Terroir - Earth Rocks

What actually is terroir? Scientific definitions abound about the various liaisons between microclimate and soil composition, but they can only scratch the surface of the philosophy. One basic formulation is articulated by Bruno Prats in his article “The Terroir is Important” (Decanter 1983): “When a French wine grower speaks of a terroir, he means something quite different from the chemical composition of the soil - The terroir is the coming together of the climate, the soil and the landscape.” Even this definition seems conservative. In a wider sense terroir embodies the general notion of “respect”: respect for the land and the environment, respect for history, respect for culture. It concerns the wine’s interpretation of place as opposed to the concept of the varietal which tends to be about a nominated or fixed interpretation of a grape in order to obtain an instantly recognisable “international” style. Terroir is a progressive notion feeding on the positive elements of tradition, the age-old intuitive alliance forged between Nature and Man. As Nicolas Joly observes in his book Le Vin du Ciel - la Terre the creation of the first appellations controllees resulted in “une connaisance intime de terroirs fondee sur l’observation et l’experience de plusieurs generations de viticulteurs. Une experience qui avait conduit a l’union de tel cepage et de telle parcelle. De ces justes mariages devaient naitre des vins dont l’expression etait originale car intimement lie! - leur environnement et donc inimitable.”

If, scientifically speaking, terroir is the interrelation of soil structure, microclimate, local fauna and flora, we should be able to dissect flavour components in a wine to the nth biochemical degree to see if we can discern whether the wine has physically interpreted its terroir. I believe that this approach goes against the grain (not to mention the grape). I am reminded of something Pierre Boulez once said about great art, but could equally apply to wine. “A landscape painted so well that the artist disappears in it.” When we taste wine we get an overall impression, an aggregate of sensations. Terroir is the synergy of living elements; you cannot separate its components any more than you can analyse individually all the discrete notes in a symphony and compare it to the whole. In other words terroir is greater than the sum of its parts. Experienced vignerons can often distinguish the flavour between one plot of vines and another, for the very reason that they have been brought up in the local countryside and know the fauna, the flora, the soil, when the wind is going to change and so forth. The alliance of instinct with knowledge is a kind of romantic inspiration, an intuition borne of living in the countryside which informs the activity of being a vigneron. So when you taste a wine of terroir your senses will accumulate impressions, as if you were gradually becoming acquainted with a complex, organic thing. Wines lacking this dimension, no matter how technically accomplished, are cold shadows: they are calculations of correctness. Nicolas Joly uses an expression sang de la terre, where sang has two possible meanings: blood and kinship, implying a natural “blood-relationship” between man and terroir and that the earth itself is living breathing dynamic force. I suspect that many French growers would shudder if you called them


; they prefer to see themselves as vignerons instinctively cultivating the potential of the grapes and faithfully perpetuating their cultural heritage. To return to our musical analogy the vigneron is the conductor who can highlight the grace notes of the wine by creating the right conditions for the vine to flourish; therein lies the art of great wine-making, not how much you interfere in the process but how sympathetically.

A New Reign of Terroir?

There will always be a vibrant debate between the technicians and holisticians, the boffins and the poets, but the wheel has begun to turn. I am optimistic that the new generation of wine-makers is beginning to appreciate the value of interpreting terroir and comprehend that our palates may be tiring of synthetic homogeneity.  Also, as more quality wine floods onto the market, there is a sense that terroir can be used to differentiate one wine from another, a sophisticated form of branding, if you like. Throughout the world growers perceive that the future is in the quality of their terroir and that technology should only be allowed to assist, not gloss over inadequacies nor reduce to a lowest common denominator. Wine truly is made in the vineyard.


Terroir is not simply the flavour of the earth or the taste of minerals in the wine. It is the combination of all the geographical, geological and physical factors that give us a strong indication through tasting the wine of the very origin of that wine. (Also known as typicity). We might say that the fewer interventions in the vineyard and the winery the greater the expression of such typicity.

Not everyone agrees with this analysis.

‘Grape minerals and mineral flavors are also strongly influenced by the grower and winemaker. When a vineyard is planted, the vine type, spacing and orientation are just a few of many important decisions.’

The grower does not influence mineral flavours, nor does the vine type. Often the vineyard is planted a hundred years before the grower takes over. Of course you can do as much or as little as you like: you can help make the vine more efficient or, through biodynamics, for example, help the vine to become stronger and resist disease without recourse to man-made treatments. When we look at the flavours that make wine distinctive we should be looking at the variable factors not the constant ones: eg the nature of the vintage, the use of wild yeast in fermentation versus cultivated yeast, but whilst this will ultimately help to determine the personality of the wine in a particular year it will not affect its underlying “minerality.”

McGee and Patterson in a recent article were quick to dismiss the fact that grapes derive any minerality from the soil; ergo, by their analysis, all taste in a wine must derive purely from the inherent flavour of the grape variety and from fermentation aromas or chemical reactions. I just don’t see the logic of this. What about the difference between hard water versus soft water? Water is not manufactured and yet it has distinctive flavours according to the soils from which it is drawn. Since vines absorb water from the soil which is decomposed rock and other vegetable and mineral matter, may we not surmise that the water may pick up trace elements of that matter?

McGee and Patterson point out that sulphur compounds created as a by-product of fermentation influence the flavour of the wine. This is a perfectly valid but doesn’t affect the above argument. It does not diminish the argument for terroir just because we may taste things which happen to be the result of chemical or biological reactions. The juice of the grape may be transformed but the signature flavours are still embedded. If you cook a chicken that is reared on a particular diet, the act of cooking will change the molecular composition of the chicken and concentrate flavours in a certain way, but you will still be able to taste the fact that the chicken was reared on the diet.

If we are entirely to dismiss terroir then we should look at wines which are made in an identical fashion, using the same grape variety, trellising and canopy management systems, picked on the same day and fermented in vats at identical temperatures. (By the way McGee and Patterson are wrong. If you go to hundreds of wineries you will see exactly the same fermentation vessels and people making wine in the same way) Look at the base wines for a good estate in Chablis or Sancerre, for example. If we were to taste half a dozen different vineyard plots we would find the wines different in every respect. The winemaker can either allow the expression of site: the single vineyard wine (microclimatic terroir) or blend the various wines together, but an experienced taster can pick out the different notes just as someone who listens to music can discern different instruments in an orchestra.

What we have to ask ourselves is this: it is a sheer coincidence that, objectively speaking, we can taste mineral flavours in wines and then discover that the vines grow in soils that contain a high quantity of those minerals? Are we being bamboozled when we say we can smell the scent of the garrigue on wines from different grape varieties from Roussillon through the Languedoc to the Rhone and Provence or eucalyptus in the wines of Barossa? It can’t just be down to grapes (different varieties) or technique (different techniques are used); it is surely the imprint of place.

And if you think terroir is the sole province of the French, think again. Look at Australia and New Zealand now and the way each region is being differentiated according to its soils and micro-climate. If it’s simply a massive marketing ruse then everyone is in on it.

Posted by Doug on 20-Mar-2008. Permalink
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