a varietal flavor profile, often using grapes from various vineyards. New World wine descriptions typically include fruit adjectives.
New World makers once discounted terroir as a muddled mix of mysticism and marketing. For them, science, technology, and cellar techniques trumped terroir.
Old Worlders dissed New Worlders as test-tube-toting troglodytes who might understand terroir after a couple more centuries making wine.
Discourse is not as divisive or dismissive today. New Worlders embrace terroir for some locations—think Napa and Sonoma, think high dollar. Old Worlders employ New World techniques—at least to extent appellation contrôlée laws allow—think “how do I rescue this vintage?”
Taste. Develop your own opinion. Fun, no matter your answer.
• Chateau Batailley Pauillac. Classic Pauillac terroir, consistent Parker 90+ points. $57
• Anderson’s Conn Valley Vineyards Prologue Cabernet Sauvignon. Taste unique Conn Valley Napa terroir at affordable price. $23 (The reserve bottle costs three times as much.)
• Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon. Black cherry, chocolate, espresso; blend, not single-vineyard, but Napa terroir nonetheless. $36