Wine terms: Terroir

terroirThe most controversial term in wine is terroir. A sizeable portion of the wine world — half, perhaps? — says it doesn’t exist, and that even if it does, it’s irrelevant. The rest of us believe truly and deeply in terroir and consider it the key to what makes wine so special. But even we terroirists can’t agree on just exactly what terroir is.

That’s the reason I’ve waited 3 1/2 years to write this post. I wanted to make sure I got it exactly right. More, after the jump:

The word terroir is French, and it doesn’t have an exact English translation. It’s usually defined as something like “of the soil,” and it’s that vagueness that leads to so much argument.

The French understand terroir, but in the first and most limiting sense. For them, terroir is defined by the geographical difference in grape growing and wine production, and the differences that geography makes in how the wine tastes. In this, it’s mostly about soil and everything that makes up the soil –differerent soil types, composition, drainage, and the like.

Call this the scientific approach to terroir, because the soil in Bordeaux is different from the soil in Burgundy and so terroir is different. This means one region can have many terroirs, so that the left bank of Bordeaux can be different from the right bank, and parts of the right bank can be different from other parts of the right bank. In this, the French use terroir as a noun: “The terroir of that vineyard is quite impressive.”

The Wine Curmudgeon believes in terroir, but in the second and all encompassing sense. That is, that terroir includes not just a region’s soil, but its weather, tradition and history. Wine blogger Jamie Goode, in the link in the first part of this post, calls it terroir as philosophy, and he’s skeptical of that approach. (It’s also of the one best discussions about the scientific approach to terroir ever written.)

I’m not skeptical, because I don’t think there is any other way to explain why a chardonnay from Burgundy tastes different than a chardonnay from Australia, and why a chardonnay from California tastes different again. I firmly believe that every winemaker makes their best wine, their most honest wine, based on what they know — on their history and background and personal preferences, and the science is just one part of it. That’s how creativity works, whether it’s wine or art or writing.

Take Alsace, for example. An Alsatian can go to the University of Bordeaux or to the University of California-Davis and learn every single modern winemaking technique, skill, and raison d’etre for using them. But in the end, he or she is an Alsatian winemaker, and every wine made will filter that new knowledge through their Alsatian background. It’s hundreds of years of accumulated wisdom (and non-wisdom, as well), passed down from generation to generation — about making wine in a certain style, about how to work with the peculiarities of the soil, how to handle the unique weather and climate, how to deal with pests, and how to approach the grapes in the vineyard (cropping, canopy management and the like). I’m convinced that if you asked an Alsatian to make chardonnay in California, it would be California chardonnay with an Alsatian twist.

Or, as I’m so fond of saying, “All wine is not supposed to taste like it came from Paso Robles.”

This homage to philosophical terroir drives the anti-terroirsts crazy. They think it’s a bunch of sentimental junk, they call us Luddites, and they proclaim their view as the future of the wine business. The anti-terroirist approach is simple: Wine is no different from ketchup, and if the technology exists to make every bottle of wine taste exactly the same, which it does, then the best wine should be made that way. And, in many ways, that approach — call it the international style of winemaking — is dominant.

The high priest of the international style is Robert Parker, who has created a belief system in which every wine, no matter where it’s from, should be rich, concentrated, over-ripe, over-oaked and as high in alcohol as possible. That’s why we have 15 percent pinot noirs flush with tannins, 14.8 percent chardonnays that are bigger than some red wines, and 16 and 17 percent Australian shirazes.

The prophet of the international style is French wine guru Michel Rolland, who never met a wine he couldn’t make rich, concentrated, over-ripe, over-oaked and as high in alcohol as possible. Rolland makes an Argentine wine, Clos de los Siete, and technically it’s a brilliant wine. How he manages to turn Argentine grapes into a wine that doesn’t taste like it came from Argentina is just another example of his genius. But it begs the question of why the world needs this done. Which, of course, is the question that the anti-terroirists say doesn’t need to be asked, and that those who ask it are not in touch with post-modern reality.

So that’s terroir — either the affect the soil has on the growing process or the more encompassing philosophical approach. Assuming terroir exists at all.

8 thoughts on “Wine terms: Terroir

  • By brian -

    Nice column. Thanks. I’ll take uniqueness in my wine.

  • By Patrick -

    I would view terroir as more than the soil. It would have to include the entire climate. From the soil, to the number of sunny days, to the temp. extremes, precipitation, altitude, what way the wind blows, and wind source. There are huge differences in oak species effects on wine character. Now it is kind of standardized between 3-4 types. But not long ago, barrels were local sourced and locally produced to varying quality. This would have had a huge impact on wine taste from a region.
    What I don’t see discussed much; because nobody really knows probably (they just realized Carmenere isn’t Merlot for instance), is the genetics. Syrah and Shiraz are the same grape, but are they direct clones? What is the genetic difference. Hard to believe there is not more genetic diversity in France than Australia. Or that vines were not subjected to new selective pressures in Australia and genetic changes have not occurred. When Cab Sauv was taken from Bordeaux, was it several cuttings from every vineyard, or just from a few? Did some cuttings get propagated more often here because they were more vigorous?

  • By Patrick -

    I was flipping through a wine book today and saw a discussion of this. The author said the terroir gave the character, the winemaker the quality, and the climate the personality. I thought that was a good sum up of how a Latour is different than a YellowTail Cab Sauv and how a ’84 Latour can be different than a ’94.

  • By Jeff Siegel -

    That we got two comments — two intelligent comments — on a site where we don’t get a lot of comments speaks to how important the philosophical definition of terroir is. Thank you. And I got, oddly enough, quite a few emails about this as well.

  • By Tom Gable -

    Burgundy probably offers the greatest lessons in terroir where one row of vines will mark the start of a Premier Crus designation and the immediately adjacent row up the hillside becomes Grand Cru territory. The geological variations contribute — differences in schist, clay, stone, drainage, etc. For a good reference, check out: The New France: A Complete Guide to Contemporary French Wine (Mitchell Beazley Wine Guides) by Andrew Jefford and Jason Lowe. It delves deep into the soils of the major vineyards in Burgundy, Bordeaux, etc. Beyond the detail, it’s a fun and insightful read.

  • By Gregg Lamer -

    I think it is interesting how complicated the issue is and how everyone compares California chardonnay to France or Pinot Noir etc. The simple comparison is in Burgundy the same winemaker makes Chardonnay & Pinot Noir from several regions and they all taste different or in Beaujolais gamay taste so different from one cru to the next, again in the same winemaker???s hand. Riesling from Germany – do they all taste the same from the same producer?

  • By Jeff Siegel -

    Your point is well taken. The differences in riesling from terroir are even more distinct, given the different approaches in Germany, Australia (some very nice rieslings), New York, Michigan, and Oregon. Riesling, in fact, is the poster child for terroir, now that I think about it (and I wonder how much it influences the anti-terrorists that California doesn’t do much riesling).
    I think one reason everyone uses chardonnay as an example in terroir is that most wine drinkers know chardonnay, so that it’s a more understood comparison.

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