So what does terroir taste like?

So what should terroir taste like?

In my talk on authentic wine yesterday, I had an informed and interested audience who asked some tough questions.

I was talking quite a bit about terroir. My argument is that wine is interesting because of its diversity, and the fact that this diversity is largely driven by the fact that grapes grown in different places make wines that taste different. Local tastes; terroir.

I argue that working more naturally in the vineyard and cellar helps express the sense of place in the wine, and that if you intervene too much, or not enough, then you can lose that sense of place.

So I’m a firm believer in terroir.

But what, exactly, does this terroir taste of? That’s a really good question.

Is it meaningless to talk about sense of place, if – as the film wine from here attempts – you gather a series of experts in a room, present them with a range of wines, and they can’t tell you where they are from?

If, say, I present you with a range of Pinot Noirs from New Zealand, could you reliably spot the region, let alone the vineyard? Some people could, but not all that many. And when it comes to Burgundy, can you taste a line-up of 20 premier and grand cru wines and tell me which vineyard each comes from?

These are important questions. But even if the answer is ‘no’, I don’t think it’s fatal to my argument.

I think that terroir expression is about a partnership between the grower and the vineyard. It is the job of the grower to listen to her or his site, and interpret that site in the wine, allowing it to speak.

For this reason, I think there can be several legitimate expressions of a site. You can have wines with different flavours, all of which have a sense of place. We are venturing into slightly subjective territory here, because who is to say that a particular wine is a legitimate expression of where it has come from?

Of course, there are vintage differences too. The same site is expressed differently in different years, even though the winegrower works in the same way. Does this local taste carry through very different vintage conditions? Can it be lost in some years? Perhaps.

I think many of us, however, would agree that faulty wines, or wines that are over-ripe and brim-full of new oak are not authentic terroir wines. And, controversially, I’d argue that some sites aren’t good enough to have legitimate terroir expressions – that they are simply incapable of making authentic, interesting wines with a sense of place.

What does terroir taste like? It’s a really interesting question.

29 comments to So what does terroir taste like?

  • Cam Haskell

    I’m largely with you Jamie. I love seeing different wines made from the same parcels of fruit. And almost every winemaker will give you a different expression of a terroir. I’m not sure I’m inclined to agree about poorer terroirs. I just think they’re probably poor expressions of poor terroirs. Equally there are terroirs that I think are just of zero interest to me. That doesn’t make them bad, or illegitimate. Just boring to me (The Barossa springs to mind for me.)

    This debate I think is pretty relevant here in Australia, as we try to reinvent ourselves. Particularly as something like Grange, a multi-region blend is made to type. Is that the most expensive non-specific-terroir wine in the world? Must go close.

  • keith prothero

    I was not a true believer in Terroir until I had the opportunity,with Chris and Andrea Mullineux to taste barrel samples of their syrah taken from 11 different parcels all within a ten mile radius, in the Swartland district of the Cape.
    Could not believe the incredible difference in taste and smell from one parcel to another.
    Chris and Andrea of course could recognise instantly,that this was from mainly granite soil,this from schist etc etc.
    Quite fascinating.

  • In February 1994 7 MW students attending the MW Residential Seminar in Sete were treated to an interesting tasting around yeast, given by Peter Vinding Diers. Among the treats was a tasting of two wines, made from grapes grown in one vineyard but, crucially, vinified in two separate properties – one batch at Vinding-Diers’ property Landiras in the Graves (where the grapes were grown), the other at Lynch-Bages in the Medoc.
    The two wines couldn’t have been more different in flavour – and the difference was due not to the “terroir” in which the grapes were grown, obviously, but to the different ambient yeasts in each winery. This tasting is mentioned briefly in Patrick Matthews’ book “The Wild Bunch”.
    Since that tasting, I’ve been pretty sceptical about the whole concept of terroir as something which can be tasted.
    At another tasting in 1999 on the IMW West Coast USA trip we had three Oregon wineries present three wines each to us. One was from their own winery, the other two wines were from the other two wineries but, again, all vinified in one winery. So, Estate A presented wine A made in A, wine B made in A and wine C made in A, and so on. Again, I found it very easy to identify which wines had been made by the same winemaker but much more difficult to identify the different sites.
    For my money, terroir is not a great concept and possibly holds true in only a few locations – typically mono-cepage e.g. Burgundy and the Mosel. Once blends come into play there are too many flavour variables and, in general, I find that climate and variety play a greater part in being able to identify a wine blind.
    By the way, having a winemaker consistently identify his barrel samples means nothing as that winemaker is finely attuned to the taste of his own wines. And, fwiw, Keith fails to mention that he works for Mullineux in his post!

  • John Seccombe

    I think you’re doing great work on getting the concepts out there to try and understand them.

    For me, man is an inseparable part of the terroir-triangle of man, environment and the vine, as without any of those elements, we would not be discussing a sense of place in wine. I think that when these elements work in harmony, we start to achieve ‘terroir’. Wines with a great identity must stand firm on these three pillars. It is limited to speak of the vineyard and the site showing terroir, as it cannot be expressed by a vintner that is not working in harmony with it. Equally I agree that a poor site, or poor vineyard planted on a good site, is not likely to achieve much in this respect.

    Are we then using terroir as a measure of quality? Or is ‘sense of place’ a characteristic of wine apart from its quality? It could be argued that a poor quality wine produced in a filthy industrial winery is expressing its origins.

    It’s a great philisophical area in which we are going to find the path to producing authentic wines in a sea of mediocre industrial products.

  • keith prothero

    Dermot—-I do not work for Mullineux but am an investor.
    Whether Chris and Andrea can identify the barral samples or not is hardly the point. The differences between each barrel sample were startling and I am sure would be similar, if I had the opportunity to taste barrel samples from various parcels in Burgundy,Bordeaux,Rhone or indeed anywhere else.
    It is just that I have not had the opportunity.
    So for my money you are writing nonsense.

  • Kwispedoor

    Terroir tastes like chicken.

    Jokes aside, interesting stuff. I suppose the elusive mysteriousness of wine is partly why we love it. Apart from terroir, coupled with viticultural and oenological skills, let’s not forget the not insignificant roles of good fortune and fortuity in making good wine.

  • Richard Morris

    Unless the 11 different parcels were grapes of equal age and were harvested, vinified and stored in exactly the same way, at the same time, I’m not convinced. Yes, you could taste a difference but there are many other variables which could account for that.

  • Here in the Languedoc, where many grape varieties are grown, some are much better than other are expressing the terroir. Mediterranean varieties do better as (except for aromatic white varieties) they have relatively little character of their own when compared to the likes of Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet etc. They seem able to let the light out as it were. Assuming little oak is used, then all they have to offer is what they pick up from the vineyard – including the yeasts. Examples are Cinsault, Terret, Vermentino and Grenache gris/blanc – the stuff wine authors derided so much until recently. Carignan is an anomaly as it has character but is more or less restricted to the Languedoc so has become associated with being at the heart of a Languedoc red (like Mouvedre and Bandol).
    Different parts of the Languedoc also have their own characteristics – La Clape reds typically have Lavender like perfume, Faugere reds are harder with more grip and the best quite minerally. All are blends of course.

  • Andrew Holod

    Over ripeness may impede a sense of terroir, but if the site is too warm for a given varietal the result is that vineyard’s expression. This begs the question as to whether native yeasts are a part of terroir. If Lynch Bages only tastes like itself when vinifies in it’s home environment, isn’t that an expression of terroir? A more recent example which will play out over the coming years is the recent failure of Margaret River winegrowers to outlaw microbreweries next door to their wineries. As those populations of native yeasts change over time the ‘terroir’ of the place will change as well.
    Jaime, maybe I’m missing your point or am simply uninformed but do you suppose that terroir is driven solely by soil aspects?3 md

  • I am a believer in terroir, and believe that terroir exists everywhere. There are very many variables that can change how a wine tastes, and I don’t think that you can taste terroir, but that the terroir will cause differences in the wines.

    You only have to visit a winemaker in Burgundy (or try from the different plots at Ch. Coutet before they blend them) where everything is kept the same, to see these differences. We can talk about vine age and yeasts and everything, but that is to do with winemaking style and not for me terroir. Taste the juice pre-malo at Maison Ilan and it is an eye opener, because they are trying to make wines that express their terroir… They do, and if you know Burgundy, you can see why.

  • keith prothero

    They were Richard———-
    I was sceptical myself before the tasting.

  • The problem with terroir in most of the wine production areas is that in too many cases, winemaker already have their idea of wine in mind that they will try to pursue. In many cases that idea is what the winemaker thinks the “market wants”, that is, most of the times, what the “guru wine journalist” wants. This vicious circle has made us waste so much time that could be used for understanding what terroir in a particular area is, and than try to intepratate it without twisting it too much. Sometimes it takes an incredible amount and courage to exit this path and start to walk on your own, learning again how to make wine in a given territory.
    I believe a lot, possibly the greatest majority of wine producing areas are affected by that mind set in a degree or another.
    I lease two beautiful 50 YO Ciliegiolo (a Tuscan variety) vineyards, that were planted by the same people with the same vines, and are separated by a narrow, maybe 10 metre road. I’ve been making wine for three years in the same way, separating the two batches all the time, and I can tell you that I can always taste the difference and can tell which one is which all the times. The wines are the same, but at the same time are different, and that is real.

  • Richard Morris

    Keith, good to hear, although, to repeat, I’m sure there were differences in taste. Just pointing out that there are, potentially, many variables.

    Has anyone done a rigorous controlled test on these perceived differences, much as an experimenter would?

  • This discussion, which has gone on for decades, is getting BORING!!! The fact is, whether the wine tastes or does not taste like where it came from the only thing that does matter is whether you like it or not. All this talk of terroir is like so much other useless talk that is the benchmark of the wine business. It’s just talk. You can’t define it. You can describe it and you can’t explain it. So, what is the point?

  • Man, you almost made my heart skip a beat thinking you were going to give some specific examples…..
    Bummer that you did not.

  • Re: Terroir
    I’m writing a proposed US AOC plan. Part of it gives examples. Here’s an excerpt:

    Are there AVAs worth modification? As one example of our AVA classification, I want to look at the Stags Leap District in the Napa Valley. I think this is a good example of an AVA in need of change. I’m positive other similar AVAs exist.

    Part of the existing Stags Leap District is the Nathan Fay Vineyard. Nathan is no longer alive and the vineyard is owned by Stags Leap Wine Cellars. I made wine from the Fay Vineyards from 1971 through 1994. I tasted most of the wines made from surrounding vineyards, and except for the wines from the contiguous vineyards owned by Warren Winiarski and a few vineyards due north, none of the wines I tasted had what I called a Stags Leap character. We didn’t use the term terroir, but that’s probably what it was. The Stags Leap District has about 2,700 acres. In looking at the AVA map and my tasting notes, I would say my “Stags Leap Character” would fit in about 400 to 600 acres. The rest of the present Stags Leap District have, I’m sure, unique, but not “Stags Leap Characters”.

    So, I would have the area scrapped. A host of Stags Leap pyramid levels may be in need of defining. Or, only the ones with “Stags Leap Characters” would be able to use the Stags Leap name. Associations producing wines with similar unique characters should be formed and start up a new WGA petition. Each group needs to define themselves in a legitimate, reproducible manner. This should be replicated from Stags Leap to Augusta, Missouri.

    PS Authentic Wine… is very good. On that subject:
    It is almost certain that 1.5 million years ago Homo erectus collected and ate the wild grapes in the South Caucasus of present day Georgia. They must have had methods to collect and carry the grapes. Did they collect the grapes and share them with others? It must have occurred on occasion that a good amount of the red Vitis vinifera were left behind and later revisited. The Homo erectus upon return probably found the grapes a bit “tingly” on the tongue. They also found the pool of juice collecting below the grapes was quite nice to drink. After eating the grapes and drinking the juice they got a bit cheery. Soon, drowsiness set in and naps were had.

    This is probably the definition of authentic wine. Everything made since is tinkered wine.

  • Terroir is an elusive term yet I managed to delimit it mathematically, well almost. Care to see how? Read here:
    http://www.winecampus.org/crush/onetext.htm

  • I suppose it depends on your feeling of what terroir is. I prefer a minimalistic approach that true terroir is the inherent quality in the grapes, their absolute “potential” based on the specific combination of soil, variety and typical microclimate.
    With a favourable vintage, and a skilled and relatively non-interventionist winemaker, then even a marginal region or vineyard has a chance of terroir being expressed. Add in the vagaries of global weather, the latest technological or chemical fad and the occasional randomness of winemaking skills and even the best potential terroir can be masked or destroyed.
    Previous comments have captured aspects of this (environment and the vine as John says) but, for me, a winemaker can never create or enhance the expression of terroir in the grape or wine, only succeed in not removing it.

    Ed’s rather blunt comment misses the romance of the whole concept, but is undeniably true – for most people detecting terroir is irrelevant or unobtainable compared to whether they simply like the wine.

  • I am a follower of the terrior belief, but think there is significantly more influence impacted on the wine due to winemaking technique and style.

    Ironically, I was working in Oregon in 1998/1999 and may have been involved in that specific ‘terrior’ trial, that Dermot is referring to and can shed a small amount of light on the winemaking versus vineyard outcomes.

    The question I put forward is, has terrior been the excuse that has pushed the price up of wine from specific areas, (namely in certain regions of europe), for wine which really is not significantly better than there non-terrior neighbours?

  • Nice post.

    Smart treatment of an endlessly fascinating topic.

    Do I believe in terroir as something I can taste. Absolutely.

    Is this strictly a function of what I can taste? The depth of my palate? I think certainly not. For me at least.

    I’d prefer to wrap the story of what I know about the vintage, the winemaker, the place around my impressions of what I taste.

    In the best of cases, like Julien Guillot from Macon Cruzille (http://awe.sm/5VsdG), I have a taste footprint of that place. I can smell it literally.

    And yes, in other instances,regardless of what I know, it doesn’t matter as the taste neither triggers nor is informed by the information I have about what I’m drinking.

    This is not science, it is belief. Informed by a bit of science.
    Thanks for writing this.

  • Karl, I presume you recognize that since most of the vines (planted everywhere) of a particular clonal selection are genetically identical, the main factor that soil and climate play on is the grape’s DNA and the aromatic and flavor precursors for which the DNA encodes. Of course, yeasts transform those, but is seems that since much of the sensory differences between yeast cultures are transient (fermentation esters), then we are back to DNA. We have to start there, and see how its expression varies with site.
    Also, spoilage fermentative species that impart off flavors and flaws have to be excluded from such a consideration.

  • SUAMW (Arthur), if we were just talking about one clone of one variety then maybe I’d agree, but trying to factor it down to DNA is far too deconstructive when there are multiple Pinot Noir Clones even in Burgundy (hundreds worldwide?) each one destinctly un-identical genetically – unless you’re saying only compare identical clones in any analysis of terroir?

    No, my comment about a distinct, identifieable terroir “potential” based on the specific combination of soil, variety and typical microclimate was meant to cover the concept of the right grape on the right soil – plant Viognier on the Cote d’Or and I’d hesitate to claim it would express anything like as much detectable sense of place as Pinot Noir does now. I’d also ask for a second opinion on the dismissal of yeast in the equation (I can happily accept the use of local wild yeast as a terroir component, while commercial yeast I would include as terroir neutral at best, technological intervention at worst).

    As Arnold states, this is not science, at least not to a level where quantifiable and unchallengable results could be presented. I’m not sure it is belief either, it’s somewhere in the middle, a blend of art and science, some aspects measurable, some which can be only felt (or tasted).

  • Karl, I think we do have to deconstruct it to be able to say what impact terroir has.

    You touch on something that has crossed my mind: can you identify terroir character year-to-year in polycephage wines like the reds Bordeaux?

    The issue of “local wild yeast” is a clouded one. If the optimal environment for S Cerevisiae is must and stable reservoirs are hard to find in the wild, then it would seem we are dealing with ‘feral’ strains which originated from the winery. Of course, if stable pools of SC can be identified in the wild and demonstrated to be not derived from cultured yeasts, then we can potentially consider those as part of terroir. However, one aberrant season can wipe out such potential reservoirs. What happens to terroir then?

    As to Arnold’s comments: right now, it is mostly belief (and hype and PR etc). If we can have an analysis of chemical compositions of organically vs nonorganically (?) grown grapes, and if we have some people better skilled at identifying sensory attributes of wines, then the undertaking is potentially sucessful. (Note I did not say it would be quick or easy :) )

  • Excellent piece Jamie! Even in our tiny(10 acre) pinot noir vineyard there are big variations in the flavour/tannin/ripening of the fruit. We took 1 tonne from a corner of the vineyard and vinified it separately (but using identical method) from the rest of our wines and the difference was striking. Fully agree that minimal faffing around in the winery is a key to allowing the expression of place.

  • Humans can’t keep their muddy feet out of anything:

    The best soils for Nobile di Montepulciano wine production… were Pleistocene and Holocene paleosols, formed as a consequence of unique natural and human induced geomorphological events. Therefore, they should be considered as cultural heritages.

    “Quaternary landscape history determines the soil functional characters of terroir”

    don’t tell the non-interventionists

  • Lee Newby

    I have been underwhelmed for many years by French producers’ use of the term, but on reading your book Authentic Wines I can wholly support your thesis and see how an authentic wine shows its roots, unless it’s so bretty I chuck it ;)

  • Belinda Kemp

    http://networkedblogs.com/nLqM9

    I suggest you read the above! It is a subject that will continue forever but placing a term (used NOT by winemakers worldwide i.e.”authentic” wines) in the same category as “terroir” is controversial and deserves scientific proof in my eyes which I am sure Dr Goode agrees with and understands!
    Interesting subject but will always attract passionate debate!

  • Shane Gordon

    I think wording is critical and as a passionate consumer of wine the terms: TYPICITY and UNIQUE would have greater value.

  • Hi, Jamie, some pics of British Columbian soil profiles and a suggestion or two about terroir. I think the difficulty is that we know so little, although we can intuit so much. The science of wine is in its infancy. As for a personal hunch, I think water is critical: the way it moves through the soil, the way it moves through the vine, the way it moves through the berry. But, short of that, the soil is pretty cool. Here you go:

    http://okanaganokanogan.wordpress.com/2012/01/12/terroir/

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