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05.11.2007

Taking Another Run at Terroir

We all learn lessons in life that can only be taught by painful interactions with others. Now I know not to start bashing any political candidate before knowing the political orientation of my dinner guests. I know never to talk about religion with clients, no matter how friendly we might get over drinks after the day is over. I also know that you can never, ever talk about terroir constructively unless you are doing so with like-minded individuals. The debate over whether terroir exists, or perhaps even just what it is can never be decided.

Of course, that doesn't (and shouldn't) stop anyone from having conversations about it, as food scientist Harold McGee and chef Daniel Patterson did in a recent article in the NY Times Style Magazine cleverly titled "Talk Dirt to Me."

While this article is well written, it doesn't offer much new in the way of thinking about the subject (though as it was published in the Style magazine, it's clearly not aimed at sophisticated wine lover), and it doesn't really escape the main lesson that I've learned about terroir: for the time being, it's a question of faith.

It seems to me that all arguments (or civil discussions, for that matter) about terroir always come down to the same kind of faith that will never be bridged between the atheist and the believer. Just as in religion, when it comes to terroir there is no real proof that it exists, and no real consensus on what it is.

Narrow definitions of terroir suggest that it is the sense, character, and even flavor of the soil in which the vines grow that is expressed in a wine. Broader definitions include the microclimate and of the place that the grapes are grown and the cumulative weather of a given vintage in addition to the geology, and still broader definitions may include the native yeasts of the area, the pollens and other surrounding vegetation, while others even include a mystical and indefinable spiritual sense of place.

The problem is, of course, that there is no real rational (or should I say repeatable and testable and scientific) link between these things and the organoleptic qualities (taste and aromatics) of a wine. Of course every wine lover knows that the weather affects grapes, as does the drainage quality of the soil, the nature of the sun exposure of a particular vineyard block, and the pattern of weather over the course of the growing season. It is literally even possible to reliably taste some of these things, like whether the grapes just never got ripe enough, or whether they had too much water. But it is not yet possible to prove

Even for the most narrow of definitions, however, there is no real scientific evidence that links the flavors of a wine to a specific place. We know how the lack of sunlight affects grape ripeness and how that translates in to flavor, but no one can yet show how the lack of sunlight in one place and the same lack in another place translates into different flavors in wine. Likewise, we know intuitively that the geo-chemical composition of the soil must have some effect on grapes, and we have even seen conclusive evidence that levels of certain minerals in the soil affect the biochemistry of the grapes, but no one has yet been able to show how those changes translate into the flavors and aromas of wine. Yet it is pretty clear that when we are tasting a "mineral" aspect in a wine, that flavor does not necessarily come from a mineral-rich soil. As much as the French have made their fortunes based on it, there is no real evidence for the fact that a Nuits St. Georges tastes different than a Marsannay because of something specifically different about where they are grown.

Personally, I think it is only a matter of time before scientists can definitively make the link between soil geology and the flavors in wine. But of course, this is only one tiny piece of the overall picture of the growing conditions for the grape, and an even smaller piece of the complex maze of variables and possibilities that exist in the process of taking a grape and making it into wine. The proliferation of these variables is in fact one of the chief reasons that discussions about terroir are so elusive. Who's to say that a particular flavor in a wine comes from the ground more than say, the yeast, or the oak, or the extra hour that the must stayed in contact with some stems, or the number of months the wine was on its lees, for instance. Then again, who's to say those things aren't just part of terroir, too?

See what I mean?

Terroir is at once both one of the most compelling reasons why I drink wine. Yes, my name is Alder Yarrow, and I'm a terroir believer. But it is also one of the most maddening, overused, and pejorative aspects of wine that I despise. This concept, which is the soul of wine, is used for great evil in the world, not the least of which is the perpetuation of the myth that some places/regions/countries have terroir, and others don't.

These evils also include the Chicken-Little syndrome that unfortunately closes McGee's and Patterson's article, in which they lament the fact that terroir is somehow being obliterated by big wines crafted to please the "Parker Palate."

My question for them is: can they prove it?

And there, my dear readers is the whole point of this little rant. At this point, it's all just about faith, and just like religion, if you want to have good conversations instead of arguments, for now you gotta stick to your own. The problem is, I don't know where the church of terroir loving, Mondovino skeptics meets.

Any ideas?

Comments (11)

Blake Gray wrote:
05.12.07 at 10:15 AM

Alder: Like you, I wholeheartedly believe in terroir. But I run screaming from discussions of it for a couple of reasons. One is that most people who want to talk about it don't want to talk; they want to rant, usually against new-world wines. Another is that more often than not, when a winery representative calls a wine "terroir-driven," it's because it isn't very good and they're grasping at straws to sell it.
But the most important reason, is simple: what's there to say? You believe in terroir, I believe in terroir. Great! What's on TV?

Tish wrote:
05.12.07 at 2:55 PM

The fact that this piece even appeared in the NY Times Style section is the most important thing about the article. Alder has it right: it didn't say much new, just framed the topic for readers with an interest. I, too, believe in terroir but probably in less cases than most terroir-ists. One of the joys of wine for me is returning to a place simply by drinking a wine that truly tastes of that place (or at least what I think it should taste like). It will be interesting to see if the Times piece has some reverb in other non-wine media. Probably not; the topic is too slippery.

razmaspaz wrote:
05.13.07 at 8:03 AM

Alder,
I'm pretty much a terroir believer. I just don't see how we could get such a variety of flavor profiles from a single grape variety if it didn't exist. I was thinking about this very thing the other day. I was watching "Brothers & Sisters" and one of the characters (who is opening a winery) said "We like to let the vineyard do the talking." I laughed out loud, because I realized how many wineries use this as some kind of BS marketing tactic. It didn't change my view on the subject, but it did make me think about whether every vineyard in the world has its own terroir.
Where it gets really interesting for me is that we don't make this claim for any other fruit or berry. Nobody discuses the finer points of the terroir imparted to a strawberry patch, or an orange grove. Maybe we put more emphasis on grapes because they are the chosen fruit for winemaking, but I would like to see someone ferment strawberry or blackberry juice to a dry state for a hundred different locations, and determine if they imparted a unique character to the berry wine on a consistent yearly basis.

Arthur wrote:
05.13.07 at 8:54 AM

My name is Arthur and I'm a terroiriste.

I think you are dead-on Alder: it's the interplay of geology, soil chemistry, sun exposure, temperateure and water that make for differences in the wine.

However, one cannot overlook the influence of the physical things (such as equipment and cooperage) with which the wine comes in contact during elevage.

Then, there's the variation of expression of one clone in different sites...

However, to pass off terroir (or "gout de terrorir") as a metaphysical, or almost magical notion of terroir is silly.

Alder wrote:
05.13.07 at 10:23 AM

Razmaspaz,

One of the trickiest things about the notion of terroir is that the more you know about winemaking, the more you understand how many OTHER things go into creating the flavors that we perceive in wine. In fact, the type of yeast that is responsible for fermentation may be far more influential in the final flavors of wine than anything that comes from the ground or the "place." On a bulletin board I belong to, some very knowledgeable wine expert recently stated that he had been shown an experiment at a winery where the only variable between different lots of fermented wine was the yeast strain. One lot had a very earthy, mineral aspect, and one lot did not. All because of the yeast. This doesn't disprove terroir, but certainly makes it more elusive from a scientific standpoint.

tom wrote:
05.13.07 at 5:32 PM

Couldn't help but notice this discussion.

I would have to say that I've noticed that the effects of terroir are better evaluated over time, multiple years, multiple vintages. Yeast trials and cooperage have more resounding effects in early stages, which is when everybody seems to want to make pronouncements.

Nico wrote:
05.14.07 at 7:51 AM

"Terroir is at once both one of the most compelling reasons why I drink wine." -> same for me!!!

“To me, it’s a way – quite possibly the most pleasurable way – of understanding history, experiencing culture, and exalting in cuisine… There’s wine itself, an endless treasure trove of fascination. Wine is the only beverage in the world that draws us in intellectually, causes us to think about it, to ponder it, to question why it tastes the way it does.” -Karen MacNeil, The Wine Bible, Workman Publishing – New York, 2001

It's all about the terroir, whether your definition is narrow or broad!

St. Vini wrote:
05.14.07 at 1:00 PM

"some very knowledgeable wine expert recently stated that he had been shown an experiment at a winery where the only variable between different lots of fermented wine was the yeast strain. One lot had a very earthy, mineral aspect, and one lot did not. All because of the yeast."

That's the real crux of the terroir problem isn't it? How can you isolate a single variable (place) when something so seemingly mundane (yeast) can profoundly change a wine from lean and "expressive of terroir" to something rounder and fleshier? What about the myriad other inputs and variables?

Terroir debates always remind me of the philosophy classes I had to sit through in college. Much debate, sometimes interesting, but doomed to irresolution before it began....

V

Geoff Smith wrote:
05.14.07 at 3:18 PM

I find all this discussion about terroir to be very amusing. Essentially, all wines are wines of terroir, as they perforce are grown in the earth at a specific location (unless grown hydroponically in someone's basement). The question is simply does a certain wine reflect or demonstrate it's individual terroir? In the past, the monster rootstock AXR1 (Aramon rupestris 1) viticulturally obliterated terroir nuances, as did commercial cultivation using chemical fertilizers, pesticides, etc. Poor clonal selections did nothing to help express terroir, either. Nowadays, with superior viticulture and cultivation, more California wines, for example, are showing their terroir, which is certainly an element of complexity.

Jerry D. Murray wrote:
05.15.07 at 3:08 PM

The real problem with any discussion of 'terrior' is that not one of us has defined the term. We each have our own notion as to what it means and are, therefore, comparing apples to oranges. Like Alder, I believe the word has taken on considerable baggage in that it has implied meanings that I don't agree with. I prefer 'sense of place'.
Many comments above discuss the use of commercial yeasts and how they each yield a different wine and therefore 'hide' or 'destroy' 'terrior'. This is assuming that grapes from a particular site, or the resulting wines, are supposed to taste a specific way. Even in Old World vineyards there is variation from one wine to the next(from the same vineyard) based on differences in farming, winemaking, vintage etc. To try to state that a New Wold vineyard has a specific 'terrior' is based more on emotion, ego and market forces than time tested experience.
Science, at this point, will provide little help in sorting the issue out. First, we have not even begun to identify which variables in the vineyard environment contribute to the specific character of a wine. Second, the measurements of such variables are inherently quantitative when what we need is qualatative assesment. For example, we can measure the amount of light a grape cluster gets, but that doesn't take into account the QUALITY of the light. Is it gentle morning sun or harsh afternoon sun? There is a huge difference in the resulting wine.
No one mentions farming. I can promise you that even the best grand cru vineyards will yield terrible wine if canopies, crop loads, disease pressure etc are not properly managed. The specifics of the management desicions also have a profound effect on the character of the wine, yet no one above discussed this as an element of 'terrior'.
It was also implied, above, that only wine shows 'terrior'. To this I would inquire about the differences between Proscutto de Parma and Proscutto San Daniel? Or why is Parmasean Reggiano only made in one place? I would also encourage everyone to walk through a Peach orchard and sample fruit from different slopes and aspects, what do you think you will find?

I honestly believe that wine reflects 'place'. I would even go so far as to say that all wine reflects place, unless a winemaker goes to lengths to prevent it from happening
( over oaking, over manipulating, blending etc ). I believe in 'terrior' as in wine having a 'sense of place', I'm just not willing to use the word to denote romanitic notions of quality or some mystical, majical force. Winegrapes, like any other crop, are influenced both by the hands of man and the natural environment.

Matthew Carroll wrote:
05.15.07 at 8:13 PM

What a great chat about terroir!
To add my two cents, I had always held a bit of skepticism for the topic until a visit to Oregon.
Spending the better part of a day talking and tasting (more tasting than talking) at Patricia Green Cellars made me a believer. Tasting wines that are mostly the same clones, same rootstocks, winemaking practices and overall philosophy and seeing *huge* differences from site to site and often within the same site (where geography may play a greater role).
It was an amazing experiment which made this skeptic a true believer! And makes for a great story to tell customers :)

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