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What is terroir and does it matter?

Terroir is a French word without a simple English translation. The Oxford Companion to Wine devotes a couple of pages to it. However, my favourite explanation is from literature:

“For nitrates are not the land, nor phosphates, and the length of fibre in the cotton is not the land. Carbon is not a man, nor salt nor water nor calcium. He is all of these, but he is much more, much more; and the land is so much more than its analysis. The man who is more than his chemistry, walking on the earth, turning his plough point for a stone, dropping his handles to slide over an outcropping, kneeling in the earth to eat his lunch. That man who is more than his elements knows the land is more than its analysis. But the machine-man, driving a dead tractor on land he does not know and love, understands only chemistry; and he is contemptuous of the land and of himself”.  John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, 1939

Terroir is a sense of place

Steinbeck nails it. Terroir is a sense of place. It is an ingredient in the wine, a signature of individuality, authenticity, and sometimes greatness. The grape harvest can capture nature’s expression. It is then up to the winegrower to reveal it.

For example, Burgundy shows astounding differences between adjacent vineyards, and even within the vineyard itself. Because the winemaking and grapes are similar, the differences are down to natural influences at a local level. So it is with many winegrowing places.

There are many natural influences in the vineyard. Climate governs the amount of warmth, water, and sunlight available. Geology determines the primary soil type and the structure of the landscape. The altitude, slope and aspect of the vineyard, the grape varieties planted, weather patterns, rivers and drainage all play their part. The soil is fundamental: as well as being made of sands, gravels, loams or clays, the microbial life, depth, fertility, organic matter, mineral content, and chemical processes all count. Local fauna and flora complete the picture.

Humans are key to terroir

However, there is another vital aspect of terroir. Humans are the key because wine does not make itself. Great wine is made in the vineyard. The vine variety and planting density, trellising, rootstocks, clones, and pruning methods are influential, as are the winery processes used.  In the right hands, Man acts as the catalyst for nature, with the potential to create a wine that becomes a signature of the land that birthed it.

It’s when humans modify nature’s gifts that wine becomes a mere beverage that could come from anywhere. Such wine may taste good but it’s artifice; it’s potential to show terroir obliterated. Usually, this is because of industrial viticulture, the use of chemicals, or over manipulation in the winery. Hence, terroir is also a philosophy based on Man’s attitudes and actions.

Can you taste terroir?

But the existence of terroir has long been a subject of heated debate. Is it an abstract idea or can you taste it? Where is it? And does it matter when wine’s first duty is to be delicious?

The European wine-producing regions, for example, France, Italy, and Spain, have appellation systems. These seek to embrace terroir because wine identity is determined by geography rather than by a brand. These appellations often enshrine winegrowing that has evolved over centuries. Yet each of these has inconsistencies and there are plenty of their wines that do not show terroir!

In contrast, the young vineyards of the new world were once a virgin territory without tradition. The soil was seen as merely a medium to hold a vine upright to the sun and give it water. Because no one knew with certainty, many different grape varieties were planted to see which might be best suited. There were few rules and modern science corrected any deficiencies. As new modern wines emerged they gained market share, at Europe’s expense.

Terroir was on trial, accused of old-world protectionism. In response, France claimed that the terror-deniers were an Anglo-Saxon conspiracy undermining French culture and values. Neither position made much sense. Hmmm, time to take a step back.

Step back

Terroir can be an easy excuse for some damn mediocre wines. If I had a Euro for every time I’ve heard “C’est terroir” uttered in the defence of poorly made plonk, I’d own my Italian vineyard by now.

Take a classic case, the presence of Brettanomyces, a spoilage bacteria producing off flavours. Unhygienic wineries are usually responsible. A high level of Brett is always foul, although small concentrations can add a savoury dimension. Is Brett part of terroir or just dirty winemaking? I’d argue the latter.

Yet to use an analogy, I speak English natively, but my accent identifies me as being from North London. It’s also recognisably different from the Yorkshire accent that’s predominantly spoken where I live. And radically different from the English spoken by, say a person from Boston in the USA. And, like it or not, it’s part of my identity.

The terroir debate moves on

The new world has increasingly embraced the ideas of terroir as it works out it’s best vineyards. Meanwhile, the old world has improved through the use of science. It is a fact that the overall standard of wine quality is far higher now wherever you go. But if most wines are now technically excellent why do so many still taste soulless?

Many new world winemakers are striving to find their terroir. For example, in California, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and more besides. Most of the winegrowers involved say that while the vineyards are still young and it may take decades, terroir is their goal. Some regions are creating geographical “appellation” systems and forging a unique identity. Californian AVA’s, sub-regions of the Clare and Barossa Valleys in Australia and the Gimblett Gravels Winegrowing District in New Zealand being examples.

Back in Europe, regions that previously produced bulk table wine now have terroir-obsessed winemakers. Just look at Sicily or the Languedoc.

Terroir exists. Yes, it’s an abstract idea. But it is a taste. The real question for me now is whether winegrowing reveals terroir or obliterates it. Modern winegrowing has two poles; nature and individuality versus globalism and industrialisation.

Whether this makes a difference to you is a personal choice. I advocate terroir because wine should be more than just a beverage, no matter how good it tastes. Wine also has a duty to communicate an authentic sense of place.

Terroir is the magical ingredient that turns a good wine into a great one.

Do you agree? Does terroir matter? Join the debate and let me know! Some say that Biodynamics is the best way for a winegrower to express terroir, so check out these articles too.

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