Tricky to pronounce and tricky to define—what exactly is terroir in wine making?
The modern definition of terroir (meaning ‘land’ in French) is how the flavour of a wine is affected by the environmental conditions—from soil to terrain—of where it was produced. Put simply, it’s how a wine displays a sense of place.
‘Terroir in wine making is everything—no terroir isn’t quite everything, but it is key,’ explains Julian Campbell, buyer at fine wine merchants Justerini & Brooks. ‘The soil, the microclimate, the aspect, the native yeasts—and of course arguably even man’s influence on a site, how it’s planted and cultivated all contribute to a sense of terroir,’ he says. ‘Everything that is particular to a site, generally detectable over multiple vintages, constitutes its terroir.’
Terroir was first used to describe rustic, old world wines with an ‘earthy’ taste. Typically, it was employed when talking about a rough and ready vintage rather than a sophisticated fine wine. On occasions, it was a pejorative term: a wine with a goût de terroir (meaning ‘taste of the earth’) was a badly made wine that tasted of unripe or rotten grapes. Today many producers see terroir as crucial to good winemaking, particularly in famed appellations like Bordeaux and Burgundy.
Few would dispute the fact that wines often demonstrate a character specific to their region, but the extent of terroir’s role in this has been hotly debated.
‘In truth, we still don’t truly understand the full effects of a vineyard on the final wine,’ says Julian Campbell. ‘Minerality is a case in point. Every scientist worth his salt will tell you there is no possible way that a grape contains actual mineral elements from a vineyard that you can detect in a finished wine; yet, there are countless wines that always display a very particular type of minerality—be it the fine slate of Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr from Fritz Haag in the Mosel, the Mas Martinet’s llicorella-soaked Priorat wines, a volcanic texture from the wines of Tenuta delle Terre Nere on the slopes of Mount Etna, or the firm granite tannins and texture of the great wines from Cornas in the Rhône.’
Julian describes the different traits of terroir in wine as covering ‘texture, minerality, acidity levels, fruitiness, flavour profiles and spice,’ he says. ‘Great “terroir” wines should possess a character or trait year in, year out that rides the dominant effects of the vintage’s weather.’
See also: Tour Du Vin
A range of factors shapes these traits. Let’s start with climate. Wine-producing regions fall into one of two camps: cool climate or warm climate. Grapes grown in warmer climates have higher sugar levels that in turn produce higher alcohol wines. Cool climates produce wines with lower alcohol that retain more acidity. This is why a cool climate region like Champagne in France will excel in producing beautifully tart, sparkling white wines while a warm climate region like Napa Valley in California is the place to go for ripe, full, opulent reds.
Variations in terrain—including elevation, geological features like mountains and valleys and large bodies of water—can also affect a vineyard’s terroir. A vineyard located at a high altitude, for example, will enjoy cool nighttime temperatures, resulting in wines with a higher acidity.
Other micro-environmental factors come into play when discussing terroir. Different plots of the same grape variety within one vineyard may vary in average temperature, exposure and rainfall, all of which could contribute towards differences in the wines produced.
Soil conditions and their effect on wine is a contentious subject. Many wine lovers and experts will describe certain wines as having a mineral taste—flavours such as flintiness, saline, and chalk. This has been attributed to the soil that the grape vine grows in: minerals in the soil will express themselves in the flavour of the wine. Chablis, for example, is frequently described as having flinty notes, something that has been linked to the soil of the limestone-rich Chablis region, which is sprinkled with fossilised oyster shells that supposedly add a ‘mineral’ cast to the wine—hence the flinty flavour.
However, the idea that minerals in the soil can be passed into grapes, and thus wine, has been dismissed by most scientists. Yet as any wine expert will tell you, ‘minerality’ as a flavour in wine undoubtedly exists. So what accounts for it?
One theory is derived from the fact that terroirs with rocky soils such as limestone or granite tend to produce mineral wines. Experts think this may be because these types of soil offer better water drainage, which limits how much water a grapevine receives. The water-stressed plant then focuses on growing fruit rather than leaves, resulting in higher quality grapes that for some reason produce wines with a distinct mineral character.
Human intervention—winemaking methods—can be seen as a factor within terroir. However this is an issue for debate among wine aficionados, with some arguing that certain winemaking techniques can obscure differences in terroir, and that the impact of different methods on wine is so large that it should be considered separately to terroir.
What about the case against terroir? Cynics have suggested that certain wine makers overemphasise the concept for marketing purposes as it can lend a romantic cachet to wine that heightens its appeal—the French, for example, are one of the biggest proponents of terroir and they dominate the wine market. In contrast, terroir as a concept isn’t used as widely in the new world (although this is changing in areas such as the Napa Valley)—perhaps because as appellations tend to be far larger it’s a trickier concept to apply. There’s much more diversity and variation within bigger regions which make it hard to establish a precise sense of terroir.
Producers in regions that emphasise terroir, such as Burgundy, will argue that different vineyards, even if only a few metres apart, will produce wines that differ substantially in character. However, vineyards in world-renowned appellations like Burgundy are also the product of centuries of refinement in viticulture, their wines the result of human ingenuity as well as a fortuitous setting. Furthermore, savvy winemaking methods also play a huge role in the quality of a wine—terroir is nothing if your wines are poorly made.
There’s no denying the lure of terroir as a concept. It’s an approach to wine rooted in nature—an appealingly romantic idea in a world where wine production has become increasingly corporatised and industrialised. Yet at the same time the concept has, in some instances, become a marketing tool. Julian Campbell sums it up neatly: ‘People with poorly situated vineyards will often downplay the importance of terroir! That said, some lazy winemakers with great sites will rely on a concept of terroir to promote their wines.’
The notion of terroir in wine making as a valid concept by which to differentiate and appreciate wine is widely accepted, even though its parameters are universally acknowledged as being uncertain. Perhaps it’s this conundrum—terroir’s indefinite specificity—that makes it such an enduring concept.
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