does terroir taste of?
An exploration of this important concept: is it a property of a
There are three major influences on the
taste of wine: grape variety, terroir and winemaking.
And of these three, perhaps the most
interesting is terroir, which here I am defining as the physical
environment the grape vine grows in, including human factors such as
Terroir could justifiably be considered
as the unifying theory of fine wine. Not all vineyard sites are
equal, and no matter how talented the winemaker and how meticulous
the viticulture, you can't make a great wine if you don't have a
And we love to talk about terroir, and
how it creates a 'sense of place' in a wine. But there's a question
that I have never seen addressed before. What does terroir taste of?
Extending this question, we can ask: is
terroir a property of the wine?
Imagine the following scenario. I sit
down with a winemaker. She pours me one of her wines, and I take a
sip. She asks, 'Can you taste the terroir?'
It's an almost unanswerable question. To
pose it in the first place makes the assumption that terroir has a
specific taste that a skilled taster should be able to recognize. I
don't think this is the case, or if it is, it is rare. [Aside: is
being able to recognize the origin of a wine, down to the vineyard
site, a proof that terroir has a taste? Or is it about learning and
experience. I think there is a difference. The terroir can influence
the character of a wine without having a taste. But this may be a
controversial statement.] I can't think of many instances where
terroir is a taste, as oak might be. If you ask me, 'can you taste
the oak in this wine?', often this would be possible. And we know
the flavour compounds that oak barrels can impart to wines.
These chemicals have a taste, assuming
that the taster doesn't have a specific anosmia or aguesia which
would render them unable to taste or smell the various flavour
compounds from oak. Thus we could argue that the taste of oak is a
property of the wine (when oak has been used this way), or at the
very least a property of the interaction between the taster and the
But in most cases you can't identify a
specific taste in a wine and say 'that is terroir!' Terroir is
therefore not a property of the wine.
However, terroir is quite clearly evident
in differences between wines. If the winemaker were to pour
me two glasses of wine, both from the same variety but from vineyard
blocks with different physical properties (perhaps different
aspects, or one from the top of the hill, the other from the bottom,
or made from adjacent plots with different soils), then I might well
spot a difference. In some cases, winemaking practices might
obliterate the subtle differences, but if the winemaking has been
sensitive, the differences in the wines would be detectable.
Terroir is therefore evident by
In this case we could argue that terroir
is not a property of a wine, but that it belongs to a comparison
made by skilled tasters. It is only evident where there is a high
level of wine expertise making an assessment.
Here we come to the notion of the sense
of place. What is this? Can a wine possess 'somewhereness'?
Imagine a person who has grown up in a
small village, celebrated for its wines. They are intimately
acquainted with that place: the sights, smells, weather, culture,
tastes. But with one exception: they have never tasted any of the
Some years later, they move away from the
village. They are presented with five different wines to taste
blind, one of which comes from the village they grew up in. Do they
stand a better than even chance of identifying this village?
Sense of place is an abstract property:
it is something we learn to associate with a wine where that wine
has distinctive flavour that is unique to that place. And where
white and red grape varieties are grown in adjacent plots, even if
the soil is homogeneous, the resulting wines are usually completely
different, yet we might consider both to express a sense of place,
even though they have little in common.
So this massive emphasis on the
importance of terroir seems a little shaky, in that it is an
abstract concept, and is not something that a wine possesses. Are we
over-emphasizing it? I still think it is an interesting concept and
that it's an important one for fine wines, but I do think that it is
over-used, and used carelessly. The term 'sense of place' is also
Terroir helps to create the wonderful
diversity of wines that we enjoy as wine nuts. But it seems to do it
quite subtly and indirectly.
Wine flavour chemistry is complex and
poorly understood, and is an emergent property of interactions among
taste- and odour-active chemicals (some at subthreshold levels, but
in combination having an effect). It is all assembled in our brains
and jiggled around a bit before we are even aware of it consciously.
Our prior experience and the information we possess about a wine
also helps shape this information in a way that is out of our
All the flavour chemicals in wine are
produced by grape berries, or are made by yeasts and bacteria from
precursors present in the must, or are made directly by these yeasts
and bacteria, or come from oak. The only exception might be mineral
flavours coming from the soil, but this is highly controversial.
Mineral ions don't usually taste or smell of much, and are present
at very low concentrations indeed in the wine. But the possibility
remains that they could be affecting the flavour of the wine.
Soils and environments change flavour by
affecting the biology of the grape vine, which is a step away from
the actual flavour of the wine. Terroir's effect on flavour is
therefore to alter the berry composition indirectly, which in the
final wine might result in the presence or absence of certain
flavour components, or more likely a relative difference in their
The effect of terroir is also indirectly
affecting wine flavour by influencing the wine grower. Your
knowledge of terroir might lead you to act differently in the
cultivation of specific vineyard sites and the way you make the wine
from them. This might be in a more scientific sense (for example,
you know the vineyard tends to make reductive wines so you alter the
way you make the wine) or it may be more subtle (a vineyard makes
very expensive wines so you take extra care and also use more
expensive oak). The mindset of the winegrower will affect the
flavour of wine in quite significant ways.
In this sense, terroir can become a
cultural concept, shared among growers in a certain wine region. In
this sense it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even within a
single winery, if there is selection at the blending stage, this can
be led so that lots going to terroir-designated bottlings can be
selected on the basis of how much they taste like the winegrower's
idea of that terroir.
So, to conclude. I would argue that
terroir is not a property of a wine, in that it is something you can
taste in the wine. In the absence of information or comparison, a
taster would not be able to pick up a glass of wine, taste it, and
identify terroir, or indeed whether or not this wine possessed a
sense of place.
Instead, terroir is something that we
attribute to a wine. It is evident by comparison, or it is something
a taster with lots of prior experience and knowledge is able to
discern in a wine. It doesn't mean that terroir is insignificant or
of little significance – I still believe it to be a vital concept
for wine wine – it just means that we should be a little more
cautious in our usage of the term, and not make too many
wine flavour an objective property?