When It Comes to Terroir, Is Nature or Nurture More Important?

When It Comes to Terroir, Is Nature or Nurture More Important?

Contributed by Aleks Zecevic
From a vineyard’s soil composition and surface to the region’s climate and sun exposure, many wine professionals think quality wine will show characteristics of its place of origin. The French sum up this concept in the word terroir.

But another thought is that other factors, such as farming methods and winemaking techniques, are equally responsible for a wine’s defining characteristics. This leads some to believe that two wines produced in a similar area can taste wildly different. But, can both the “nature” of how the wine grows and the “nurture” of the winemaker be the true expression of terroir?

The Impact of Nature

Some believe terroir accounts for the natural environment of any viticultural site including the soil, topography, macroclimate, meso-climate, microclimate and more. In this theory, these environmental factors should influence wine taste to such a degree that reproduction is not possible elsewhere, regardless of viticulture and winemaking methods, according to the Oxford Companion to Wine.

“In Alto Adige, if you taste the water from the side of the mountain from mica-schist, it has this refreshing acidity, while the water that comes from the other side of the Dolomites picks up more chalk and the taste is more astringent,” explains Dominic Würth, winemaker and proprietor of GraWü winery in Italy’s Alto Adige. 

Indeed, it would appear that the nature surrounding the vineyards impacts the taste of grapes and, thus, the wine.  

Another example is Anjou in France, where the difference in soil has a direct impact on the berries themselves. The region is famous for Chenin Blanc, with some vines grown on schist soils and others on limestone. The schist soil doesn’t retain water as well as limestone, so the vines experience hydraulic stress, causing the production of smaller berries with thicker skins. Thus, Anjou Chenin Blanc from schist often has more intensity and crunch than its limestone counterparts.

Additionally, winemakers who want the terroir to impart the most character to the wine let the environment do the work. “To express terroir, you must avoid using pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals,” says Raphael Bennour, manager at Domaine du Gringet in Savoie, France. “Vineyards should be at least [certified] organic, and the vinification approach in the cellar should be minimalistic.” 

This is because harmful chemicals would destroy the flora and fauna of a place, and oenological additives in the cellar would alter the taste of the grapes. However, even in this case, the degree to which terroir affects the taste of wine is contentious.

The Impact of Winemaking

Some experts would say that different winemaking techniques disguise the terroir and can impact the flavors of the wine just as much as the environment.

Most blind wine-tasting exams (including the Court of Sommeliers and WSET) use “typical” examples of wines from select vineyard sites or wine regions. Hence, the examinees can have an educated guess on what the wine is. But “typical” has very little meaning when winemakers make deliberate changes.

“What I’ve learned in school is what certain vineyard sites are supposed to taste like,” says Jesse Becker, Master Sommelier. “If you’re in Musigny [France] and you obliterate the wine with new oak, you’re missing the point.”

So, the winemaking techniques used can have a major impact on what a “typical” wine will taste like. One example is how the winemaker chooses to ferment the grapes to impart changes in the wine. Becker considers practicing skin fermentation for white wines (resulting in orange wine), as not a true expression of renowned terroirs.

He is not alone, but this is when the topic becomes a bit more philosophical. Why is it normal to produce red wines with skins but not whites? Supposedly, the skins act the same in both red and white grapes. After all, white wines, as we know them, are a more recent invention. In ancient times, all wines were made with skin fermentation.

Also, in areas where a significant number of winemakers produce amber wines, like in Italy’s Collio, many would argue that this is the true expression of that region, rather than the pale white wines consumers are used to seeing on shelves. So, if uniformity of style is also a part of terroir, does it account for the winemaker’s style, too?

“We are a big influence on terroir, as we decide how we prune, remove the leaves, etc.,” says Franz Weninger of the eponymous winery in Burgenland, Austria.
By this theory, vine tending, the farming approach and the timing of the harvest all influence the taste of the grape and, thus, the wine. As can the winemaking style and choices made in the cellar.

“If you remove the leaves and expose Friulano [grapes] to the sunlight, its aromas will dissipate,” explains Nikolas Juretic, pruning expert for Simonit & Sirch and proprietor and winemaker at his namesake winery in Collio, Italy. “It is the same with Riesling,” he adds.

Alwin Jurtschitsch of Weingut Jurtschitsch, Weninger’s colleague from Kamptal in Austria, agrees. “Terroir is not stopping at the border of your vineyards. It’s always the relationship with the winemaker, too,” he says.

A Nature vs. Nurture Experiment

Jurtschitsch did a “terroir experiment” with his wife Stefanie Jurtschitsch, her brother Johannes Hasselbach of Weingut Gunderloch in Rheinhessen, Germany, Theresa Breuer of Weingut Breuer in Rheingau, Germany and Max von Kunow of Weingut von Hövel in Germany’s Saar Valley.

The project was called Wurzelwerk, which means work of the roots, and it was their attempt to understand the influence of their terroirs versus the winemaking, or nature versus nurture.

“Starting in 2012, we all exchanged grapes with each other from our top vineyards sites, and each of us vinified all of them in the same way,” says Jurtschitsch. This included spontaneous fermentation in stainless steel, without the addition of sulfur until bottling. The bottles were then aged together in von Hövel’s cellar.

After bottling and giving the wines some time, the group blind-tasted them, attempting to recognize the different terroirs. The result was quite shocking. Though the grapes had grown in different places, several wines tasted so similar that they all thought they must have come from the same vineyard.

“They were actually all from different sites but from von Hövel’s cellar,” says Jurtschitsch. “Max [von Kunow’s] cellar is unique. It is two meters [six feet] below ground. In winter, temperatures drop, significantly slowing down the fermentation process and creating something like natural bâtonnage.” (Bâtonnage is a French term for stirring the lees in wine, which some attribute to improving mouthfeel and complexity).

So, the experiment concluded that nurture had a strong impact on the wine’s final flavor. Though, Alwin did say that after several years of aging, the terroir similarities of a particular vineyard site started to come through, regardless of the cellar.

The Bottom Line

Terroir serves as the basis for defining many famous wine appellations. In that regard, the brand that stands behind a given appellation needs consistency. If a customer orders a Sancerre, for example, they will most likely expect a fresh, citrusy wine. But what happens when someone makes Sancerre with botrytized grapes and its profile changes completely? If botrytis is common in Sancerre, wouldn’t excluding it mean that you’re not truly showing the terroir?

“Terroir is an important part of wine, but it has been this reductionist expression,” says Justin Chearno, wine director and partner at the Four Horsemen, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Brooklyn, New York that recently won a James Beard Award for the outstanding wine program. “Is the sameness part of terroir and what is typical [of a certain terroir] to someone who has mainly had unsulfured wines?”

To be able to tell, one must taste two wines that have been farmed and vinified in the same way. Only then can you attribute that the distinction in taste truly comes from differences in terroir. With the emergence of natural wine and the alternative expression of terroir, standardization is broken.

“True expression of terroir” continues to drive the debate, and this is where personal experience surfaces. How often is the winemaking technique confused with specific terroirs? More importantly, how often do our individual experiences impact how a wine from a region should taste?

Whether you believe the terroir or the winemaking technique has the most impact, the important part is that the result should be good.

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