Terroir: muddy thinking about the
[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 aroundthat of terroiris currently
undergoing somewhat of a renaissance. Championed by those opposed to modern
technology-driven wines, terroir isnt 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
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
Ive raised the rather thorny issue of terroir with wine lovers. And so, before we
begin to look at the notion in detail, lets first establish that were 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
peoplefor it to be of any real use, first it needs to be defined and stripped of
some of its supplementary meaning.
I dont 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 grownwhat 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.
First lets 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
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 Beaucastels 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 dont. 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
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 terroirthe climate of a particular
seasonis 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 terroira 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 isnt: 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. Id agree that the grapes represent a crucial starting
point for a wine, but they are just thata 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 dont get the wrong idea. Im
not attempting to create controversy; nor am I into trench-digging or slogan-chanting.
Im just appealing for higher standards of communication and thinking. Theres
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 heres 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
growsthat 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.