Do we overstate the importance of terroir?

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Do we overstate the importance of terroir?

terroir

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.

14 Comments on Do we overstate the importance of terroir?
wine journalist and flavour obsessive

14 thoughts on “Do we overstate the importance of terroir?

  1. I certainly agree that non-terroir wines can be serious, and very high quality. But they are also imitable, which is why I find them much less interesting and exciting. The Grange model can create beautiful wines, but as fine wine goes they’re not very stimulating to taste because the flavour profile is constructed (however seamless, balanced, complex they may be…).

    Terroir to wine is a bit like “organic” is to food. There is a general assumption that both imply quality by default, which is wrong of course. Terroir wines can be bad, and non-terroir wines can be great, but it’s only the former that are really interesting.

    Therefore, to answer your question I would say that although we may overstate the ability of terroir to directly boost wine quality, it still remains an essential element of truly fine wine.

  2. Of course I’d add Sherry as another wine which doesn’t necessarily reflect terroir.

    Jamie, you have previously mentioned terroir as being very important because (to paraphrase) it defines the ceiling for how good a particular wine can be. But I wonder how many wines (even among “fine wines”, however we make that distinction) come close to hitting that ceiling; I postulate that fewer don’t hit it, than do.

    I also think that the reflection of terroir in wine is sometimes a conscious stylistic decision. With a good site for Riesling it would be crazy to intervene too much, but if growing Chardonnay then most winemakers are going to use some of the tools and techniques of their trade.

  3. From my point of view “terroir” is widely related to the winemaker who is able to achieve that outstanding wine that nobody else is able, using the same grapes… There is specially in Spain, a new wave of winemakers who look for those vines able to express the terroir to achieve great wines, whith soul as you say in your comment. But I’m sure that without the passion, knowledge and understanding of vinegrowing of these winemakers, the great wines that are coming up these days, would not express the “terroir”.

  4. Terrior in its broadest sense does make a difference but we should also not downplay the role, however, respectful of the viticulturist and winemaker. I like the analogies of the role of these two grape and wine specialists are as an artist or a watchful parent. Intervention is required but it can be sensitive or heavy-handed. As well terror, in terms of marketing and promoting wines that are made respectfully of their place is helpful in differentiating them from the huge if not overwhelming range of products out there.

  5. i think I read in one of your own books that Randall Graham of Bonny Doon has done an interesting experiment with different rock types place inside 4 different barrels of the same wine and observe/taste the difference… He said the wines had more intense focus if I recall correctly. One might say verve or even nerve. I believe geological formations efffect the end result of a wines taste and structure without doubt. But what about a Nuits st George’s grown on slopes near cassis bushes or Cornas grown on terraces with peach orchards below, or Bandol next to cherry groves. All have an influence. Smoke from a wild bush fire or the tarring of a new road next to a vineyard site.. These two influence the flavour profile of a wine. We know that yeast alters the flavour spectrum too… But what about clones of The same varietal grown on the same vineyard site.. They all differ too. Anyway, it’s baffling- but hell it’s interesting! Thanks for all your great books and blogs Jamie. At last a writer that’s turned it on its head.

  6. Good question and needs some thought. I am a fan of Languedoc and feel that most of the reds exhibit “terroir’.
    Ask this question on most wine forums and impressions are varied (am being polite).

  7. Smarter winemakers in CA refuse to use the term. I asked one of them about terroir, and he said, “Let’s talk about it in about 100 years.”

  8. One need only spend a few days in Bourgogne to fully appreciate the influence of terroir. Taste at just a couple producers, for example, Alain Coche in Meursault for the Côte de Beaune, and Noellat in Vosne Romanee for the Côte de Nuits. Both producers make wines from a dozen or more vineyards. Tasting the same wine-making “hand” in wines from different climats, one can easily see the influence of terroir. In Burgundy, unlike most of the world, written records and local tradition bring 1500+ years of experience to the concept of terroir. So, I would answer the question with a confident “no” regarding Burgundy, and other old world regions with significant history. Good question and commentary, thank you.

  9. No, we can not overstate the potential influence of terroir on the character of final wine. Unfortunately the word terroir is overused and abused by wineries (and writers) for the purpose of creating a story. I agree Jamie, if wineries want to talk about terroir influence then don’t over-extract, over-oak and pick late. We don’t need to wait “100 years” to talk about terroir. The influence of site can show very early in exceptional sites where the grapes are treated sensitively in the winery. Of course, most people are not interested in where their wine comes from but for people interested in the connection between a wine and a particular site then it is up to the winery to make sure that connection is real and not just marketing speak.

  10. OK I’m going to come out and say it in public (well public enough to those who read this)…
    I’ve tasted Grange twice in my life and been less than underwhelmed. The first example (about a 2000 vintage) had EA (think nail polish). If I’d paid for it, I would have asked for my money back. No one should have to drink EA riddled wine. The next try (about 1975 vintage) again underwhelming. OK it was up against some good wines in that tasting, but still it was bland.
    So for me Grange is a good example that terroir matters.
    Re Brad’s comments: It’s more like as you get closer to quality you get closer to both terroir and organics. Not the other way round. There is no point being dogmatic about terroir or organics if what you produce is rubbish.
    Regarding beer: more and more these days crafters of fine beer are announcing the source of there hops and sometimes water. Barley doesn’t seem to be important at this stage.

  11. Terroir is directly proportional to the amount of additives put in the field and in the bottle. All mineral, pH, pesticides and eccentricities present in the soil will find its way to the grapes. The evolution of the fruit is marked by the water, the sun, the altitude, the temperature and the day/night variations. There is no such thing as a “non terroir” wines. A wine may also be the sum of different terroirs.
    Any of the possible synthetic yeasts or 150 additives that can be legally added to a bottle of wine invariably alters the essence of that wine and takes you away from that sense of terroir. A garden tomato is a garden tomato. No one doubts the richness and surprise of that experience. It’s always about making exquisite fruit and not destroying the potential in the elaboration. There should be so much to say about a garden tomato!

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