Do we make too much of terroir?
Once in a while, it’s good for us to question ourselves. Far too often we assume that our perspective is the only one, and we fail to acknowledge that others can see the world quite differently, without necessarily being wrong. So I’d like to begin to question some of my views in public. One of these is my belief that terroir is central to fine wine.
What do I mean by ‘terroir’ here? It’s the notion that the vineyard site – the combination of soils and climates – is critical to wine quality. That is, not all vineyards are created equal. Some are especially privileged sites that are capable of making great wines. Also, my concept of terroir encompasses the idea that interesting, authentic wines somehow manage to capture place: they taste the way they do because of where they come from.
So, according to my view, the first duty of interesting wine is to express its vineyard origins. For cheap wine, it’s great if this can be achieved, but I recognize the commercial reality that inexpensive wines are usually blended across a number of sites, and will only really express terroir in a broader sense.
But what about wines that make no attempt to express place? Wines that are blends of different sites, where the terroir is used in order to provide blending components, but is then lost in the creation of the whole wine? Or wines that are crafted by the hand of the winemaker to produce a wine in a style that has little connection with place?
Can these wines be serious? If so, have I overstated the importance of terroir?
Let’s make a comparison with beer. I love interesting beer, but it is not the same as wine in that it is manufactured from ingredients by a brewer, with help from microbes. With wine, most of us shy away from the idea that it is manufactured by the winemaker. The grapes are more than mere ingredients because they carry in themselves so much of the character of the final wine.
Given a batch of grapes, there’s only so much a winemaker can do with them, compared with wheat, barley or rye in the hands of a brewer. It’s as if harvesting the grapes is an act much further along the drink creation process than harvesting the grains that make beer.
It follows from this that with beer, you can’t have the same notion of terroir, or sense of place. Interestingly, the quality of local water has given many beer styles a sense of place in that some waters are better for some styles of beer, so the local beer styles reflected the talents of the local water. But now we know this, it’s possible to for us to modify water to suit the style of beer we want to brew. So my acceptance of ‘manufacturing’style by a brewer doesn’t imply that I should also be equally accepting of manufacturing of style by the winemaker.
There are two wine styles I can think of that don’t rely on terroir in the conventional sense. They are Champagne and Vintage Port, and I like both very much. Both have traditionally been made by cellarmasters skilled in the art of blending, where wines from different sites bring their own characteristic contributions to the blend. Vintage Port is interesting because in a declared year, the top wines from each producer are blends from a number of quintas, whereas in lesser years the wines are released as single quinta wines for about half the price. This is in reverse to the way things usually work with table wines, where single site bottlings are usually sold at a premium.
|It is interesting to note that at the high end, Champagne seems to be moving more in the direction of terroir wines, with top grower/domaine wines gaining a lot of interest.
For still table wines, I’m struggling to think of compelling examples that suggest the role of terroir is being overplayed. At last, it seems the big, extracted, over-ripe, over-oaked wines that got so much attention from top critics are now beginning to fall out of fashion. These wines have had any sense of place obliterated from them. While there are still many who enjoy them, and are prepared to pay lots of money from them, there are very few serious commentators who are still defending this style.
Look at Bordeaux. In the 2010 vintage, some wines were being made at 15 or even 16% alcohol. This isn’t necessarily a crime on its own, although there aren’t many high alcohol reds that are at all interesting, but in Bordeaux, which has terroirs capable of finesse, balance, complexity and ageability, to make this sort of over-ripe big wine is morally questionable. There aren’t that many great terroirs in the world, and if you are lucky enough to be a custodian of one, then you are deranged if you lose that terroir, either through picking too late and using too much oak, or by allowing wine faults to drown out the quiet voice of the vineyard.
One famous example of a non-terroir wine is Penfolds Grange, Australia’s celebrity red, which enjoys legendary status. This wine has changed its style over the years (I remember drinking 1970s bottles with 12.5% alcohol – its around 14.5% now), and is a blend from a number of vineyards, aged in American oak and with added acid and tannin. It’s not a terroir wine. But does this present a plausible case for non-terroir wines being serious? If Grange were released today, without the back story, it would be recognized as a deliciously ripe, polished, modern wine, but I reckon it would really struggle to achieve anything close to the celebrity status it enjoys today.
Can we taste terroir? This is one objection to the emphasis on terroir, and I think it’s a legitimate one. Certain sites are capable of greatness, for sure. But when two winegrowers make wines from the same vineyard, can we recognize that vineyard blind, even when both wines are made very well in a manner sympathetic to terroir expression? This is tricky. I’d say, sometimes yes, sometimes no. Terroir is important, but the link between soils and wine flavour is a complex one.
When I think about it deeply, I have to admit that terroir is a vague and often imprecise notion. It’s like catching a glimpse of something in your peripheral vision, but then when you turn to look at it, it has gone. Nonetheless, I can’t get away from it. In it’s wonderfully fleeting, complex way, I reckon terroir deserves to remain at the heart of fine wine. It’s the soul of wine, and like the soul, it’s very hard to define, but that doesn’t stop it being of utmost importance.