A while back I wrote a lengthy piece examining the thorny issue of 'terroir', which
provoked some strong responses and robust discussion (link here). One of my main points was that it's quite difficult
discussing a concept that means different things to different people. Consequently, I
thought it might be worth trying to nail down some sort of working definition for
'terroir'. So here's my stab at this -- and as usual I'd welcome your input and criticism.
Terroir as a philosophy
First off, though, I'm aware that some readers will find my approach puzzling and even
frustrating. Why is it that I'm so anxious to try to define things, pin down mechanisms,
and get all scientific? For many, terroir is an ethos or philosophy. It's a unifying
theory encapsulating a certain approach to wine that encompasses the almost metaphysical
circle of soil, nature, appellation and human activity. As a philosophy it clashes with
the reductionist new world grape-variety and 'winemaker'-dominated approach. For these
people, the mechanisms and scientific underpinnings of terroir are somewhat irrelevant.
I'm not unsympathetic with this approach, but I'm coming at this from a different angle. I
have a fascination for how things work, and I firmly believe that in the right hands,
understanding can bring progress, but dogma rarely does -- unless, of course, you are
happy in the belief that the sun revolves around the earth.
Consider the following theoretical scenario. Producer X has a vineyard on a south-facing
slope, which she has spilt into ten different plots according to differences in soil type,
but all of which planted with the same grape variety/clone/rootstock. She then vinifies
each of those plots separately before blending, but in an identical fashion. Would you
expect the wines all to taste different? I would. Of course, in the real world it's likely
that different plots would not only differ in soil composition, but also other
microenvironmental factors such as sun exposure, average temperature and rainfall. In
reality, many producers do vinify grapes from different plots separately, and these soil
and microenvironmental differences are commonly reflected in the character of the wines
from each. These differences extend to the regional level: I've tasted wines made by the
same winemaker from Syrah grapes grown in different regions: as you might expect, the
wines tasted completely different. To my mind, these sorts of site-specific or regional
differences are at the heart of terroir.
Just how do soils affect the flavour of the final wine?
Firstly, there is the purely physical factor of drainage. This is likely to have a
significant impact on the fruit quality: vines are known to prefer well-drained soils.
Another physical property of the soil has to do with how it reflects the sunlight back
onto the vine. Darker soils will absorb and radiate heat better, and there's the oft-cited
example of the galets (large, slab-like pebbles) in the vineyards of Châteaneuf du Pape
that act as storage heaters, soaking up the heat of the day and then slowly radiating it
back to the vines. Finally, the chemical composition of the soil is likely to be
important. Mineral ions in the rhizosphere have been shown to alter plant metabolism, and
although to my knowledge this has not been specifically studied with grapevines, it is
probably also true for them. But I'd exclude from my definition of terroir the concept
that soils can directly influence the character of a wine, for instance, by flavour
compounds in the soil being directly translocated to the grapes. This sort of mechanism is
not impossible, but it does seem to be hugely implausible. I'm not a root physiologist,
but I do have a PhD in plant biology, and I've yet to hear a convincing explanation for
how soil components can directly alter the flavour of a grapes and hence the finished
wine. This is a subject I've discussed in (rather too much) depth in my former article, so
I will point readers to this for a more detailed coverage. Suffice to say, stony, earthy
or mineral flavours in a wine are not necessarily 'terroir' notes. If a wine grown on
chalky soil tastes chalky, it's an unjustified leap of faith to say that this is the
'terroir' speaking. The minerals in the soil may be fortuitously imparting chalky notes to
the wine indirectly by altering the vine's metabolism, but you'd only be able to tell this
by comparing this wine with one made from the same grapes grown on different soils and
vinified in a similar way.
I'd also exclude winemaking differences from my definition of terroir, otherwise the
subject just gets far to complex and woolly. I'd add here that certain winemaking
practices can completely obscure any differences in terroir, which tend to be best
expressed in more traditional-styled wines. Full flavoured, highly extracted and overoaked
new world reds tend to taste quite similar even from continent to continent!
Implicit in the above is the idea that terroir expresses itself in the differences
between wines. It isn't possibly to taste the 'terroir' in a wine, unless you are
comparing wines produced from different vineyard sites, or you have prior knowledge of the
wine. For example, you may know that Chardonnay grown on one soil type in Burgundy has
particular characteristics that set it apart from Chardonnay grown on a nearby vineyards
with different soils. It would be fair to say that these characteristics are from
'terroir'. Likewise, if you are faced with 10 wines produced by the same producer from
different vineyard sites, the terroir would be apparent in the different flavours of each.
So here it is: my working definition. I'd maintain simply that terroir consists of the
site- or region-specific characteristics of a wine. I think this is broad enough to
encompass all the useful potential meanings of the term, yet narrow enough to exclude the
controversial or plain misleading ones. What do you think?
As a somewhat different way of looking at the concept of "terroir", here is my
TERROIR (Fr "soil") - The ecology of a wine. The
total, inter-related environment wherein a grapevine is cultivated for the purpose of
making wine. Key factors include, but are not limited to, cultivar type, soil, climate,
vineyard location, planting density, training system, pruning philosophy & the
cultural and social milieu wherein the whole enterprise takes place.
As you can see, since I claim that "terroir" is
the ecology of a wine, it follows logically that all wines will have a certain terroir.
However, certain wines reflect their ecology more than others (just like certain people
reflect their "neighborhood", etc. more than others), and the terroir of these
wines is therefore more clear, influential and definable than the terroir of a wine which
does not clearly reflect its ecology.
In the world of wine appreciation, we say that these wines which highly reflect their
ecology have a "goût de terroir". Again, to use a human cultural analogy, such
wines are not unlike individuals which clearly reflect their geographic background (by
virtue of their habits, dress, accent, etc.).
The Viticulture FAQ & Glossary - http://www.itsmysite.com/vitfaq