Few terms in the wine world are more controversial than “terroir”, the French word meaning “from the soil”. Terroir refers to the influence of soil, geography, and climate on the wine in your glass. According to some “terroirists”, when we drink wine that expresses terroir, we feel connected to a particular plot of land and its unique characteristics, and by extension, its inhabitants, their struggles, achievements, and sensibility.
But many writers and winemakers are skeptical of the idea.
In the June edition of Zester, Paul Lukacs argues it is a myth on which wine buyers should not get “hung up”. But the existence of terroir is not in doubt. The influence of geography on the flavors and aromas of wine has been thoroughly established by science as well as thousands of years of wine making.
To defend his story about “mythology” Lukacs trots out the canard that “tasting a place literally means eating dirt.” But this idea that we literally taste compounds that once existed in the soil has been widely discredited. Happily, we don’t taste “dirt” in wines. We taste compounds that are produced by the interactions of soil, weather, and the structure of the grapevine. In the greatest vineyards, these compounds produce unique flavors characteristic of only that region or vineyard. “Tasting dirt” is beside the point. What is important is that such wines are unique products of a specific place.
Apparently what Mr. Lukacs really means by “myth” is that most of the wines we buy in the supermarket are blends made from grapes grown in various vineyards and from many different regions. Thus, the finished product doesn’t exhibit the unique features of a single place. Moreover, most of these wines have been produced by industrial methods, which mask the subtle differences that the vineyard can impart to the grapes. In this, Lukacs is surely correct. Whatever virtues your large-production $10 Chardonnay might have, it will not reflect the unique properties of a particular location. It is a mass-produced, industrial product. If the marketing materials for that wine are waxing poetic about terroir, they are indeed creating mythology like all false advertising. If you buy your wine in a supermarket, then Mr. Luckac’s advice to not get hung up on terroir is sound advice.
The problem is that Mr. Lukacs ignores the many wines that are not mass-produced and in which the winemaker does strive to preserve the signal of terroir in the flavors and aromas of the finished product. For many wine lovers, this flavor is special and worth paying for because it is unique. No other wine will taste quite like that one. These wines are not hard to find. Any wine shop will carry some small-production, artisanal products because they are in demand by people who have studied and enjoy them.
When Lukacs then argues that “if you want to taste terroir you can, but its source will be as much in you as in any vineyard,” he is leaving the impression that wine lovers who enjoy terroir are just making stuff up. But the taste of terroir is no more in you that any other taste is. The taste of terroir is caused by properties of the vineyard or region in which the grapes are grown that leave their influence on compounds in the grapes. These compounds are detectable by tasters familiar with them. There is nothing mythological about this. Of course it is true that we can make a decision to value terroir or not. That is entirely up to individuals. If you don’t care about it, then don’t seek out those wines. But the fact that Mr. Lukacs apparently doesn’t care about it is not evidence that it is a myth.
The wines most people drink are industrial wines. They may taste quite good but they will not express the unique properties of a place. Mr. Lukacs is correct that often the marketing materials for these wines suggest a spiritual connection with the land that is in fact not there. But many of the wines that wine writers rave about provoke our imaginations and satisfy a longing for connection to particular places and cultures. They are the genuine article and it is misleading to suggest otherwise.