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Terroir Baggage

One of the most interesting concepts in wine is that of terroir – the notion that a wine can possess a sense of place. This local flavour derives from the way that grapevines are sensitive to the physical properties of the vineyard environment, including both the local microclimate and the characteristics of the soil. It's a very important concept because it underpins the wide diversity of wine styles: not only do the different grape varieties produce wines that taste different, but also the same variety will make different wines depending on where it is grown.

The problem with terroir is that it is both blindingly obvious and hotly controversial at the same time. There is no doubt that small differences between sites, in terms of their soil properties and microclimates, result in grapes with different properties which then carry through into wines.

It's easy to illustrate this by comparing wines made identically in the same winery, with the same grape variety, but from different vineyards. They taste different- sometimes subtly; sometimes markedly. There you are: terroir’s existence is proved.

But then comes the controversy. The term 'terroir' is badly defined and means different things to different people. And because terroir is 'proved', and we know it exists, we're also expected to accept all the widely held supplementary notions about terroir – terroir baggage, in effect.

One of these pieces of baggage is the idea that terroir is the most important factor in determining the taste of a wine. I've heard it stated that terroir is more important than cépage (grape variety) in determining the taste of a wine. Well, I don't think it is. It's actually a rather fragile influence, easily lost by bad viticulture or heavy handed winemaking. The difference between vineyards, as expressed in wine, is often a subtle one. But this doesn't mean that it isn't important.

Another piece of baggage is that the new world doesn't have terroir in the same way the old world does. This is clearly nonsense, from first principles. Vineyard sites differ in the new world just as they do in the old, and so there's the potential for 'terroir' there just as much in the old world. But it's probably true that new world wines in general are less marked by their terroir differences, and that because winegrowers tend to buy into the terroir concept less, this is not such an important emphasis in their work.

I'd add to this that many new world wines are made from warm sites where the fruit attains greater ripeness. Very sweet fruit obscures the subtle terroir influence, as does the use of new oak. Ripe, sweet wines with plenty of oak influence don't tend to show the effects of terroir very plainly. Also, new world winemaking tends to be cleaner, with fewer non-fruit flavours in the wine. Often, non-fruit flavours of spice, meat, earth and minerality – which can come from the sometimes wine faults brettanomyces and reduction – are often confused with terroir in the old world. You get more of these flavours in old world wines.

Here we encounter another piece of baggage. It's often said that young vines don't express terroir, and that proper terroir expression only comes from deep rooted vines that sink their feet deep into the soil to extract all sorts of goodness, minerality and flavour from deep under the surface. This runs into the idea that we get a 'taste of the soil' in our wine. The link between soil/earth/rocks and wine is a powerfully seductive notion. We're getting all this complex flavour in a wine from a great vineyard – it must come from somewhere. So does it come from the soil?

The answer from science seems to be 'not really'. Soils are important in determining the flavour of wine, but only indirectly. It is thought that the most significant property of vineyard soil is its water holding capacity. Soils which allow the vine as much water as it wants aren't good: these encourage big, vigorous vines with an emphasis on growing lots of shoots and leaves rather than fruit. The best vineyards allow the vines a slow, steady supply of water which then tails off towards the end of the growing season, at the time the fruit is maturing. Good drainage is a helpful feature. 

The second important property of soil is its fertility. Big deep, fertile loamy soils may be great for growing nice vegetables, but rich soils that are great for other crops are usually bad for wine. This is because fertile soils encourage the grapevine to grow vegetatively. That is, the vine grows big leafy canopies and isn't all that bothered about growing good fruit. Less fertile soils reduce vine vigour, which is usually a good thing for fruit quality.

The soil's chemical make-up can be significant, but not all that much is known about the precise details here. Soil chemistry is likely to have an indirect on grape properties by altering gene expression in the grapevine, but not through direct translocation of flavour compounds from the soil to the developing berries.

The microbial communities in the soil may be significant. Healthy soils are teeming with fungi and bacteria that could in some way influence vine growth, either through helping with complex nutrient availability or through signalling in some way to the vine through its roots.

One further thought: terroir can influence quality without necessary stamping geographic identity of the wine. A vineyard may be designated as a special place for growing grapes because it produces wines that don't necessarily taste of a particular place strongly, but which are consistently better than those of another vineyard in the same locale.

After all, what is this 'somewhereness' that good vineyards possess? We talk about sense of place, but how exactly is it that a place shows itself in a wine other than the self-referential association of wine flavours with localities through repeated experience of those wines. Drinking a great Chambertin might take an experienced taster in their mind to Burgundy, but isn't that just an association they have made? Sometimes the wine flavour seems to fit with the locality; other times there are sites that make wines that are distinctive and typical, but where it's hard to see a link between the typical wine flavour of the area and the physical characteristics of that area. Besides, who gets to decide what the authentic expression of a particular terroir is? Often, different producers will make rather different yet equally compelling interpretations of the same vineyard site.

These are all interesting questions, and the lack of clear-cut answers is what keeps the subject of terroir such a fertile ground for robust discussions.    

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