terroir 2I’m giving a presentation on terroir this week so I’ve been thinking about the controversies that surround this mysterious concept.

Is terroir real or is it a cheap marketing device used to encourage the romantic idea that wine is not just fermented grape juice but a reflection of a unique piece of hallowed land?

Terroir” refers to the natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including the varietals planted, the climate/weather system, landscape and soil. The term also sometimes refers to the characteristic flavors imparted to the wine by that environment. The concept has been used for centuries to market wine and sell regional characteristics, especially in Europe where wines have traditionally been labeled according to their geographic origin rather than type of grape.

For many wine connoisseurs, the ability of a wine to express it’s terroir is the very essence of wine quality.

Other’s think it’s a lot of bunk and of relatively little importance in explaining wine quality. For these terroir skeptics, it’s the decisions made by the winemaker about vineyard practices and winemaking techniques that explain wine quality. By itself, the vineyard won’t produce quality wine without the right judgments made about canopy management, yield, watering program, when to pick, fermentation temperatures, use of yeast, aging program, etc.

So who is right? Does the vineyard or the winemaker make the wine?

Both sides have a point. Wine doesn’t make itself. It’s a human product that requires very careful cultivation in the vineyard and winery. Score one for the skeptics.

But on a good site, in a good year in which the weather cooperates,  following standard practices in the vineyard and winery, with careful monitoring to make sure nothing goes south, will produce good wine. Score one for the terroirists. But even the terroirists will admit that it’s in bad years where the winemaker really earns her salary. Score another point for the skeptics, although in bad years obviously the weather matters which shows the importance of terroir—so let’s call that a draw.

Well this is getting tedious. Look, everyone in the wine business knows that there are good and bad vineyard sites and that climate and weather have a huge effect on wine quality. It is also well known that aspect to the sun, elevation, and other characteristics of the terrain explain differences between vineyards. The influence of soil is more complicated. Drainage and aeration matter and soil types help determine which varietals will flourish in a particular vineyard. But on the question of how soil composition effects flavor there is lots of disagreement, and the science is a long way from providing an answer. I just spent 5 weeks in the Willamette Valley Oregon where everyone talks endlessly about dirt—but I came away thinking the clonal mix in the vineyard was more important than soil type. And there is some evidence that yeast and microbial life in the vineyard plays a significant role as well.

To deny that terroir matters is foolish. Of course it matters. The question is to whom.

The real issue is whether these geographical factors leave a signature in the wine, a distinctive flavor peculiar to a region or vineyard, that attentive tasters can discern. The answer is yes if the winemaker has taken pains to preserve those distinctive flavors and if a given taster has the breadth and depth of tasting experience to pick out that subtle signature. But that means it matters to only a small subset of all wine drinkers and winemakers.

If you buy your wine from a supermarket, terroir does not matter. Wineries with a distribution large enough to fill supermarket shelves harvest grapes from multiple vineyards in many locations. These wines are blends and any distinctive characteristics from a single vineyard (or in most cases a single region) have been blended away, not to mention the processes of industrial winemaking that tend to strip away the subtle, distinctive flavors that reflect terroir. And unless you constantly taste wine thoughtfully from a particular region you will likely not develop the discernment to recognize those flavors.

Terroir is the playground of committed winemakers seeking a unique expression of place and connoisseurs who revel in those particularities that only terroir can provide.

The rest of us can pound sand or clay or whatever.

When you see the word terroir on the back of your supermarket wine, it’s marketing, not quality. But if you want to really explore the full potential of wine then learning to taste terroir in the glass is the only way to get there.