The Truth about Terroir

Terroir, of course, a term used – and occasionally abused – in the wine world, and not just by the French, refers to wines that exhibit the character of the place they originate, as opposed to “international wines” which taste as if they might come from any country in the world. Terroir is fundamentally a positive term, connoting strong identity, individuality and traceability. Assailed on all sides by homogeneity and “lowest-common-denominatorism”, it is important to encourage those artisan growers who capture the flavour of the real in their produce. We recognise the concept of cuisine de terroir, the simple hearty cooking based on local ingredients. It comes from the heart. The same goes for vins de terroir.

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For terroir to flourish “officially”, however, an appellation system needed to exist which laid down guidelines for what constituted regionality. The concept of terroir developed through centuries of French winemaking based on observation of what made wines from different regions, vineyards or even different sections of the same vineyard so different from each other. The French began to crystallize the concept of terroir as a way of describing the unique aspects of a place that influences and shapes the wine made from it. Long before the French, the winemaking regions of the ancient world already developed a concept of different regions having the potential to create very different and distinct wines, even from the same grapes. The Ancient Greeks would stamp amphorae with the seal of the region they came from and soon different regions established reputations based on the quality of their wines. For most of its history, Burgundy was cultivated by the literate and disciplined members of the Benedictine and Cistercian orders. With vast land holdings, the monks were able to conduct large scale observation of the influences that various parcels of land had on the wine it produced. Some legends have the monks going as far as “tasting” the soil. Over time the monks compiled their observations and began to establish the boundaries of different terroirs – many of which still exist today as the Grand Cru vineyards of Burgundy.

To qualify for appellation status wines had to be made from vines grown within a delimited area (although as knowledge of the area increases maps are inevitably redrawn; certain grape varieties were authorised and yields were regulated. The notion of appellation was not merely to protect heritage for heritage’s sake, but also a laudable attempt to define quality. The parcelling of vineyards, the knowledge of where to plant, the identification of best (cru) locations, derived from systematic observation. To understand one’s terroir was to understand that the building blocks of real wine emanated from a subtle cocktail of different factors, ranging from meso-and-microclimate, relief, geology and soil types to indigenous yeasts. The importance of these influences depends on the culture of a particular wine region. In France, particularly Burgundy, there is the belief that the role of winemaker is to bring out the expression of a wine’s terroir. The French word for winemaker, vigneron is more aptly translated to “wine-grower” rather than winemaker. The belief that the terroir is the dominant influence in the wine is the basis behind French wine label emphasizing the region, vineyard or AOC more prominently on the label rather than the grape varietal and often more prominently than the producer. As Nicolas Joly observes in his book Le Vin du Ciel – la Terre the creation of the first appellations controllees resulted in “une connaisance intime de terroirs fondee sur l’observation et l’experience de plusieurs generations de viticulteurs. Une experience qui avait conduit a l’union de tel cepage et de telle parcelle. De ces justes mariages devaient naitre des vins dont l’expression etait originale car intimement lie! – leur environnement et donc inimitable.”

It is tempting to say that terroir is a romantic invention of the French. Maybe it is that word – provocatively French – but the notion of terroir is embraced by every country (and region) on earth that is proud to advertise an individual vinicultural heritage. And terroir is not just the bare ingredients; it is the people who labour the soil and help to transform the grapes into a product with a unique identity.

This is one of those articles where I won’t say “here comes the science bit” as it is difficult to prove the correlation between what happens a geological and microbiological level and what flavours our palates may be uncovering.

Terroirists posit that flavour derives from a specific place. In Sancerre, for example, the existence of flints in the soil meant you would be more likely taste residual flickers of flintiness in the wine. It is, of course, more complex than the simple equation of flavour with the presence of a type of rock. The soil may be decomposed rocks, but the vine does not eat soil, although it does take in the moisture that passes through the soil with all its nutrients and minerals. Which is why organic and biodynamic viticulture are an essential part of realising terroir, for they help to stimulate the root systems to delve deeper in search of nourishment.  A thriving vineyard, one part of a rich biodiversity, creates its own healthy and original yeast culture, which is the very DNA of terroir.

les caves de pyrene

Stony eloquence…

TELL me where is Fancy bred,
Or in the heart or in the head?
How begot, how nourished?
Reply, reply.

Which brings us to minerality. Though it may be difficult to define everyone knows what it means, whilst some would seek to debunk the notion that we can actually taste minerals.

What do they taste like? Minerality is a sensation of texture in the mouth which confers structural definition to the overall impression of the wine. The descriptors I would normally associate with it are stone, metallic, shell-like and earthy notes condensed into a kind of saltiness. Consider the metallic flavour in certain wines from Friuli and Slovenia, taste the almost rusty earthiness in the Fer-influenced (iron) wines of Gaillac and Marcillac deriving (one imagines) from the famous rougier soils.

This quality is easier to identify on certain wines and grape varieties than others. Chardonnay, being relatively aromatically neutral, performs as a kind of sponge, absorbing myriad, subtle flavours both from the terroir and from winemaking techniques. We speak often, for example, about the minerality of wines from the Chablis region and the nuances that emanate from various combinations of lime, chalk and clay as well as the Kimmeridgean marl. The subsoil is formed from exoguira virgula (fossilised oyster shells) and the specific gout-à-terroir is said to originate from this. But the truth is more subtle; each tiny differential is magnified – from the aspect of the vineyard and the way the vines are trained to the precise composition of the soil, and this means that grapes harvested from contiguous vineyards and vinified in an identical fashion can still result in a wine that is radically different.

Some argue that the minerality one perceives on the palate is a lack of fruit ripeness; in other words the absence of ripeness manifests itself as an impression of minerality. This is a specious inference. If one examines wines from cooler climates such as Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé (and even Marlborough) with their long growing seasons it is not unripeness, but rather physiological maturity, that allows the maximum expression of minerality. The same applies to warm climates such as the Roussillon. The wines of Domaines Matassa, Pithon and Roc des Anges, for example, possess extraordinary mineral structure precisely because of the alliance of great terroir, old vines and physiological ripeness. Their natural acidity or low PH helps to convey the impression of minerality; it is not the reason for it.

This feature tends to be more pronounced with older vines (and naturally lower yields) with deeper root systems. Our numerous vieilles vignes Chenins from Anjou, Saumur and Montlouis exemplify where minerality underpins ripe fruit and combines with high acidity and a phenolic structure enabling the wines to age gracefully over decades. Minerality is the backbone given to the wine by the influence of the terroir; it buttresses the flavours with a determined structure.

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As usual the argument revolves around (or degenerates into) a cross-purposes discussion of what minerality is. By all means let us define our terms but let us not say that those terms can’t be defined. Just as people dispute the existence and influence of terroir because it can’t be precisely calibrated, so discussions inevitably boil down to what you think you can taste and what you can actually taste. One of the recurrent descriptors of minerality is “saline”. This is when the wine conveys the impression of mineral salts. It is not something that is specific to white or red wines, but is found more often on wines made from old vines with deep root systems.

Recent research, however, suggests that it is physiologically impossible to taste the influence of soil and that mineral salts are present in such insignificant concentrations that their flavours would not detected in a glass of wine. Effectively, we must then be hallucinating when we claim to taste volcanic ashy flavours in Santorini wines or those from Etna, flint in Sancerre, oyster shell in Chablis, limestone in Burgundy, granitic nuances in Muscadet and St Joseph and even though these aromas and flavours are experienced by different tasters, the inference is that those sensations are entirely coincidental and the result of something that is nothing to with the mineral content of the soil. Nor is it grape specific – the soil/stone/salt flavours seem to communicate themselves in different varieties, sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly.  Or are we all being bamboozled by our unreliable senses – a kind of collective self-hypnosis – and wishfully reading into our impressions  aromatics that are purely the consequence of certain molecules linking up in a particular way. McGee and Patterson in a recent article were quick to dismiss the fact that grapes derive any minerality from the soil; ergo, by their analysis, all taste in a wine must derive purely from the inherent flavour of the grape variety combined with fermentation aromas and other chemical reactions. Which might lead one to speculate about the difference between hard versus soft water as water is not manufactured yet it has distinctive saline/mineral flavours depending on the soils from which it is drawn. Since vines absorb water from the soil which is decomposed rock and other vegetable and mineral matter, may we not surmise that trace elements of that matter might be present in the wine in the form of salts?

McGee and Patterson also point out that sulphur compounds, created as a by-product of fermentation, influence the flavour of the wine. This may be a perfectly valid point but, just because we may detect aromas which happen to be the result of chemical or microbiological reactions, the terroir can still shine through.  In other words the juice of the grape may be transformed while the terroir signature flavours can still remain embedded. If you cook a chicken that is reared on a particular diet, the act of cooking will change the molecular composition of the chicken and concentrate flavours in a certain way, but you will still be able to taste the fact that the chicken was reared on that diet. Wine is the result of transformations; those transformations, if sensitively accomplished, do not mask the original nature of the wine.

If we are entirely to dismiss terroir then we should look at wines which are made in an identical fashion, using the same grape variety, trellising and canopy management systems, picked on the same day and fermented in vats at identical temperatures. (By the way McGee and Patterson are wrong. If you go to hundreds of wineries you will see exactly the same fermentation vessels and people making wine in the same way). If we were to taste half a dozen different vineyard plots we would find the wines different in a number of respects. The winemaker can either allow the expression of site: the single vineyard wine (microclimatic terroir) or blend the various wines together, yet the experienced taster can still pick out the different notes just as someone who listens to music can discern different instruments in a symphony.

Many decisions during the growing and winemaking process can either downplay or enhance the expression of terroir in the wine. These include decisions about pruning, irrigation and selecting time of harvest. At the winery the use of oak, cultured or ambient yeast, length of maceration and time in contact with lees, temperature during fermentation as well as processes like micro-oxygenation, chaptalisation, clarification with fining agents, and reverse osmosis all have the potential to either downplay or emphasize some aspect derived from the terroir. Winemakers can work between the extremes of producing wine that is terroir-driven and focused purely on expressing the unique aspects of a region terroir or winemaking that is done without any consideration given to terroir. Furthermore, it is possible to take into consideration certain terroir aspects like climate and soil type when making decisions such as which grape variety to plant with the goal of simply trying to make “good wine” rather than necessarily terroir-driven wine.

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A wine, like a person, is shaped by its experiences: in the vineyard, in the winery, and in the bottle. Where, when, and how it was made will all affect what it tastes like. Terroir is the word given to that part of a wine’s experience which is determined by place – the unique nature of the vineyard, its environmental, geological and topographical milieu – and time – the individual pattern of the growing season. It is more than an accent, it is the essence of the wine itself.

The aim of the natural vigneron is to allow his or her wines to express their terroir as purely and honestly as possible. Any attempt to manipulate or interfere with this expression is seen as a falsification, even if the result may serve to be more popular in the marketplace. For all the modifications that may result from the winemaking process this is what allows typicity to shine through. Scientific definitions abound about the various liaisons between microclimate and soil composition, but they can only scratch the surface of the philosophy. One basic formulation is well articulated by Bruno Prats in his article “The Terroir is Important” (Decanter 1983): “When a French wine grower speaks of a terroir, he means something quite different from the chemical composition of the soil – The terroir is the coming together of the climate, the soil and the landscape.” Even this definition seems conservative in one respect for in the wider sense terroir embodies the scarcely tangible notion of “respect”: respect for the land and the environment, respect for the season, respect for history, respect for culture. The ultimate shape of the wine is determined by how the vigneron cleaves to this respect.

Wine may be liquid; it also has form in the mouth. The texture a wine has, and the shapes it creates, is the way it expresses the terroir that is its primary function to interpret (with the help of the vigneron). Terroir is identity.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Keith Reeves

    Educative and exciting piece – surely a seminal article on the subject.
    ‘Terroir is identity’ may now be the motto.

  2. blog

    Thanks Keith!

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