Few terms in the wine world are more controversial than “terroir“, the French word meaning “of the soil”. “Terroir” refers to the influence of soil (and sometimes climate) on the wine in your glass. But the meaning of “terroir” is not restricted to a technical discussion of soil structure or the influence of climate. Part of the romance of wine is that it (allegedly) expresses the particular character of a region and perhaps its people as well. 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.
There is no reliable scientific evidence that the taste of the soil is somehow transferred directly to the grapes. Nevertheless, some wine regions do seem to have distinct flavor and aroma characteristics that suggest local soil and climate conditions play a significant role in the taste of wine; and expert wine tasters must learn to distinguish those characteristics.
The concept of terroir, however, has many doubters and debunkers who argue it is all just a romantic bit of mythology invented to convince customers that inferior wines are special because they exhibit a sense of place.
The issue is not whether soil and climate influence grapes. Of course they do. The issue is whether broad patterns of characteristic flavors related to geographic regions can be discerned in the glass. Last week Steve Heimoff, wine critic for the Wine Enthusiast, added some fuel to the fire.
Personally, I always had my doubts. While I could certainly tell that Napa Valley Cabernet was better than Cabs from elsewhere (as a general rule; not always in every instance), I always felt some skepticism when someone told me about how radically different Rutherford and Oakville were, or Howell Mountain and Mount Veeder. I didn’t see it quite that way. But one learns to keep one’s mouth shut in such cases: I feared that perhaps it was my lack of ability that prevented me from detecting what seemed so obvious to others.
Heimoff was prompted to engage in this bit of self-reflection by Benjamin Lewin’s new book, Claret & Cabs. Lewin argues that Bordeaux wines no longer express terroir because they now pick riper berries, use fewer varietals, and source grapes from more dispersed geographical locations than in the past, thus making the wines taste more alike, unless differences are created in the winery.
In a subsequent post, Heimoff argues that winemaking in California–which in addition to the terroir-destroying factors mentioned in Bordeaux employs more oak and greater standardization of winemaking techniques as well–is even less terroir-driven.
Heimoff is to be commended for his courage in exposing the emperor’s state of undress. The idea of wine expressing a sense of place has become one of the main marketing ploys used by the wine industry; if there is less here than meets the nose, wineries may have a harder time differentiating themselves from competitors.
It seems to me Heimoff is making an important point. If a wine expresses its terroir, it is because the vineyard has unique characteristics of soil composition, microclimate in and around the vineyard, elevation, aspect of the vineyard and its relation to the sun, and perhaps local concentrations of certain yeasts and bacteria. These features apply to very small areas—particular vineyards or even portions of a vineyard. Larger areas of land will exhibit a great deal of variation with respect to these factors.
Thus, talk of the terroir of large entities such as Napa or Sonoma or even of sub-regions such as Rutherford or Oakville is nonsense. There is simply too much variation within these regions to produce repeatable, identifiable flavor characteristics in the wine.
The concept of terroir is applicable only when referring to small, relatively homogeneous areas and is most applicable only in wine regions—Burgundy, some parts of Germany and Italy—where wines are identified and sold based on these small plots of land.
Andrew Jeffords, wine writer for Decanter, reinforces this conclusion in a blog post primarily devoted to terroir in Scotch. He recounts this interesting experiment:
Winemaker Celia Welch described how she and her ex-husband once tried to make exactly the same wine in exactly the same way, but in two different winery locations. Sure enough, the two finished wines were different from one another, even though fruit source was identical and the winery gestures were as close as they could conceivably be to one another. The micro-environments in which wine comes into being — the tanks, the pipes, the pumps, the barrels — had had a huge influence, as well as the way the winemaker interacted with them. “When you make wine,” said Celia, “there are so many things you have to do, and you do them all in your own way”.
So minor differences matter, whether in the vineyard or the winery, in determining how the wine turns out. The irony is that the more these small differences matter, the less likely they are to produce broad patterns in flavors that can be detected across large geographical regions.
Terroir is real but just a gimmick when applied to regions too large to limit variations in factors influencing taste.