The 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.