What does terroir taste of?
An exploration of this important concept: is it a property of a wine?

There are three major influences on the taste of wine: grape variety, terroir and winemaking.

And of these three, perhaps the most interesting is terroir, which here I am defining as the physical environment the grape vine grows in, including human factors such as cultivation methods.

Terroir could justifiably be considered as the unifying theory of fine wine. Not all vineyard sites are equal, and no matter how talented the winemaker and how meticulous the viticulture, you can't make a great wine if you don't have a great terroir.

And we love to talk about terroir, and how it creates a 'sense of place' in a wine. But there's a question that I have never seen addressed before. What does terroir taste of?

Extending this question, we can ask: is terroir a property of the wine?

Imagine the following scenario. I sit down with a winemaker. She pours me one of her wines, and I take a sip. She asks, 'Can you taste the terroir?'

It's an almost unanswerable question. To pose it in the first place makes the assumption that terroir has a specific taste that a skilled taster should be able to recognize. I don't think this is the case, or if it is, it is rare. [Aside: is being able to recognize the origin of a wine, down to the vineyard site, a proof that terroir has a taste? Or is it about learning and experience. I think there is a difference. The terroir can influence the character of a wine without having a taste. But this may be a controversial statement.] I can't think of many instances where terroir is a taste, as oak might be. If you ask me, 'can you taste the oak in this wine?', often this would be possible. And we know the flavour compounds that oak barrels can impart to wines. 

These chemicals have a taste, assuming that the taster doesn't have a specific anosmia or aguesia which would render them unable to taste or smell the various flavour compounds from oak. Thus we could argue that the taste of oak is a property of the wine (when oak has been used this way), or at the very least a property of the interaction between the taster and the wine.

But in most cases you can't identify a specific taste in a wine and say 'that is terroir!' Terroir is therefore not a property of the wine.

However, terroir is quite clearly evident in differences between wines. If the winemaker were to pour me two glasses of wine, both from the same variety but from vineyard blocks with different physical properties (perhaps different aspects, or one from the top of the hill, the other from the bottom, or made from adjacent plots with different soils), then I might well spot a difference. In some cases, winemaking practices might obliterate the subtle differences, but if the winemaking has been sensitive, the differences in the wines would be detectable.

Terroir is therefore evident by comparison.

In this case we could argue that terroir is not a property of a wine, but that it belongs to a comparison made by skilled tasters. It is only evident where there is a high level of wine expertise making an assessment. 

Here we come to the notion of the sense of place. What is this? Can a wine possess 'somewhereness'?

Imagine a person who has grown up in a small village, celebrated for its wines. They are intimately acquainted with that place: the sights, smells, weather, culture, tastes. But with one exception: they have never tasted any of the village's wines.

Some years later, they move away from the village. They are presented with five different wines to taste blind, one of which comes from the village they grew up in. Do they stand a better than even chance of identifying this village?

Sense of place is an abstract property: it is something we learn to associate with a wine where that wine has distinctive flavour that is unique to that place. And where white and red grape varieties are grown in adjacent plots, even if the soil is homogeneous, the resulting wines are usually completely different, yet we might consider both to express a sense of place, even though they have little in common.

So this massive emphasis on the importance of terroir seems a little shaky, in that it is an abstract concept, and is not something that a wine possesses. Are we over-emphasizing it? I still think it is an interesting concept and that it's an important one for fine wines, but I do think that it is over-used, and used carelessly. The term 'sense of place' is also over-used.

Terroir helps to create the wonderful diversity of wines that we enjoy as wine nuts. But it seems to do it quite subtly and indirectly.

Wine flavour chemistry is complex and poorly understood, and is an emergent property of interactions among taste- and odour-active chemicals (some at subthreshold levels, but in combination having an effect). It is all assembled in our brains and jiggled around a bit before we are even aware of it consciously. Our prior experience and the information we possess about a wine also helps shape this information in a way that is out of our control.

All the flavour chemicals in wine are produced by grape berries, or are made by yeasts and bacteria from precursors present in the must, or are made directly by these yeasts and bacteria, or come from oak. The only exception might be mineral flavours coming from the soil, but this is highly controversial. Mineral ions don't usually taste or smell of much, and are present at very low concentrations indeed in the wine. But the possibility remains that they could be affecting the flavour of the wine.

Soils and environments change flavour by affecting the biology of the grape vine, which is a step away from the actual flavour of the wine. Terroir's effect on flavour is therefore to alter the berry composition indirectly, which in the final wine might result in the presence or absence of certain flavour components, or more likely a relative difference in their levels.

The effect of terroir is also indirectly affecting wine flavour by influencing the wine grower. Your knowledge of terroir might lead you to act differently in the cultivation of specific vineyard sites and the way you make the wine from them. This might be in a more scientific sense (for example, you know the vineyard tends to make reductive wines so you alter the way you make the wine) or it may be more subtle (a vineyard makes very expensive wines so you take extra care and also use more expensive oak). The mindset of the winegrower will affect the flavour of wine in quite significant ways.

In this sense, terroir can become a cultural concept, shared among growers in a certain wine region. In this sense it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even within a single winery, if there is selection at the blending stage, this can be led so that lots going to terroir-designated bottlings can be selected on the basis of how much they taste like the winegrower's idea of that terroir.

So, to conclude. I would argue that terroir is not a property of a wine, in that it is something you can taste in the wine. In the absence of information or comparison, a taster would not be able to pick up a glass of wine, taste it, and identify terroir, or indeed whether or not this wine possessed a sense of place.

Instead, terroir is something that we attribute to a wine. It is evident by comparison, or it is something a taster with lots of prior experience and knowledge is able to discern in a wine. It doesn't mean that terroir is insignificant or of little significance I still believe it to be a vital concept for wine wine it just means that we should be a little more cautious in our usage of the term, and not make too many assumptions.

See also:

Is wine flavour an objective property?


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