How best to understand terroir?

How best to understand terroir?
Contributed by Jamie Goode

Romanée-Conti in Vosne-Romanée – not all vineyards are created equal.
One of the problems with the term “terroir” is that it means different things to different people. It makes it really difficult to discuss. And scientists are frequently affronted by this word: Mark Matthews, a viticulture professor at the University of California Davis even wrote a book titled ‘Terroir and other wine growing myths.’ Geologist Alex Maltman has also been critical. But it turns out that what upsets the scientists most is the idea that you can taste the soil type in the wine. Indeed, there are some French wine folk who give you a glass of Chablis, point to the soils in the region, and suggest that the limestone they contain gives a chalky, mineral taste in the mouth as if the soil had found its way, via the roots of the vines, into the grapes and was thus flavoring the wine. But very few wine people I know believe in this notion of terroir.

It also doesn’t help that terroir is a French term. As such, it can be polarizing. Winemakers from other countries who carry with them a degree of insecurity, hate the idea of using a French word, because they imagine it’s another example of the wine world fetishizing the great wines of France, and not taking seriously enough wines from nations with less extensive wine traditions.

Far from being a myth, I think that terroir lies at the heart of fine wine. It’s the unifying theory of interesting wine, and it’s a vital concept for any student of wine to grasp. But how can we best understand it?
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

In the first instance, terroir is provable. At its simplest, it’s the notion that the vineyard environment – including here soils and climate – influences the way that the grapes grow such that their composition is altered by this environment. Then, if the picking decisions and winemaking allow it, wines made from grapes grown in different places will taste different, even if the same variety or varieties are involved. Terroir is seen in the differences. It can operate at different scales, from different bits of the same small vineyard, to entire villages, and to entire regions. Regional differences might be clear where those regions share a microclimate or a soil type. But they might be muddied where the regional designation is a boundary on a map, within which there is a mix of different soil types, or geographical features (for example fertile valley floor versus bony hillsides).

There’s even an argument for suggesting that human practices can be included in the definition of terroir. There is of course no terroir without human intervention, and even with the same block from the same vineyard, if you were to give the grapes to three different winemakers, you’d get three different interpretations of that terroir. The question is not which is the ‘true’ interpretation of place, but whether or not the interpretation is a good, sensible one. Of course, terroir can often speak with a subtle voice, and intrusive winemaking practices (picking too late or too early, extracting lots, using lots of new oak) can obscure the signal. Good winemaking seeks to express place: it’s like tuning a radio.

One of the common mistakes made by commentators is to suggest that if you blend, terroir doesn’t matter. This is the biggest terroir myth going. I’ve heard people say that Champagne isn’t a terroir wine because most of the wines are blends of different villages and even subregions. To be good at blending you have to understand terroir. A decent chef de caves will go through and taste the vins clairs and certainly see their origins. I’m not a chef de caves but even I can appreciate the qualities lent to base wines by their village of origin, and then there would be the extra layer of detail in dialing down further to the specific terroirs in each village which a real expert who spends a lot of time in the region might be able to do. And the great vintage Ports might be blends of different Quintas, but terroir is at their heart: it is the place that creates the potential for quality, and great blenders of Port know all about where the component wines come from.
Photo by Big Dodzy on Unsplash

Another myth is the notion that for terroir to be true and meaningful, tasters have to be able to identify the place when they taste the wine. This is not the case. Terroir is evident in differences among wines, and it is still valid even if experts can’t spot where a wine is from. Even if there’s just one person who can spot the place in a wine, that’s enough to make the distinction valid.

Finally, critics of terroir have one big problem to explain. And that’s the parcellation of terroirs in Burgundy, with its hierarchy of climates. How come within a few hundred meters you can have vineyards that make wines that sell for many hundreds of dollars a bottle rubbing shoulders with vineyards whose wines sell for twenty dollars? You could say that buyers are influenced by the names on the labels, and surely this is the case, but only up to a point. With the top wines selling for so much, ambitious people have leveled the same care on the village and generic Bourgogne vineyards, and have made some nice wines, but they hit their head on the terroir ceiling: not all vineyard sites are created equal. Ultimately, it’s the terroir that is speaking. Yes, the radio isn’t always well-tuned and the signal can be weak sometimes, but ultimately it's the place that matters most. Terroir remains the unifying theory of fine wine.

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