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Articles May,  2006

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Tales of Terroir
.....Fables, Fiction and
Limits

Sitting in a recent double blind tasting, watching an assembled group of wine lovers, rather experienced tasters, unable to agree even on the country of origin for many of the wines, I found my mind drifting to the obsession some have with the concept of "terroir," something that increasingly seems altogether mystical. These folks weren't sure what country the wine came from and none of them nailed a single wine--but some of them still droned on about how the wine expressed its terroir after the labels were revealed. If the terroir was that obvious, and if the terroir is supposed to create this unique "sense of place" that no other vineyard in the world can replicate, why couldn't any of them identify wines that they frequently drank? 

The terroir rant often becomes rather laughable, the ultimate in pretension, not because it is non-existent, but because, as in this example, the claims for terroir are exaggerated, to the detriment of other factors that influence--and should influence--the wine. Moreover, it is increasingly difficult to figure out what terroir means. I have come to the conclusion that in practice terroir  has become a code word for describing an attitude of the winemaker and a style of the wine.  If one talks about a wine faithful to the terroir, often this is more likely to mean "Tradition," or "typicity" more than any actual issue with terroir.  As people keep loading into "terroir" all of their own prejudices and biases, one begins to wonder...does "Terroir" really mean anything any more? The scorn in some quarters is palpable, holding that the term has little more meaning than a marketing tool. Says Joe Traynor in Grape Grower Magazine, August 2003: "The emphasis on terroir puts a premium on promotional skills; on ad or label copy that can convince a naive buyer that he's about to purchase the best wine that money can buy." 

These, in any event, are my twin theses: First, the term has become distorted beyond recognition to the point where it is an ideological weapon rather than a useful analytical tool. Second, even as normally defined, the concept is exaggerated in importance, while human factors that legitimately shape the wine are denigrated as "manipulation."

The first problem with terroir is defining the term. Although it is a simple word in French, meaning "soil" or "earth," it is a term of art in wine appreciation. Even its traditional "term of art" definition is very broad and often debated. It references the entire combination of factors that govern how the grapes are grown---issues pertaining to soil, location, climate, drainage, positioning to the sun, and so on--those things that make the vineyard supposedly unique.  Olivier Krug of the eponymous and celebrated Champagne house has called it: "the combined effect of all that you find in nature: topography, soil, subsoil and climate."  

While many have considerable argument with this insistence on lumping everything together, particularly issues concerning climate, the French concept is that this combined set of circumstances is what makes the vineyard something that no other can copy, and thus gives the wine a "sense of place," or unique stamp. The wine can only come from THIS place, and no other, or so the theory goes.  The breadth of this term of art, the all encompassing nature of the definition, lends itself to further extrapolation--and considerable abuse.

Thus, we have learned from Gambero Rosso that the type of cows that grazed on the land (and fertilized it with their manure) were part of the terroir of a vineyard. Another author tells us that part of the terroir of Bordeaux is that it was located close enough to ports from which to export the wine so as to make it easy to sell. Therefore, estates in Bordeaux became more profitable than those further inland, and could afford to make better wine. Therefore, Bordeaux became famous and vineyards further inland did not.  Yet another person tells us that terroir includes the culture of the surrounding region, the attitudes and traditions of the people, in other words.  (To get a feel for how this last view might itself be extrapolated into a diatribe and movie, you might watch Mondovino.)

Let's keep extrapolating.  Wouldn't terroir include nuclear warfare? Obviously, if the vineyard is irradiated, then the terroir has changed. But didn't the terroir also cause the irradiation? After all, the vineyard was irradiated because it is located near an important area that the military wanted to strike. Therefore, the fact that it is now destroyed is because of its terroir. "Location" of the vineyard is part of the concept of terroir. Just like in that Bordeaux example, above.

Are you done with this line of thinking yet?

Oddly enough, all of these extrapolations make some sense if you accept broad and literal definitions of terroir  as all the combined surrounding circumstances of the vineyard that affect the vines. Yet, few of us would say any of these extrapolated ideas convey what the concept of terroir is supposed to convey, namely the influence of the natural, inherent geographic conditions surrounding a vineyard on the wine.  To most of us, the day-to-day actions of people are exactly what the concept of terroir is NOT.  Wine preference, cultural tradition or habits are not  terroir.  Terroir identifies inherent characteristics in a vineyard which, if allowed to come forth, will impart to the wine that vineyard's stamp in some respect (although perhaps nowhere near as obviously as some would hope). Terroir is something that exists apart from the every day influence of people.  Cultures change and aesthetics change, but the vineyard is supposed to be what it is, not something that varies from day to day, week to week or vintage to vintage.

Certainly, humans are able to change or destroy anything in extreme examples, but if it is to have any meaning at all, the point of terroir is to convey a sense of aspects of the vineyard that generally remain the same and are inherent in the location. Think about the factors most important to the vineyard as an identifiable entity. Soil depth does not ordinarily change. Limestone soil does not change to another type. The position of the vineyard facing the sun or ocean does not change. The location in a particular climate zone does not change. (Ok--even there, with global warming, human conduct may one day affect this, but that is the type of extreme, exceptional consequence that is long term and slowly changing.)  Things like fertilization by cows, on the other hand, are easily copied by any winemaker in the world whenever he or she wishes to do so. There is nothing special or unique about it.

Logic seems to have little to do with common and ever expanding usage of the word terroir, though.  The overlays put onto it make it increasingly meaningless as a useful concept. John Gladstones, formerly of the University of Western Australia said, at a University of California-Davis conference, as quoted by Jim Gordon on California Wineweb.com, that including human factors into terroir means  “[t]he whole subject becomes so broad that it’s no longer a useful way to approach the subject." Restrict it to the natural environment, he argued.  Indeed, if terroir includes easily changeable human factors, how can it have any meaning at all? At that point, it simply means what the winemaker decides that it means. In other contexts, ironically, if a winemaker exerted substantial influence over the vineyard, the terroirists (as we like to call them for their ideological rigidity and fanaticism) would be screaming about "manipulation" and "masking." 

The term "terroir" simply can't include everything if it is to have any meaning at all. It can't be about factors like cows, culture and tradition.  It is, in a way, not surprising (although rather counterintuitive) that some terroirists, those who profess their love for the soil, want to expand the concept of terroir to include such things. Their tendency to denigrate any human factors or influence as artificial "manipulation" of the wine requires that they expand the concept of terroir to include factors that produce wine in a style they like. Then, they can just credit the new version of the terroir, rather than admitting that human factors were equally or more important.

Even those terroirists  who focus solely on the effect of the soil make claims that seem to hard to substantiate from several perspectives.  From the scientific perspective, there is some question about the concept that many types of flavors in the wine are imparted by the content of the soil.  Newsweek interviewed David Howell, a geologist and author of "The Winemaker's Dance," a book on Napa terroir,  in the February 28, 2005 issue, saying "In particular, Howell dismisses out of hand the notion that complex flavors like blackberry or chocolate are somehow inherent in the ground. Even if they were in the soil, the necessary organic molecules wouldn't be absorbed by the roots. Vines take up nutrients as individual elements (calcium, silicon, nitrogen and so on) and recombine them into the only thing they make, which is grapes. "In wine stores, they tell you there used to be an apricot orchard in the vineyard, so you get apricot notes in the wine," he complains, "and it's just hogwash." If people are tasting those things, they were produced elsewhere: in the fermentation, the aging-or the imagination.'"  (I won't promise you that this link will remain valid forever, but  here is a link to the article.)  *** Along the same debunking line, wine critic Bruce Sanderson said recently: "I'm not convinced that there is a direct transmission of certain flavors from the soil. Rather, the composition of the soil...affects the character of the wine. The higher the clay content, the more weight and flesh; a stony soil tends to lend elegance and a more mineral character." (Wine Spectator, p.71, May 15, 2006)  It might also be noted that climate has something to do with weight and flesh and elegance, too, as do winemaking decisions. It gets increasingly complicated to figure out what causes what, doesn't it?

Beyond any scientific argument, whether the flavors are there or not, or imparted by the soil or not--they are likely to be very small nuances that are far less important than other factors that contribute to the wine's profile, including winemaking decisions.  But the nuances are exaggerated and we are told that they are a significant factor in creating this readily identifiable, unique stamp. It's not just a matter of influencing the general demeanor of the wine.  So what happens if you invite someone to a well designed double blind tasting to see if they can get the vineyards correct and as noted earlier they are lucky to get the countries correct? Does that cause them to rethink their position on what an expression of terroir is? Wel-l-l-l-l-l, no, usually not. 

For one thing, in accord with the thesis stated at the beginning of this article, terroir is really no longer about the vineyard to them. Corner the terroirists and eventually you'll find the romanticism coming out in place of the science, and you will be treated to the lyrical paeans to the vineyard, the culture, the traditions, typicity.  For the terroirist, it is not enough to accept or concede some broad influence of a vineyard.  The concept of terroir begins to encompass everything and it begins to stand for something mystical.  No better example of this can be found than by quoting the emotional comments of Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards at that same University of Davis conference previously cited.  "Feeling terroir is feeling the place through the wine – it’s akin to sensing a homesickness, even if you’re homesick for a place you’ve never been.”  Those with feet more firmly planted on the ground might chuckle more than a little at the inherent flamboyance of that comment.  Grahm is unabashed, though.  Unashamedly--and illogically--mixing culture and romanticism into the concept of terroir,  he also said: “Terroir is a composite of many physical factors… as well as more intangible cultural factors.  Matt Kramer once very poetically defined terroir as “somewhere-ness,” and this I think is the nub of the issue. I believe that “somewhereness” is absolutely linked to beauty, that beauty reposes in the particulars…”  

As noted, it doesn't take long to get to the real nub of the issue when talking to the terroirists: the romanticism of the concept, rather than any scientific or practical utility that it has. They like the idea of terroir, the noble workers of the soil defending their native vineyards and supposedly making what only they can make, more than anything that actually comes out of it, I think.

I once suggested that it would be great if we could replicate something like 1985 La Tache so that everyone could have it and drink it as they wished, instead of it being a rare, unobtainable, pricey wine that most would never experience. (Don't fight the hypothetical--assume that this is identical to the real thing in every respect.) Most people thought this was grand. But a few didn't. It was hard to put into words the substance of their objections, since I don't actually understand them, but evidently something special would be lost, and the real La Tache vineyard would no longer mean anything. In other words, the actual wine produced is far less important to these people than the romanticism inherent in having this tiny little vineyard that makes wines no one can afford or find.  Or, instead of "romanticism," perhaps fanaticism is the more appropriate word.

The terroirists also argue that without adherence to the land, wines will all taste alike, since they are no longer readily identifiable as from "somewhere."  Lurking beneath the surface of this criticism is the familiar, by now, concept that tradition must govern, typicity is King, which really isn't about terroir. If tradition always won out, of course, we'd still be drinking thin, translucent Bordeaux called Claret, or Bordeaux and Burgundy laced with Rhone varietals.  It is, however, ludicrous to suggest that all wines will taste alike under any circumstances. For one thing, there are many different winemakers with many different preferences. For another, terroir retains a broad influence that is not destroyed just because a winemaker has a different style. At the ultimate level, that is, the influence of terroir is undeniable and will still be expressed in the wine. Of course a better vineyard site--one that allows proper drainage or proper exposure to the sun--is going to achieve better results. In an ultimate sense, the entire wine is thus a reflection of this aspect of terroir.  This is not subject to dispute.  The problem is that such a concession is not enough for the truest believers, those we call terroirists  for their tendency to delegitimize any wine that does not meet their approval, and their almost mystical worship of terroir. There must also be some undefinable nuance that is obvious to everyone or the winemaker has committed the heinous crime of failing to express the terroir.

When they fall flat on their face in double blind tastings (tastings in which not only the identify of the wine is concealed when poured, but also no one knows what wines will be there in advance), as everyone eventually does, their line of defense is that the wines tasted "masked" their terroir, by which they mean the winemaker had too much oak, or whatever, and they couldn't taste the essence of the wine. Well, masking at extreme levels can certainly happen. But from listening to these people one might begin to conclude that the only permissible way to make wine is like German Riesling---8% alcohol, no tannin, no color, no extraction, no oak.  Incidentally, and not surprisingly, nowhere is it more fun to play the terroir game than with German Riesling. But if that is the model, it leaves out most of the top wines of the world. Aren't we allowed to make great wine without obsessing over whether some taster can pick out some barely perceptible nuance in the wine supposedly coming from the type of soil? Has some vinous crime been committed if we cannot pick it out? Has the winemaker failed to express the terroir just because of that?  

At this point, the tail is wagging the dog, and we have forgotten what the ultimate goal is--to make a fine wine that people want to drink.  Moreover, if terroir is so easily masked, perhaps this is the simple answer: we exaggerate its importance in the sense of creating this identifiable stamp, and use it as a code word to justify our own stylistic biases.  There are wine critics devaluing wine as "failing to express its terroir." The ratings go down. They don't recommend them.  You would therefore think that something really important has happened, right? Yet, if terroir is so hard to identify reliably even amongst experts, let alone the average consumer, perhaps it is fairer to consider it a factor in the wine's profile, not the key reason to evaluate it.  Perhaps it shouldn't be a club used to discourage winemakers from making the best wine they can make.

But shouldn't a wine express its terroir? Sure.  But exactly what that means is open to considerable debate. I would argue that any well made wine will eventually (some cellaring time is often appropriate) reflect its terroir in some broad sense, as discussed above. That is a lot different, however, than demanding that some Super Taster be able to consistently pick out the wine based on terroir alone just from its supposedly unique soil nuance that no other wine from any other vineyard could possibly have. Maybe an importer who handles the same estate for 20 years and tastes every competitor from the same area can pick out his own. But then, I've also seen an importer--and a very skilled taster at that--fail to get the varietal and country correct when guessing about a double blind wine he imports.  Maybe you can do it sometimes, but it is pretty hard to do reliably across the board in most regions.  This "failure to express terroir" phrase simply becomes a club used to beat on winemakers who do not make a wine in a style that the taster likes--i.e., too much oak, too much extract, too fruity, too whatever.

Moreover--and this is a key and underappreciated point--who gets to define what an acceptable expression of terroir is?  As I have argued, the most hidebound terroirists seem to use the word terroir as a means of justifying their own biases and tastes. When they say the wine does not express its terroir, that doesn't mean you have to believe them.  More often than not, it seems to me that we see someone simply adopt a style or a tradition and declare it to be the only acceptable expression of terroir.  Sometimes I think the simple answer to these people is, "Sez who?" Custom and tradition are not the same as terroir.  "Typicity" is a different issue than "terroir."

For example, La Nerthe in Chateauneuf is a new wave-ish producer. Who said you can't make wines that way? Is that an offense against terroir? Or just another way of expressing it? Just because they didn't get there first doesn't mean they are wrong or illegitimate.  Another example tends to center around Joblot's wines in Burgundy, often admired as some of the best values in Burgundy, but critiqued on occasion by some terroirists as not being reflective of their terroir. Why, exactly, aren't these reflective of the terroir of Givry? Well, for a starting point, I have asked several people who have made this criticism exactly what the terroir of Givry is and what is supposedly missing from the wine. I never seem to get an answer.  How many other great wines from Givry can you name? What it really seems to come down to is this: the wines of Givry were traditionally not very good, a minor appellation, with not many good producers. And these wines from Joblot certainly are different and atypical--they are good, for one thing, they are made with care, they age, and they have unusual depth and concentration. Does that mean they aren't a reflection of the terroir of Givry? Or does it just mean that they are a different way of expressing what nature gave Monsieur Joblot? Too often, I think it comes down to this: They don't taste like what Daddy used to drink, so therefore they aren't appropriate expressions of terroir.

One important point: how these new wave wines show young is not always how they show after a decade. That is, if it is oak that one finds to be a jarring addition, the oak often integrates and the wine acquires more typicity with age.  It is not a complete wine on release--any more than traditional wines are. Traditional wines, however, get a free pass for issues like acidity and tannin. Everyone knows they need time to develop.  Newer styles tend to be more approachable, but that doesn't mean that they are complete wines on release.

Finally, you would also think from listening to some avowed terroirists, that there is something illegitimate about recognizing the influence of a winemaker and the vast number of decisions he or she has to make.  In their view, the wine sort of makes itself.  The goal is to be natural and let nature's miracle occur. "Manipulation" is the ultimate evil word--although it is never entirely clear why one technique is "manipulation" and another is not. This is the vinous version of Immaculate Conception, I guess.

It does not take very long in fact to realize how many decisions a winemaker has to make to get the wine in the bottle. The wine world varies widely in what is permissible, and the rules often make no sense. What is evil manipulation in one place, is standard practice elsewhere. It is OK, for instance, to add acid in some places, not others. It is OK to add sugar in some places, not others. Irrigation is permissible in some places, not others.  How about canopy management? Raising wine in oak barrels?  The list is endless. Indeed, why is it proper to manipulate the vineyard through fertilization? If the terroir is what it is, if human intervention to cure problems with the location is bad, and you want the most pristine expression of the vineyard to shine through at all costs, shouldn't you just let things be and see if the grapes will grow? But no one does that.

In some respect or another, therefore, everything is "manipulated" because human beings intervene to make a good product. As it should be.  In areas where irrigation is impermissible, for instance, should we just make bad wines in dry, hot years so we can say it properly reflected the terroir?  Is it better to express the terroir perfectly rather than make a wine people want to drink? That is the level of what I might call fanaticism that seems to affect this issue. Think I'm exaggerating? Review Michael Broadbent's unintentionally hilarious performance in the film Mondovino, where he assured viewers he would rather drink Chateau Kirwan that was not up to snuff, than Chateau Kirwan that he could not identify as a Margaux commune wine. (I.e.,  the familiar logical fallacy---a wine that didn't taste like the wines of the area  used to taste, so therefore it couldn't be reflective of terroir.)

The wine sure doesn't make itself. The vineyard is a critical starting point, but despite the commonly heard phrase that the wine is "made in the vineyard," in fact,  it is not everything.  Famed Oenologist Emile Peynaud, who might in many respects be responsible for modern Bordeaux, said in his book, The Taste of wine, p.230:

"Wine is both a reflection of the people who make it and of the region that produces it, for it is not one of nature’s free gifts. Everyone seems to think of wine as a natural product, but it is a processed product, subject to deterioration, man-made and surviving only as a result of constant care. Nature alone does not make wine, even less does it produce good wine, and certainly does not make the best possible wine. The reality is that human beings have to intervene at every stage of its production. Wine is effectively the product of human labor and the product is only as good as the people who make it. Quality wine is not obtained fortuitously, but only as the result of a constant effort toward quality."

John Wetlaufer (Marcassin), who quoted this excerpt from Peynaud in his newsletter, added on his own account:  "The idea of "expressing terroir" as an aesthetic guide to winegrowing, or as a concept for understanding or explaining the great winegrowing sites of the world, is finally too vague to be useful. The only way in which the "whatness" of a site /piece of ground can be revealed or established is for someone to select it for winegrowing (wisely or foolishly), develop it (well or poorly), farm it (ditto), harvest the fruit in each, different, growing season (at the more or less perfect moment), and then vinify it (appropriately or inappropriately). And do this many times, over many years. At each stage or phase, hundreds (Peynaud says countless) human choices are involved (after site selection; ground preparation, soil amendments or not, vineyard and block design, spacing and change of spacing on different soils, row direction, rootstock selection and matching rootstock to soil and block, varietal and selection or clone thereof (and matching these to soil, rootstock and block), training, trellising, etc., etc.). These choices are, in turn, well or poorly made and well or poorly co-ordinated."

Terroir, in short, no matter the definition used, is not the only or final answer. It may be the critical start of the wine, but it is certainly only one factor both in contributing to and evaluating the wine's ultimate success. The terroirists often seem to forget that the goal is to make great wine, and that there can actually be bad wine that reflects its terroir.  Human intervention is not evil. Terroir is not everything. 

There are some obvious things about terroir that are incontestable. Of course a good vineyard is necessary to make great wine. Of course various aspects of the weather or drainage control or at least influence some aspects of the wine.  Terroir is undeniably important in some respects.  However, since the terroirists like to demand a "sense of place," may I also say that it has its place, which includes having very significant limitations. It cannot be a term that justifies every argument for a style, way of life, concept, idea or ideological preference.  At least not if it is to retain any meaning.

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****A member of my bulletin board pointed out that some scientists are attempting to prove the reverse, that there is some "subtle" flavor influence transmitted from soil. Howell, on the other hand, told me his contrary statement was based on his talks with plant physiologists. Whatever the scientific truth, if the best the terroirists can come up with is that there might be some "subtle" transmission, note the bottom line: in a finished wine you might not even notice. Hopefully, the wine doesn't even spend a month let alone a year in new oak. Those subtleties might just vanish.

 

 

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