If you’ve ever sipped a glass of wine, you’ve probably heard of terroir. It’s a word used so much in the wine world that it almost belongs to it. One day, roughly a year ago, I decided to drop the term into a conversation I was having with a more advanced wine fiend.
Through ‘terroir’ I was trying to describe, strictly, the soil of the vineyard. The wine fiend’s response threw me, ‘I’d be careful with that word’ he said. Our conversation diverted from the wine in hand to the concept of terroir, a concept with so many schools of thought it gets overwhelming and makes it hard for one to nail down. To some it is the life force behind the great wines of the world, to others “the idea of ‘terroir’ is likely the most abused and often most useless word in the world of wine.” (Wark, 2021)
Etymologically the word derives from the latin territorium, meaning ‘territory’, and/or terra meaning ‘earth’. For many, it is considered to have its origins in France, when winemaking monks supposedly noticed a change in wine characteristics from one hill to another, and is a distinctly French word of which there is no direct translation to English and other languages.
Today the term is used favourably towards wines, suggesting there is something greater in the bottle because one can gout de terroir or “taste the terroir”. Which is why it surprised me to find out that gout de terroir was a historically negative descriptor and “concerned wines, which could not be sold outside a region, because of quality defects.” (Schaller, 2017). It wan’t until the implementation of Appellation d’Origine Controlees (AOCs) that the positive connation of ‘terroir’ began in the 1930s (Joy, 2021).
Let’s start with the scientific approach to the word, and let’s start small; In its most baseline narrative terroir is soil composition – so I wasn’t a complete nutter – but there is no denying this is surface level though, without doubt, of great importance. There is even debate as to whether the soil can directly translate to flavor ie. taste the limestone, but that’s a bigger discussion in and of itself.
Expand from there to the thought that “Terroir is how a particular region’s climate, soil and aspect (terrain) affect the taste of wine. Some regions are said to have more ‘terroir’ than others.” (Puckette, 2021). This Wine Folly definition suggests that terroir encompasses more of nature’s influence on a wine, but if those are all the components of terroir how does one vineyard or wine have more terroir than the another? Don’t they all have “climate, soil and aspect (terrain)”? Well if you’re renowned soil expert Claude Bourguignon, whose terroir beliefs lie in the bacteria and biology of the soil, apparently not. As laid out in Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay’s excellent book The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste:
“A number of years ago at the Pinot Noir New Zealand conference, the renowned French soil scientist and wine consultant Claude Bourguignon gave a talk, detailing his findings and methods, which deal with the microbiology of the soil. One thing he said to the crowd of hundreds in the audience was that great vineyard expression could not occur if vineyards were irrigated. After the talk, an Aussie winemaker approached and said, ‘Mr. Bourguignon, in the part of Australia where I work, it would be impossible to grow vines without irrigation.’ The response was swift and decisive: ‘Then you have no terroir.’”
So terroir is the harmonious compatibility within nature that allows for the vines to produce grapes? So then what does this say about human interaction and intervention? Just as there are nature’s impact on terroir, humans have a great impact on the finished wine and its relationship to nature; choice of grape (clones?), planting density, vine training, canopy management, pruning, even the aspect on which the vines have been planted etc. For just as much as nature is responsible for terroir, many would say so are humans. Jean-Yves Bizot of Domaine Bizot in Vosne-Romanee is quoted as saying “The great terroirs of Burgundy have all been worked on and developed for centuries. Drainage has been installed, eroded soils carried back up the slopes. This makes a big difference.” Meanwhile, the authority over AOCs, the INAO defines terroir in two parts:
“1. A terroir is a delimited geographical space, in which a human community builds throughout its history, a collective knowledge of production, based on a system of interactions between a physical and biological environment, and a set of human factors… The technical itineraries thus involved reveal originality, confer typicality, and result in a reputation, for a good originating in this geographical space.
- A delimited geographical space ... which materializes as a border geographically determined built during of a negotiation process where come into play natural, technical, cultural factors, historical, economic and political.”
The latter half of INAO’s definition brings up yet another possibility for human involvement with terroir, ‘history’. In their book’s chapter on terroir, Parr and Mackay explain how Burgundy’s Les Perrieres were once quarries that were filled with soil that have been proven to come from areas outside Les Perrieres. “Even some very famous vineyards might be composed to some degree of soil from outside that spot.” (Parr, Woodhouse and Mackay, 2018). So do we consider terroir to be an inclusion of all the footprints throughout history and that continue today? How far does terroir go?
Well, British wine writer Hugh Johnson takes the human factor one step further, and introduces a little magic “…much more than what goes on beneath the surface. Properly understood, [terroir] means the whole ecology of a vineyard: every aspect of its surroundings from bedrock to late frosts and autumn mists, not excluding the way a vineyard is tended, nor even the soul of the vigneron.” (Parr, Woodhouse and Mackay, 2018). The “soul of the vigneron”! With this definition we begin to step sideways from science for how is it possible to taste the soul? And yet the poeticism, and romanticism goes hand in hand with that overwhelming emotion that one experiences when they taste a truly magnificent wine.
American wine author Matt Kramer defines terroir as “somewhereness…Great wines taste like they come from somewhere. Lesser wines are interchangeable; they could come from anywhere.” The fact that it is possible for blind tasters to be able to precisely pinpoint a wine purely from smelling and tasting it suggests this more ethereal approach to terroir to have validity, whether due to the scientific nature of the wine or the inexplicable magic of it.
Then there are those who see terroir as ‘myth’ and marketing. The argument is not that soil, climate, aspect, techniques etc. don’t influence a wine (Wark, 2021), the argument is that “one can state that a multitude of meanings exist with the inherent danger that is this mixture gives everyone the possibility to agree with its own belief and personal understanding which will end up in a real confusion of ideas” (Schaller, 2017). If your definition, is different to my definition, is different to their definition then how can we communicate a wine effectively through its use?
Author Mark Matthews appears to be one of the leading figures in this train of thought, which if you’d like to delve further into seek out his book Terroir and Other Myths of Winegowing. In it he brings up the interesting point that the printed use of the word terroir increased during historical moments when the French wine market was threatened; in the early 1900s due to the phylloxera epidemic and later in the 1980s after Californian wines beat out French wines at the Judgement of Paris (Parr, Woodhouse and Mackay, 2018).
David Bicknell, Chief Winemaker at Oakridge in Yarra Valley is quoted as saying “If you can’t measure terroir does it exist? It’s the ethereal ghost. I’m a bit cynical about how terroir is used as a marketing opportunity in France. What they do inside the winery is often not spoken about. Terroir gets used as a way to sell the wine and doesn’t completely reflect the reality of what goes on inside the winery…Terroir is a very complex subject that we tend to over simplify. The New World has made Burgundy up its game. Winemakers can no longer use terroir as an excuse for bad wines or rot in the vineyard.”
There is evidence to suggest that the Old World use of terroir for marketing purposes begins when Geographical Indications (GIs) were put in place (Pellechia, 2021), but it’s not just France and the Old World that utilize terroir as a marketing tool. New World producers are just as guilty, and “to claim one has a ‘terroir-driven’ wine to sell allows the marketer to climb upon the back of the French-built reputation that claims: A wine with terroir is the better wine.” (Wark, 2021)
In an article for the, now out of print, Wines & Vines Tim Patterson wrote “These days, everybody talks terroir, New Worlders sometimes more fervently than Old. It’s not that Europe won the argument, or that researchers found the ‘proof’ behind the concept. No, we are all terroirists because the term has come to mean almost anything anybody wants it to mean, which puts it in danger of meaning nothing at all.”
Personally, I do not have a clear definition of terroir myself. I tend to approach the world, and therefore the word, from a more romantic outlook opposed to the need for scientific proof, and I can see the validity of the marketing approach…I guess, in a way I define terroir as all of the above…Am I allowed to do that? But that doesn’t fix the big question; How do we use the word with all its varying interpretations? Do we get more specific and isolated about what we’re discussing whether it be the soil, the pruning, or the vigneron’s soul, and by doing so allow terroir to slowly disappear? I don’t think so, because the thought of that brings on a feeling of sadness within me. Terroir carries weight, even though we might not know what that weight is.
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