You say garrigue, I say chaparral: why California wines deserve a native descriptor.

Old habits die hard, and there is safety in the familiar.  In the wine world’s accepted collection of wine descriptors, garrigue and garrigue herbs is often used to describe a particular herbacious quality in certain wines–but what is garrigue?  And are we really using the term correctly in describing California wines?

Scientifically speaking, garrigue describes a Mediterranean scrub ecosystem in areas with calcareous soils, particularly in France’s Rhone and Bordeaux regions.  Think wild thyme, lavender, rosemary.  Now, that term works just fine describing wines grown in that region, a sort of herbacious  je n’ais cest quoi that suggests a particular savory note common to those wines.

Lupine in coastal chaparral west of Paso Robles
Lupine in coastal chaparral west of Paso Robles

But is that descriptor really accurate for California wines?  I see it most often used in describing California Rhones, as a reference to the brambly herbaciousness in the Rhones grown in the plentiful and fertile calcareous soils of California, especially along the coast, central valley and Sierra foothills.

Those areas also, not coincidentally, contain some of the highest concentrations of chaparral in the state–a similar but distinct Mediterranean-type scrub ecosystem.  And the flora native to chaparral are markedly different from those in France.

Derived from the Spanish word for scrub oak, chaparro, chaparral is  a shrubland or heathland plant community found primarily within the state of California (small vestiges of chaparral ecosystems stretch south into Baja California and southeastern Oregon to the north, but it is almost entirely a California landscape).

Evening light on Tablas Creek vineyard in the rolling, chaparral-covered hills of west Paso Robles.
Evening light on Tablas Creek vineyard in the rolling, chaparral-covered hills of west Paso Robles.

Instead of the wild thyme and rosemary and lavender of garrigue herbs, the deeply fragrant range of wild herbacious plants in California chaparral ecosystems includes sumac, bay laurel, sage, buckwheat, lupine, mountain mahogany, bush poppy, manzanita and even the non-native but fully adapted wild fennel that’s found in coastal chaparral–and many more.

In the interest of disclosure, I have an ongoing interest in chaparral, both as an iconic California landscape and as a vital sensory component that memory and imagination seize upon in defining the golden state.  Chaparral is the focus of my ongoing Land/Sea photography series, and I waxed rhapsodic last year over Greenbar Distillery’s Grand Poppy bitter liqueur that uses a collection of chaparral aromatics and herbs for its flavor.  As unloved a landscape as chaparral can be, it is the flavors and aromas native to chaparral that make up the heart of the California we can smell and taste and thus remember in an almost Proustian way.

Garrigue–or, as I suggest here, chaparral–is a descriptor that suggests (the horribly overused and unscientific idea of) terroir, or an element thereof.  If it’s tied to place, then it is also connected to experience.  The idea of garrigue is almost certainly born from the experience of smelling those herbs in the limestone-heavy regions, kicked up by the Mistral winds that sweep across the rocky hills in France.

Manzanita, an iconic chaparral plant, in bloom.
Manzanita, an iconic chaparral plant, in bloom.

France has the Mistral winds, we have the Santa Anas.  Similar, but distinct.  If you’ve ever hiked the coastal hills on a foggy morning, or the deep canyons just inland after a good rain to lift the scent, then you have smelled those chaparral herbs.  You are smelling California, you are smelling that “green” component unique to the state.  The tangible-intangible of chaparral herbs is as much a part of the regional terroir as the rocky limestone soils that support them and the vast acreage of wine grapes that grow among and nearby chaparral.  California still suffers from an inferiority complex in some ways when it compares its wines to those of the old world, and that is the most likely reason garrigue continues to keep hold as an imperfect but old-world-familiar wine descriptor.

Wine nerds strive for shades of specificity and precision in their language when discussing wines–if one notes the presence of floral qualities in a wine like lilac or violet, it is often further refined by specifying whether that essence is fresh, dried or decayed petals.  Why, then, do we not gravitate to similar precision in the catch-all of garrigue?

Those studying wine are often encouraged to smell or taste the things that are used to describe wines:  Lick a rock to understand minerality.  Smell and come to understand the difference between violet and rose notes of red wine and the more exotic “white flowers” used to describe certain white wines.  Seek out violet flowers in different stages of bloom and decay.  Understand what these descriptors really mean so that they can be used with precision.

Epoch Wines in west Paso Robles is a respected producer of California Rhone varieties.
Epoch Wines in west Paso Robles is a respected producer of California Rhone varieties.

So in a similar way, stand on the slope of a coastal hill in San Luis Obispo County–or Sonoma County or Amador County or Santa Barbara County, for that matter–all places where chaparral makes up a significant part of the landscape, breathe deeply and make an inventory of what you smell.  Keep that in mind the next time you open a Mourvedre from Epoch or a Syrah from the canyons of Santa Barbara County or one of Tablas Creek’s outstanding Rhone blends.  Do you really smell garrigue–do you even know what garrigue smells like?–or are you smelling the herbacious plants of California chaparral?

If you strive for specificity and accuracy in talking about wines, and those wines happen to come from California, then embrace the chaparral.

 

 

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