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Terroir: muddy thinking about the soil?

[I've left this rather old piece up for archival reasons. For a more recent article on this subject, see mechanisms of terroir. Jamie Goode]

The wine world is full of confusing terminology, and one of the most confusing terms around—that of ‘terroir’—is currently undergoing somewhat of a renaissance. Championed by those opposed to modern technology-driven wines, terroir isn’t just a single, tightly defined concept, it is more of a set of allied complementary ideas and principles, and this is one of the reasons it is so hard to engage a dialogue between the parties that are often divided into opposing camps when this word is mentioned.

Does terroir exist?
What was your first thought on reading this section heading? I hope that it was along the lines of, ‘Just what exactly do you mean by terroir?’, because without the term being defined, the question is somewhat meaningless. If, however, your immediate answer was ‘Of course it does!’, then may I suggest that this is evidence that you are more influenced by ideology than reason in this respect. But please, bear with me, while I try to explain exactly what I am getting at.

A question of definitions
In engaging in a debate, it is crucial that all the participants are aware exactly what they are discussing, and that all are talking about the same thing. Indeed, this is the primary difficulty I have encountered whenever I’ve raised the rather thorny issue of terroir with wine lovers. And so, before we begin to look at the notion in detail, let’s first establish that we’re at least discussing the same subject. Otherwise, we run the risk of entering into a rather fruitless battle of semantics. In fact, I think the term itself has become rather a devalued one precisely because it means so many different things to different people—for it to be of any real use, first it needs to be defined and stripped of some of its supplementary meaning.

Common ground
I don’t think there are many people who really dispute the idea that a wine can possess characteristics derived from where the grapes that made it were grown—what is succinctly summed up by the term ‘a sense of place’. Spatial variation in soil composition, sunlight hours, moisture retention, temperature and precipitation occurs at all scales, from regional, to vineyard, and between individual rows within that vineyard. Thus it is not surprising that the influence of site, soil and weather will work together to influence the character of the wine. But it is the additional inferences and the putative mechanisms involved in this process that are at the heart of the ‘muddy thinking’ that I am attempting to address. Another, more narrow definition of terroir that is, again, beyond dispute, is when the term is used to describe merely the differences between various vineyard sites. In this case, one might say that a vineyard in the Loire has a different terroir to one in the Rhone, referring just to the geological and geographical attributes of the two sites. Yet most people have a much broader definition of the term terroir, in which it is an attribute of a wine, not a patch of ground.

Illogical definitions
First let’s deal with some uses of terroir that are common but in many cases essentially meaningless. First on my list is when people use the term to essentially say that they recognize and approve of the types of viticultural and winemaking practices used in the production of the wine in question. Presumably, it is rare for anyone to adopt this position knowingly, but despite this it is surprisingly widespread. By using the term in this way a taster is essentially saying that this is the sort of wine they like.

Closely allied to this position, and equally illogical, is the following use of terroir. An experienced taster is familiar with the distinct characteristics of wines from a particular region, when these are made in a similar, traditional manner. These characteristics can be reliably identified, and are described by the vignerons and wine writers as being ‘gout de terroir’. However, the big problem with this position is that included in this definition of terroir are the traditional winemaking procedures, which in all likelihood are crucial in imparting the local character to the wine. If winemaking practices are to be included in a definition of terroir, this stretches the concept so far that it is no longer of much use, and then in any case can only be attributed to wines made in classic regions in a traditional manner. When one or other local producers adopt novel winemaking techniques, suddenly the ‘gout de terroir’ will likely be lost.

Illogical as these positions may be, the problem that causes me the most difficulty, is what I call the ‘literalist position’

The literalist position
Whether people will admit it or not when directly challenged, this view is widely held by many advocates of terroir. To put it simply, a wine with a ‘gout de terroir’ is one that actually tastes of the predominant soil type of the vineyard, with flavour components that are reminiscent of slate, chalk or minerals, or in other cases just general earthy notes. The underlying assumption behind this is that the vine roots take up flavour-bearing elements directly from the soil and translocate them to the developing grapes. One reason this viewpoint is so popular is that in some cases wines do indeed have these sorts of flavours. Intuitively, it is then attractive to make the leap to suggesting that these flavours are actually directly contributed from the substrate in question and this is in fact claimed as an actual mechanism in a number of cases. However, from my background knowledge of plant physiology, I have a severe problem with that. As well as water, plant roots must take up various mineral ions in solution: these are referred to as macro- and micronutrients. Their uptake is carefully regulated and it is an active process, that is, it requires energy. The plant does not take up ‘the soil’, and it is hard to imagine that these mineral ions can act as flavour components giving grapes the taste of the soil. Bear in mind that grapes are chemically very complex, containing a whole host of sugars, proteins and carbohydrates, many of which will have distinct flavours. But these are all synthesized from just a few simple building blocks by the vine, not assimilated directly from the soil. Of course, the soil composition can affect the physiology of the vine, causing changes in the chemical and structural composition of the grapes, but then we have moved away from the literalist position, and it is a non-linear pathway from soil character to grape flavour. And also consider here that the grape juice will undergo massive chemical changes during the microbiological process of fermentation, as discussed below. Before I leave this section though, I must just mention two feasible routes that may support, in a very few cases the literalist view. First, in Australia and California there are wines that have a noticeable flavour of eucalyptus. Interestingly, in these cases there may well be eucalyptus trees in proximity to the vineyard, and as anyone who has camped under these trees will tell you, their leaves secrete a huge amount of oily gunk. Could it be that some of the grape skins are covered in eucalyptus oil, which then imparts this character to the final wine? The other possibility is that in some dry areas the grapes may end up covered in a film of dust from the vineyard that may then give an ‘earthy’ flavour to the final wine. Apart from these limited exceptions, I have yet to hear a rational explanation as to how flavour components from the soil can find their way into a wine.

Where do those flavours come from?
While I believe that the ball is firmly in the court of the terroir literalists to suggest a potential mechanism for how soil components might directly transmit flavour to a wine, allow me to speculate on why earthy and mineral flavours might develop in certain wines. I must add here, though, that this is only speculation, and the strength of the rest of my argument does not rest on the accuracy of these guesses here – they are just food for thought, and I hope they will serve to stimulate debate.

First, it is worth considering the sorts of wines that tend to ‘express terroir’. In general, these are wines from the classical ‘cool climate’ regions: areas such as Burgundy, the Loire, the Mosel and Bordeaux. These wines often have a strong ‘mineralic’ component. As grapes ripen, the grape acids gradually decrease and the sugar content increases, and I believe that it could well be these grape acids that are responsible in large part for mineralic flavours in wine. These grape acids are notably less prevalent in wines from warmer regions, which less commonly express ‘terroir’. In the wines from the warmer regions, it is interesting to note that flavour elements ascribed to terroir tend to be of a different nature. Take a Southern French red, such as a well made example from Pic St Loup, one of may favourite wine regions. These wines often have a noticeable earthy, gamey character, which could potentially be ascribed to gout de terroir. Alternatively, it is possible that this character may be in part microbiological in origin. Many Southern French reds have detectable concentrations of Brettanomyces (often referred to simply as ‘brett’) a yeast which in high concentrations gives wine the smell of animal poop and chicken sheds, but which at low concentrations can add a pleasing degree of complexity. In the case of the famous Chateauneuf du Pape domain, Beaucastel, even famous tasters have in the past misattributed the often high levels of Brettanomyces found in the wine to the ‘unique terroir’ of Beaucastel’s estate.

More thorny issues
One tricky question facing all terroirists is that all grapes and regions are not equal when it comes to terroir. Some wines are said to possess it; others don’t. Notably, Pinot Noir from Burgundy, Loire Sauvignons and Chenins, and German Rieslings are particularly known for their sensitivity to terroir; other grapes, grown in other regions, may be less likely to show it. Higher yields, warmer climates and interventionist wine making are said to be enemies of terroir expression, yet all wines are grown in soil and with the exception of those blended from different areas, come from particular regions or vineyards that have their own characteristics. It is odd that the although the soil speaks in some cases, that it should remain silent in so many others.

A second difficulty is that in most of the areas known for specific terroirs, vintage variation in climate is huge. Against that background, contributions of climatic factors to terroir are going to be fairly effectively masked. It could also be argued that this very valid aspect of terroir—the climate of a particular season—is unique to that vintage only.

Arbitrary agglomeration of sites that confer ‘terroir’ is another problem. Few would argue that wines blended from multiple regions, as is especially common with many Australian wines (even some very expensive ones), possess ‘terroir’. But, as I have already outlined, variation in the factors that go to make terroir occurs at all scales, from just a few centimetres to hundreds of metres and beyond. Certainly, variation over the scale of a vineyard is going to be non-negligible. Somewhere, someone is making a value judgement about the scale over which terroir is allowed to operate.

Just how important is it?
To put terroir in perspective, it is helpful to remember that a finished wine differs substantially (in fact, it is almost unrecognizable) from the starting point of freshly pressed grape juice. And beyond this point terroir can have no effect. [Unless you include the indigenous yeasts present on the grape skins as a part of terroir—a position very few take because then the concept becomes so broad as to be meaningless.] Although it is common for some wine writers to emphasize that wine is a natural product, in reality it clearly isn’t: it involves both nature and human endeavour in tandem. What takes place in the winery has a huge impact on the taste of the wine, eve if the winemaker should choose to adopt a minimal interventionist approach. I’d agree that the grapes represent a crucial starting point for a wine, but they are just that—a starting point. While it is not possible to make good wine from poor grapes, taking the oft-cited example of Montrachet made by different producers, it is amazing to see the differing endpoints when different winemakers start with similarly high quality grapes from a particular, exclusive locale. This indicates that however terroir may have its effect, it is important not to over emphasize its contribution to the finished wine. It could well be argued that the grape variety used, the wine-making practices followed both have a greater influence on the finished wine than the aspects of terroir discussed here.

So what are we left with?
Please don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not attempting to create controversy; nor am I into trench-digging or slogan-chanting. I’m just appealing for higher standards of communication and thinking. There’s enough confusing terminology already in the world of wine. Many people who I respect and who know considerably more about wine that I do, do themselves a disservice by insisting on retaining a loosely defined, inaccurate concept that sadly is used more to divide than it is to bring together. If we are to salvage this term, we need to reach some sort of consensus about what it can usefully mean.

So here’s my vote:
I think that if ‘terroir’ is to be saved, it must be reserved solely to describe the physical environment in which the grape vine grows—that is, the soil type, microclimate and aspect of a defined area (most usefully, a vineyard). In my opinion the broadening of this term by using in the context of gout de terroir is far too problematic, for reasons I have outlined here, and should be discouraged. And it is essential that what is being defined by the term is made clear, where the context does not make this obvious.