Reign of Terroir

terroir bottles

Terroir (Tehr-Wahr, if you say it all french and sexy)  is without a doubt the most overused word in wine. Overused, over criticized, over worshiped and over defined. Literally, terroir translates to ‘The Earth, the Soil’,  but in wine we find it loosely encompassing the character, quality and personality of the wine- as defined by not just the ‘Earth’ but also, the climate, weather, slope and hand of the winemaker. Definitions and factors that influence ‘Terroir’ are thrown around by experts and novices alike, and more often than not it’s major BS . Littered through labels, press releases and journalism, we see it worse as the ‘it’ term of the unforgiving wine snob, Exhibit A:

“Darling, this Chateau Latour is incredible, just taste that Terroir”

But enough of the arrogancy, if a haiku can’t sum it up nicely nothing will.

That which makes a place

unique, that produces wines

unrepeatable.

-Christopher Watkins Manager, Author and Host of 4488: A Ridge Blog at Ridge Vineyards

A French word, Terroir is likened most to French wines – where a long history of winemaking has resulted in a tipple that tastes of the place, say your premium Bordeaux, or Cote de Beaune. Centuries of viticulture and winemaking have moulded a grape, technique and style that all bundles up into a bottle that tastes purely of its own. Constantly,  for reasons many can’t explain (the truly puzzled love to talk about soil, straight up wrong) , the wines take on their own unique characteristics- say the flint in a Sancerre Sauvignon Blanc, or the minerality of a Chablis.  Terroir is mystery and luxury the old world commands and with the highly reputable label, like most things in the world, demands an equally high price tag, Major dollar bills.

What was a term of old world prestige, now has some major competition. Even New Zealand’s cat-piss Sauv Blanc is recognised by many as having a taste of place, or in Australia’s s Barossa Valley, where Shiraz truly tastes like nothing in the world- the heat drenched valley floor lends its way into a wine that is baked, hot and big – a pure expression of place, in a place regarded as a baby of the wine world. Despite its history, it now seems that what defines Terroir changes as frequently as the vintages that characterise them.

The secret to Terroir is simply not to be a dick about it. Nowadays you can attach the word to anything, and some wine snob will nod, umm and ahh. Winemakers may rant on about how their new projects are displaying terroir already, just three vintages in and they’ve got that marked character? It doesn’t quite add up, and once again, the umms and aaaahs will ensue. the above is all testament to the fact that the word is thrown around like its going out of fashion, and the more it is thrown, the less prestige is associated with it.

Continuing with Terroir etiquette- how best to utilise it? with all the snobbery that clings to it, terroir can be used by the most casual of drinkers,  and it all has to do with food. When it comes to the concepts and successes of matching food and wine, how could we possible go past sake. The rice wine finds its masterpiece pairing with sashimi, with high amino acids derived from the production of traditional sake, accentuating sashimi’s s rich umami elements. But say you’re byo-ing it up and bring a beer or wine to drink with your sashimi- and the whole experience is different- you lose the aromatic savoury softness and instead are left with, well, fish. Pungent and not one bit enjoyable. Ancient japanese proverb teaches that ‘sake doesn’t get into fights with food’, and all around the world terroir leads its way to local pairings of similar virtue. Emilia-Romagna, in Central Italy is known best for it’s cheese, Parmigiano Regianno, and a ham, Prosciutto di Parma, and funnily enough, the wine that suits it better than any other  in the world- red, frothy Lambrusco, the local wine of the same region. And the pattern continues almost eternally – Melon Blanc from the Loire finds perfection with the seafood of its port, and the tannic structure of a New Zealand Pinot Noir faces up to beef and lamb with absolute elegancy.

Its hard to define whether terroir really matters in the fast paced world that is that of wine today- modern winemaking techniques and innovation beyond its time is shaking up common conceptions- the span of what can be created is far and wide. but despite this a lot of the world holds on strong to tradition, and the common grape, in the common environment, can conjure up extraordinary things. What I like to think is the beauty of terroir is that it is more often than not unpredictable and unexplainable, not the marketing BS that is exploited today, and the roots of a wine, a vine and a tradition can shine through.

Bottles of Terroir Left to Right: Piemonte, Italy. Lavaux, Switzerland. Cafayete, Argentina. Barossa Vally, Australia. Central Otago, New Zealand. 

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Reign of Terroir

  1. I agree that terroir is fleeting and really not very prominent in most wines. Especially not when it is claimed loudly by some. I find myself tasting it more as underlying thing. Even if I know what the soil is made of etc., I don’t necessary “taste” stuff associated with it. But I do have moments where my preference is hard to describe or put to something in a particular wine, and then I realize that I usually prefer a wine from this vineyard over a wine from another vineyard. My case in point is Erdener Treppchen and Uerziger Wuerzgarten, two vineyards right beside each other on the Mosel river in Germany, with somewhat different soil types. Both have something distinct about them, no matter from what winery. And there, I often lean towards the Treppchen. Just for a taste reason….and that, for me, has to have something to do with terroir. But it is more a feeling than a discernable flavor. Does that make sense?

    • Yeah it completely does! I find a lot of the time a wine brings elements together in a way that you can explain, but draws a sensory response better than others. Soil and terroir is such an iffy topic- science proves it doesn’t influence the palate, say in Barossa- an array of soils but the Shiraz of all has those similar big and baked characteristics. But, of course, the levels of nutrients and water in soils influence the health of the grape, which will, of course, influence the wine.

      With an example like yours, I think it’s also really important to remind ourselves of the hand of the wine maker, and that’s something terroir tends to leave out. I like to think of terroir like the ‘soul’ or home of the grape, expressed in the wine- and people (with their culture and traditions) and place are so strongly linked- especially when it comes to the planting, care and treatment of vines and grapes- which can affect both the quality, style and characteristics (flavours or other) of wines.

      • Great points!! Thank you so much for going deeper with this. Very much appreciated.

        The interesting thing in my example is that it transcends winemakers. I have several winemakers I go to that have holdings in the vineyard and with all of them I tend to prefer the Treppchen over the Wuerzgarten. Just fascinating. But the art and skill of the winemaker definitely plays a huge role in wine making…although it can also be hard to ascertain.

      • Oh it’s my pleasure! It’s so great to discuss these kind of things with people with different knowledge, experiences and bringing in perspectives.

        That is really interesting! I guess even between the two vineyards, Nature just transcends mans control – which is kind of magical when we look at wine and terroir.

      • Yeah. It is weird, because I also am torn and know the science behind not being able to prove terroir in a wine. And yet still I have experienced it. It might all also have to do more with the micro climate at a particular location. I know for a fact that in different parts of even single vineyards along the Mosel there are different micro climates depending on where you are which can lead to earlier ripening or less ripening and all the associated factors which could play a role in the final product….it is not exactly terroir in that it is not in the soil, but it is definitely connected to the particular place…fascinating subject. Thanks for your article. It really was a pleasure to read.

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