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More thoughts on terroir



Isn’t it time to retire these tired old clichés about the “mystery” of terroir and how “undefinable” it is, as this article from the Sacramento Bee once again illustrates?

I mean, that kind of thinking is 40 years old. It was a staple of the wine media for decades to describe terroir as an “ineffable concept” that’s almost impossible to translate into English.

Well, it’s not impossible to translate; and since we’re not likely to stop using the word “terroir” anytime soon, we might as well agree to stop agonizing about its impenetrability and simply to accept it for what it is:

Terroir is the three-legged combination of weather/climate, the physical aspect of the vineyard, and human intervention that results in the creation of wine. Period. End of story.

What’s so impenetrable about that?

People still seem to be surprised that wines made in different vineyards are different, even when those vineyards are physically close. This article describes a study that found “significant differences” in such wines. But what else would you expect? Identical twins, separated at birth and raised in different circumstances, will turn out differently. Besides, from the point of view of a winemaker who is seeking to express the uniqueness of her vineyard site, there’s little to be gained from such studies. You’re not telling her anything she doesn’t already know. It is true that with every new generation of wine drinkers it’s important to stress the importance of site. But there’s really nothing mystical or ineffable about it. Mass-produced wines don’t care about terroir and neither do the people who buy them. Small production wines are the ones that exhibit terroir, thank goodness, but I should think we can appreciate them without analyzing them to death. These studies go on forever—they’re the university enologist’s full employment act. But for you, me, most consumers and most winemakers, we already know all we need to know about the characteristics of a vineyard, and I don’t see how further analysis at the molecular level is going to improve the wine’s quality. If anything, if you bury a winemaker with too much technical detail, you run the risk of undermining the artistic elements of her creations.

It’s fine to talk about terroir, but we should resist the impulse to put it on a pedestal and worship it as some ineffable aspect of the Universe that cannot possibly be understood. Let winemakers who care about such things do their work. Scientific studies may assist them, but can in the end prove no more valuable than walking the vineyard year after year, season after season, vintage after vintage, knowing the vines in the fullest details, and resorting to instinct to allow the terroir to express itself. For that third leg of the terroir stool—human intervention—with all its subjectivity and hunches, is what ultimately elevates terroir from mere physical factors to the level of art.

  1. Bill Haydon says:

    For anyone interested, here is a link to a very good study that doesn’t require purchase.

  2. Bill Haydon says:

    [[Small production wines are the ones that exhibit terroir, thank goodness]]

    That should have read “small production wines are the ones that can exhibit terroir.” Far too many of them do not, and any inherent terroir that still clings to life after late picking is washed away in a sea of over-extracting, acid adjustments and over-oaking in the cellar. That was the whole impetus behind the international style that winemakers working in such varied terroirs as Napa, Chianti Classico and the Clarendon Hills fell trap to as they sought the benediction (and sales boost) of the tribunes of international style the WA and WS.

  3. What is the cutoff between mass-produced and small-production wine? Can mass-produced wines show terroir characteristics? At what geographic scale does terroir show itself/disappear? It is not as simple as you want to make it, but it is not as complex as you claim many suggest…

  4. Patrick says:

    In CA, the term “terroir” is used more often than not to hype somebody’s product. I think that most of our wines in this state, like 95%, have not been around long enough to yield distinctive terroir. The word is so overused that I would prefer that we all just stopped using it.

  5. Bill Haydon says:

    Patrick, it’s a lot like “Burgundian.” A word that California throws around because they think it’s what the market wants to hear, often with no basis in what is actually in the bottle.

    In the case of “Burgundian,” the mere mention of the word in relation to California wine is downright fraudulent. The essence of Burgundy lies in its lime and chalk soils. If a Chardonnay or Pinot Noir is not grown in lime or chalk, it is not “Burgundian.” End of frickin’ story. That is not to say that one can’t make elegant, well balanced Chard or Pinot that expresses its terroir in in the non-chalk/lime soils of California. They, however, are NOT Burgundian.

  6. “Terroir is the three-legged combination of weather/climate, the physical aspect of the vineyard, and human intervention that results in the creation of wine. Period. End of story.”

    I’d say rather that the the three legs of the stool are 1) physical terroir (effects related to site-specific climate, soils, geomorphology, geography, geology, etc.), 2) biological terroir (effects related to site-specific flora and fauna), and 3) cultural terroir (effects related to site-specific viticultural and vinification techniques). To deny terroir-related effects is the same as denying vintage-related effects. If year-to-year climate variations are detectable in wine then consistent site-related variations in climate should be (and obviously are) detectable. But are site-specific variations in isotopic ratios a component of terroir? While these variations may be useful for fingerprinting and insuring authenticity, if they can’t be sensed, are they really part of a wine’s terroir? As to the scale at which terroir becomes applicable – certainly at the small vineyard scale, often at the scale of a small-sized AVA, and sometimes at the regional scale. For instance, I find I can often discriminate between high-end WA and CA cabs, but not always, and heavy-handed winemaking always overwhelms terroir, regardless of scale.

  7. Paul Sequeira says:

    Terroir, in my opinion, does not include human intervention. It is everything but that — soil, aspect, climate, plant material, vintage, etc. Human intervention, though certainly part of the matrix that affects the character of wine, should not be included under the “terroir” umbrella. You are diluting the meaning of that word way too much.

  8. Paul,

    Human intervention is inextricable from terroir. The vine didn’t plant itself, it didn’t graft itself, it didn’t clone itself, it didn’t choose VSP or GDC training systems, it didn’t macerate itself… How much intervention to include is a valid debatable issue. Historical and cultural inputs to the great wine regions are some of the most defining characteristics of “wines of terroir” and even those regions’ raison d’etre!

  9. Agree with Kyle.

  10. Paul Sequeira says:

    I am not arguing that. I agree, Kyle. Neither am I arguing that intervention does not play a major role. However, if we pile every factor that influences wine into the term “terroir” it loses its site specific meaning, which is what it was coined to confer.

  11. Paul Sequeira says:

    Terroir of different wines from the same winery or winemaker becomes homogeneous, which is exactly opposite of what the term was meant to convey, if human intervention is included in what the word describes. The “terroir of Chambertin” becomes a meaningless term.

    Find another word for human intervention if you don’t like what is already out there, just quit corrupting “terroir”.

  12. Steve – I agree with your definition as long as it limits human intervention to what happens in the vineyard. And I really do think it is a fairly straight forward concept, even though listing all its compenents is exhausting 😉

    Just so long as people don’t ascribe a flavor or an aroma to terroir. Terroir is not a flavor like cherry or an aroma like barnyard. Rather, it’s the conditions that give rise to those flavors. So saying you taste terroir in one wine and not in others is nonsensical. It’d be as if one site had no soil, no weather, etc – as if the grapes were grown in a vaccuum.

    I think that many people operate under the idea that terroir is a defineable taste. And they often wield that idea like a club to market their wine or elevate those that they like – or to denigrate other wines that they don’t. ALL SITES HAVE TERROIR. Whether you like what that terroir produces is subjective. And yes, terroir can be masked. But I’d argue that it’s the underripe, trying to be low alcohol, attempting to create a specific terroir flavor wines that are the ones masking and ignoring a site’s terroir. In many cases, the terroir wants to produce higher alcohol, richer style wines. If a winemaker really “listens” to the site, rather than bringing a predetermined idea of style and taste, he stands a better chance of capturing the true terroir in bottle.

    Nothing magical. Nothing mystical. But too often portrayed that way for marketing purposes 😉

  13. Brian makes a good point when he says “saying you taste terroir in one wine and not in others is nonsensical.” I think when people say that, they refer to particular single vineyard wines and not blended wines. I also totally agree that people who make underripe wine in the name of “low alcohol” are not displaying the terroir of their vineyard, no matter how potentially great it is.

  14. Bill Haydon says:

    I actually agree with Brian, just not probably in the way that he would hope. All sites do have terroir, and if a sight is pushing (usually through a combination of too warm a climate and too fertile a soil) an expression of super-ripe/low acid wine then it is just simply not terroir for making great wine–think Lodi, La Mancha, Paarl & Stellenbosch or the warmer, volcanic soil inland areas of Puglia. Think much of Napa! High aclohol, low acid fruit flavors on the edge of brown is an authentic expression of those terroirs; it’s just not a very good or interesting one and certainly one that the market seems to be leaving behind.

    Therein lies the great conundrum for much of California. Do you try to pound the round peg into the square hole from these sights and forcibly make “balanced wines” even though you’re often getting unripe flavors and green phenolics or do you continue to make a style of wine from lands that used to be prune orchards (expressive of its terroir I will grant) that nobody wants anymore.

  15. Who is this “nobody”? Is it the floods of people who make it impossible to drive in the Napa Valley most days and virtually every weekend? Is it the amazing following that the wines of Paso Robles has built such that there are now eight hotels awaiting planning approval to be able to serve the demand?

    Is it my well-educated, well-heeled neighbors who love rich, oaky Chardonnays and smooth, flavorful and balanced Pinot Noirs from all over CA?

    Mr. Haydon, your definition of “nobody” is so narrow that it fails to recognize the large body of winedrinkers who are not high acid, low alcohol geeks.

    And your definition of CA wines as bordering on brown is also narrow to a fault. I won’t argue your likes and dislikes with you. But you are projecting them on the whole word just as virtually everyone who prefers those kinds of wine is doing.

    In the meantime, you are missing a very large portion of CA wine–which may be your right, after all, but your right does not make for truth for the world. An individual palate can be quite narrow, but that palate is only good for you and a small group of others. The rest of the nobodies are busy buying, drinking and enjoying the very wines you say that nobody wants. The facts are not in your favor.

  16. Bill Haydon says:

    You’re absolutely right, Charlie. “Nobody” was sloppy and polemic on my part. I will grant you that there are people who like these wines still, lots of them. They are, however, less and less of them every day, and they’re increasingly being found largely in the suburbs and secondary markets. Heck, there are people still out there wearing Members Only jackets in a non-ironic way too, but I’m not rushing out to buy stock in the company because–similar to the demographics for cult Napa wines–they will start dying off in the near future.

    Now, I should have been more precise in my language, defining “nobody” as a growing–bordering on tidal–wave of buyers in the places that those high-end Cali wineries most desperately want to be included–the trendy wine bars, charcuterie themed bistros and Michelin starred restaurants in NYC, Chicago and even SF. Granted, that is a very narrow (and ultimately small) segment of the overall market for high end wine, but it is the trendsetting segment of the market. And as in everything from fashion to music to cuisine, what is happening there is far more likely to ultimately filter out to the suburbs and medium sized cities than vice-a-versa. Will we see suburban steakhouses with all-euro wine lists in the future? Highly unlikely, but we’ll see them with bigger European sections, and we’ll see suburban Italian restaurants make the move to all-Italian lists that their city brethren did a generation ago. I ate at a Michelin 1* this past week that actually had a whole 25% of their glass pours devoted to domestic wines, and everyone in my group remarked at how out of place and out of time it seemed relative to what everyone else is doing–not all domestic, not mostly or even half domestic but twenty-frickin-five percent, and it still seemed oddly from another era.

    My underlying point remains. In a wine market that is trending towards balance, greater acid profiles and more restrained fruit every day, how does Cali respond when much of its terroir is more suited to expressing itself through hedonistic fruitbombs. Prunes were not one of Napa Valley’s largest cash crops up until the early 1970s without good reason. and perhaps their time will come again.

  17. Well, one polemic down. Too many others to discredit them all. Suffice it to say that the conclusions you draw are not exactly unbiased relative to your likes and dislikes.

    You may be too young to remember that “food wine” craze that affected CA in the early 1980s when a NYT writer, a Mr. Prial who later moved to Mendocino because he disliked CA wines so much, said that CA wines do not go with food. So, lots of wineries started making thin, acidic wines, and the market rejected them.

    These kinds of notions go in waves. But they do not stick because CA wine is not monolithic nor excessive in its exuberance in most of the examples out there.

    No one, including me, has ever argued, that some wines do not go over the top and lots of them exist at the lush, rich end of the spectrum. The suggestion that the better vineyards in CA, including most of the Napa Valley, are suited to hedonistic fruitbombs is one polemic broadside that clearly does not hold water. Tasty, non-acidic wine is not, by definition, a hedonistic fruitbomb.

    A second silly polemic is the denigration of Napa because of previous landuse. There is no relevance to the argument that one land use in the days before irrigation and refrigeration dictates the next. There is no “if A, then B” to that argument.

    Steve politely lets you get away with your series of non-sequiturs. I am less forgiving of bad arguments. For which I apologize–at least a little bit.

  18. Bill Haydon says:

    Charlie, previous land use means absolutely everything because it speaks DIRECTLY to the terroir. The ability to grow commercially viable prune crops is DIRECTLY indicative of the vigorous fertility of the soil and the warmth of the growing season. These are two things that are highly conducive to growing lots of mediocre wine….see my examples of Lodi, Paarl, La Mancha and inland Puglia.

    I ask you one question. How well do you think a prune orchard would thrive in the cool climate chalk of Chablis or the cooler climate, steep granite and slate hillsides of the Mosel? Far from thriving, they would die. That terroir, however, is what produces sublime wine. Truly great wines come from vines that have to struggle….not vines where the vineyard manager has to forcibly keep them from thriving through “dry farming” or excessive pruning. I’ve never heard of vineyard managers in Barbaresco or Hermitage or the Rheinhessen having to constantly go out and “drop clusters.” That is because they don’t have to! There’s a reason that European peasants didn’t plant bell peppers, peaches and prunes on the limestone hillsides of Vosne-Romanee or Asti….because they wouldn’t grow.

  19. They would thrive anywhere in the Rhone as well as in Beaujolais, in parts of the Right Bank in Bordeaux, in Tuscany.

    You keep mentioning Lodi. Why? Does it have any relevance to Oakville or Rutherford? To the Russian River Valley or the Anderson Valley? To the Santa Rita Hills or the Adelaida District?

    Why mention the Mosel? It would not be home to any red wine of consequence? And by the way, since when do European models stand as the only models for how wine is supposed to taste?

  20. John Roberts says:

    I don’t think we put terroir up on a pedestal when we defer to it, however, I agree that far too much is attributed to it and its entering the lexicon of an (necessarily) ignorant populous means it’s treated like other such terms, for example, “human nature.”

    While I agree that terroir consists of these three elements, I think we lose something when we conceptualize it in only materialistic terms. I think this is what is meant when it’s said that the French concept has no English equivalent. There’s something spiritual that is lost when we interpret this in purely materialistic, scientific terms. While science can deliver us endless answers regarding the “how,” it cannot give us the “what.” I fear that “terroir,” like “nature,” will always have an element shrouded in mystery. We can attempt to demystify but at the core, will we understand what makes this or that taste more minerally, or produce such and such flavors? We need to be humble in our ignorance, in the limitations of knowledge.

  21. Paul Sequeira says:

    Including human intervention in the term “terroir” reflects a winemaker bias in our wine culture. Basically, the term has come to mean “everything that happens before the fruit gets delivered to the winery.” Clearly there is either a broad misunderstanding of the myriad of interventions that take place in the vineyard, or no one cares. I’d guess the latter.

  22. To me, “cultural terroir” is not “everything that happens in the vineyard or in the winery before the wine goes in the bottle”. Instead it is the effects on the sensory components of wines produced by SITE-SPECIFIC viticultural and vinification techniques. Those techniques could be simply traditional, or specified by rules and regulations associated with a formal grape-growing region (AOC, etc.) The AVA system in the US contains no regulations that encourage or enforce a cultural terroir, so it is not a major component here. I suppose one could argue that micro-oxygenation or reverse osmosis are becoming “traditional” and therefore part of the cultural terroir in some famous CA wine regions…

    As far as “every vineyard has terroir” goes…. It’s true that very vineyard has it’s own unique set of physical properties, but that doesn’t always translate into a unique and interesting set of detectable sensory components in the wines. As someone once said “everyone can talk, but not everyone has something to say.”

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