Terroir: the most contentious & least understood wine term
Ask any winemaker and he or she will tell you that great wines are made in the vineyard, not in the cellar. By that they mean, you can only make great wine from perfect grapes. And perfect grapes need the proper soil in which to flourish. And this is where the notion of terroir comes in.
Terroir is without doubt the most contentious, as well as the least understood, term in the wine lover’s lexicon.
If you want to blame anyone, you can blame it on the French who coined the term. According to a French dictionary published in 1777, “… it is said that wine smells of its terroir, that it has a taste of terroir, that is, it has a certain aroma, a certain taste of the terroir …”
I couldn’t imagine a more unsatisfactory explanation. This circular definition is rather like explaining why dogs chase their tails by saying, “Because that’s what dogs do.”
Let me take a stab at it: Terroir is a geological, microgeographic concept that determines what influences the growth and fruiting of a grapevine — above and below the soil in which it is planted.
This torturous definition shows just how difficult it is to pin down what a sense of terroir is in a wine. Perhaps the best shorthand definition was penned by my fellow wine writer, Matt Kramer, who described terroir as “a sense of place … somewhereness.”
In other words, terroir is a combination of the soil type, exposure to the sun and the elements and the ability of that soil to hold water when it’s needed and drain it when it’s not.
The French invented the concept to explain why certain vineyard blocks produce wines that have a different flavour from neighbouring blocks.
The inheritance laws in France dictated that land had to be divided among the siblings at the death of the owner, which resulted in the division of vineyards into smaller and smaller holdings. One classic example is Burgundy’s Clos Vougeot, a 125-acre walled vineyard whose vines are owned by more than 80 proprietors, all of whom can technically make wine called Clos Vougeot under their own label.
In the 19th century, terroir was a term of denigration, suggesting that the wine was rustic. Today, its presence in the bouquet and taste of wine is praiseworthy.
Just like climate-change deniers, there are those who argue that there is no such thing as “terroir” and that the whole idea is a marketing ploy. In his book Wine Myths and Reality, Benjamin Lewin MW writes that one naysayer says it’s a “SCAM” — an acronym for Soil + Climate + Aspect = Mystique.
The concept of terroir didn’t catch on in the New World until relatively recently because of the size of the vineyards, but now everyone is jumping on the bandwagon. The anti-terroir group place the concept alongside the crazier practices of the biodynamic brigade who bury cows’ horns filled with manure at a certain phase of the moon.
But there is no denying that contiguous vineyards in Burgundy and Bordeaux produce wines that taste different.
Over the generations, winegrowers have learned that the best wines come from the poorest soils. They plant vines close to each other to ensure the roots will force their way deep into soil rather than spread across the surface. The deeper they go, the more they are able to suck up trace elements that will make the flavour components in the fruit more complex. The world’s best wines don’t share the same soil or the same climate, but they do have one thing in common — good drainage. So I have drunk the kool-aid and I’m a believer: a confirmed terroir-iste.