stones in the vineyardWine writer Margaret Rand has written the best piece I’ve read on terroir in a long time. We all know that climate deeply influences what a wine is capable of. We know that because of vintage variation. We also know that soil type and drainage characteristics deeply influence how wine tastes. We know that because the same varietal and clone from the same producer from the same vintage using the same winemaking practices on sites with different soils can produce quite different wines.

But we don’t get those differences without countless decisions made in the vineyard and winery by the winemaker as well as the feedback loop between consumers, critics, and producers that influence wine styles. So Rand asks:

How much terroir expression do we really want? And, most importantly, who decides what the expression of a terroir should be?

My contention is that we want something that we can describe as terroir expression, rather than the full-on thing itself. Do we want to buy wines that are dilute from rain, suburnt from heat or mouldy from rot? Not particularly. But rain, heat and rot are part of terroir. We want the pretty face of terroir; the taste (we imagine) of stones, but not of mud. We want it tidied into perfect balance.

“Terroir” refers to the relationship between geography, geology, and the vines—the raw material that the winemaker has to work with. But even that raw material is the result of decades, in some cases centuries, of co-evolution between a wine culture and a place.

After listing the litany of decisions winemakers routinely make when getting grapes to express terroir Rand writes:

Even if you chuck the grapes into an amphora and go away for six months, that is a decision and an intervention. (And might or might not end well; we tend not to see the disasters.) There is no reason why that should give greater terroir expression, if that is your desire, than anything else. The rival claims by lovers of field blends, all picked and fermented together on the same day, and by lovers of separate parcels of separate varieties, each picked separately at optimum ripeness, to superior terroir expression, should make one wonder about what terroir expression actually is.

What we taste in wines of terroir is distinctiveness and variation. Distinctiveness and variation come from the confluence of geography, geology, the vines, the winemaker and her culture. Trying to sort out which of those factors is the main factor is like trying to figure out where the child of tone-deaf parents got her musical ability. Complex phenomena are chaotic and don’t lend themselves to simple causal explanations.

“Terroir” is a useful concept because it reminds us of the importance of geography and geology. But it is more inspirational than explanatory and a charm to ward off technocracy.