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01 January 2000

Wine jargon: "terroir"

Terroir (tair with guttural rr + woir)
Earth, wind and fire or terroir?

When visiting French wine growers in particular, you’re likely to be suffocated by the T word: terroir (although I've recently noticed lots of discussion about terroir-ism in the US too - see below). This word is often bandied about ad nauseum, sometimes for the wrong reasons or without real meaning. So here's an attempt to summarise all the arguments on the subject that have come my way.
Terroir is basically untranslatable into English, in one word, but has physical, cultural and philosophical connotations. The concept combines specific site – its soil and structure, topography (slope/flat, altitude, exposure etc.), water holding/drainage, local climate, suitability to the variety planted and hence how it grows & ripens – with the way the grower thinks, works and thus interacts with the land (nuances of the English words terrain and territory) to maximise grape quality. All of this should be enhanced, rather than dominated by the winemaker (who may or may not be the same person) to convey a unique ‘sense of place’ or typicité to the actual flavour and consistent character of the wine.
Traditionally, terroir is at the root of appellation or geographical origin. In reality, there's perhaps some truth to this but scale is very important in my opinion. There can not be one distinct terroir for a wine region the size of Margaux, Napa Valley or Coonawarra, just as there isn't one soil type or microclimate or grape variety. Sometimes you'll even hear a grower talking about different terroirs within their vineyard. It’s also worth adding that there’s a lack of scientific proof conclusively linking soil types and how a wine actually tastes, e.g. 'chalky' or 'mineral' (a tasting term I often use!).
However, there's no doubt soil properties influence vine growth and ripening of grapes, and thus quality and flavour profile.
Unfortunately, the term terroir is often used unhelpfully to mean just soil: read the average back-label, if there is one, of an AOC wine sold in France. "Clay limestone schist pebbles blah blah," as if we're all geologists. Or terroir can be abused by those dismissing faults in their wine, from poor vineyard or cellar practices, as typical characteristics. Then again, taking 'brett' as an example (brettanomyces), a wild yeast that can cause funky farmyard aromas: you could argue it's part of the natural terroir! On the other hand, it's no excuse for dirty barrels where it thrives and knackered wine...
At the end of the day, it's a terrific marketing device too: earth, wind & fire, man and all that jazz. While all of this is important to the minority of wine folk interested in this kind of hand-crafted, 'taste-of-place' wine (or the ones who can afford it); we shouldn't forget that many people understandably just think it's gibberish and switch off. Instead they'll buy the uncomplicated usual: and there's nothing wrong with big brands (well, not all of them) that taste nice and are fuelling a wine drinking revolution. There's a time and place for both of them.
Richard M James

Quoting from a newsletter published by Appellation America:
"It is only April and there is a vibrant bud break of verbiage about you-know-what.  Already it is clear that this year will produce a bumper crop of terroir talk.
What is terroir?  Have we got it?  How to describe it?  How to protect it? How should we promote it?  Several of the Appellation America crew braved their way through the four day terroir talk survival course up at UC Davis last week. Even for a committed terroirist like Alan Goldfarb, the terroir talk got pretty tedious. Alan’s frazzled nerves are palpable in the story he filed…perhaps too much talk, not enough wine. Well, maybe the boys had a little wine too… just to sharpen their talking skills.
Dan Berger, our Sonoma regional editor, also made a major contribution to the terroir chronicles with his piece in the current issue of California Grapevine. Dan’s rendering of the “why we need to find and protect terroir” question hits the nail right on the head: Terroir is (one of the) key defining elements of regionality in wine; Regionality is the map of diversity. Diversity generates interest and enriches the wine culture. Enriching the wine culture grows the market. Finding terroir is a process, and in the case of most North American winegrowing venues it will necessarily be a protracted process. But Talking Terroir is only one side of the coin; the other, more important, side is Tasting Terroir. Tasting Terroir is what our Appellation Discovery Program is all about. Identifying the taste-of-place is our way of “grounding” all that terroir talk.  Whether you are a wine writer or winemaker, there’s a place for you in our Appellation Discovery process.  Discovery panels of winemakers and wine writers are being formed right across the country. To participate in a Discovery session, contact one of our regional editors or me, Adam Dial on a.dial@appellationamerica.com."

Malcolm Gluck, creator of the Superplonk UK wine guides and website, once argued that "wine is an expression of locality but that locality, that expression is to my mind less about local soil and more about local soul," in his book 'Brave New World' (Mitchell Beazley). He continues: "...wine is made. It cannot simply be grown, no more than letters can arrange themselves without effort and create coherent sentences, thoughts, declarations... Each and every wine, however noble, however vastly overpriced, however humble or rustic, is an expression of those human endeavours called winemaking and grape growing... But there are those that insist on that mystical something called terroir... Yet the biggest elements of terroir are overwhelmingly human..."

September 2009. I just spotted this on the home page of Eric Solomon's website, head of the well-respected and impeccably portfolio-ed European Cellars wine import company in the US: "Place over Process." Very neat, terroir in three simple words!

November 09. I keep coming across the term "wine-lands" in all vinous things South African, as in "tour the Cape wine-lands... blah blah." Beginning to use the word myself, I like the sound of it. Terroir without the Gallic tongue twister. Nice.

Further thoughts, "definitions", rants and examples as and when I dig them up...

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Header image: Château de Flandry, Limoux, Languedoc. Background: Vineyard near Terrats in Les Aspres, Roussillon.