Terroir is one of the most commonly used and least understood words in the vocabulary of wine mostly because it is derived from the French “terre” meaning land, but with no precise translation to English.
This lack of understanding is most unfortunate because terroir is universally considered by wine professionals, collectors and authors alike as the most important force in making distinct wines that speak of their place of origin.
About four years ago, I wrote a column, “Terroir. What does it mean?” And in the ensuing years, many different views on the subject have been researched and discussed by a multitude of scientists, growers and winemakers in search of an answer. But has anything really changed?
The recognition of terroir dates to the ancient Greeks when they noticed wines made from the same grape variety exhibited different characteristics if grown in different regions. Over time, the more celebrated regions were held in higher acclaim based on the superiority of their wines. Centuries later, similar thoughts were adopted by religious orders in Burgundy and eventually became the basis of France’s Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) and subsequently all other appellation laws throughout the world, including our AVA designations in the U.S.
Discussions on terroir often focus on whether its effects are determined by science and technology (what the grower does to the land and vine) or what nature contributes in her own way to the total environment of the vine.
In an Aug. 25, online post from Wines & Vines, Kees van Leewen of the Insitut de Sciences et de Vin in Bordeaux was quoted from his presentation at the recent “XI International Terroir Congress” in McMinnville, Ore. During this talk, he took the more traditional approach by saying, “Terroir is all about the interaction of the vine and the natural environment.”
At the same conference, other researchers pointed to an overwhelming body of physical data that exists leaning toward a more scientific interpretation of terroir. Yet even they concede quantification (an underlying scientific requirement) of the data is difficult at best. Many of these opinions rely on the ultimate influence of soil alone for the determination of terroir and how the scientific community can analyze it with defined metrics.
But the concept of terroir extends far beyond just the soil. The grapegrowing and winemaking industry recognizes soil (and its individual character from a specific place) as being a critical component of terroir, but it does not stand alone. Climate, exposure, elevation, day-to-night temperature variance, rainfall and wind patterns, relative humidity, daylight hours, latitude and many other factors also fit into the equation, although not necessarily lending themselves to a scientific measurement.
There are strong arguments on both sides of the science vs. nature question, but what does this all have to do with the consumer and how we appreciate wine? Here as well, there are a variety of opinions with no clearly defined answers. This question is further complicated by some of the modern-day winemaking and growing trends toward producing an “international” style (i.e. higher alcohol, softer tannins and more fruit forward) that often overrides the expression of terroir in the finished wine.
At the same “XI International Terroir Congress” reported on by Wines & Vines, Ulrich Fischer of Germany’s Institute for Viticulture and Oenology at DLR Rheinpfalz in Neustadt commented on the abstract nature of terroir to most people when lacking the presence of some measureable difference. “Terroir differences without sensory significance is an academic concept with little impact on the market.” He went on to say that, “I think sensory diversity is a new synonym for wine quality. … And terroir is an important part of that diversity.”
For many consumers, terroir is an abstract concept and whether a cabernet comes from California, Australia or France (each independently exhibiting a broad range of winemaking areas and terroir), they expect it to taste like a cabernet in their own frame of reference. But for others the “sense of place” expressing each area’s individual terroir is an important factor in the overall appreciation of a wine and a measure of its individuality.
Perhaps Michel Chapoutier, the world-renowned and highly respected head of M. Chapoutier in France’s Rhone Valley, said it best: “Varietal wines can be the ‘rock music’ that gets people into the subject [but] ‘classical music’ can be provided by wines of terroir.”
Allen Balik has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 35 years. Each year, he and his wife, Barbara, produce the Evening Of The Culinary Winemasters event at Warner Bros. Studios, a benefit for Cystic Fibrosis.
He regularly appears on CRN Digital Talk Radio's What's Cookin' and What's Cookin' on Wine programs.