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Tasting Our Way towards Terroir

If you want to get into an argument with a die hard wine lover, just bring up terroir -- the nebulous, mythical, and increasingly subjective notion that wines express the place and circumstances of their making. This "somewhereness," to borrow one of my favorite terms for the concept, has been used as a justification for nearly anything you could think of in the world of wine, both good and evil.

A couple of years ago, I decided that talking about terroir was like talking about God. It is best done behind closed doors and with people whom you are sure happen to share your belief system. Getting a geology-based terroirist, a soul-based terroirist, or total-environment terroirist (or any one of the several dozen other flavors of terroirists) to agree on anything is about as productive an exercise as finding a middle ground on the abortion issue. It just ain't gonna happen.

Faith is irreconcilable with rational determinism, and faith also seems irreconcilable with faith.

All of this I mention by way of introducing the latest scientific research on the concept of terroir. If I fall into one of the "camps" when it comes to terroir, it's most likely the geologic one. I'm pretty amenable to the notion that the kind of soil that the grapes grow in is capable of affecting the way they taste.

Of course, scientists aren't satisfied with mere logical speculation, they need to test these things. And leave it to the Germans to be super-methodical about doing so.

A three-year study by an agricultural research center in southwestern Germany attempted to isolate and identify the influence of soil geology on the taste of Riesling. As noted in the article about their findings, German Riesling is particularly well suited to such studies because it is fermented very simply in steel, and generally doesn't go through oak aging or malolactic fermentation. This makes it very easy to eliminate variations in wine introduced by winemaking techniques or manipulation. And of course, there is also the notion that (as many people claim) Riesling is particularly transparent to terroir -- more so than many grapes it expresses the place it came from.

So, after taking identical quantities of the same type of grapes from several different soil geologies in similar climates over a couple of years, and then making wine from them using the same equipment in the same way, and then tasting them blind with a panel of tasters, the scientists were able to conclude that there is a distinct relationship between soil type and flavor.

Riesling from slate vineyards had a more citrusy aspect, while Riesling from limestone vineyards had a more tropical quality.

This is far from the final word on the subject. Rather, I think it might actually be an early part of the scientific conversation about why wine tastes the way it does, and how it communicates the circumstances of its making.

I look forward to the next installment, provided the soul-terroirists don't bomb the research center.

Read the full article.

Comments (13)

Iris wrote:
11.26.07 at 4:46 AM

A very "hairy" question, as we say in German, Alder. It's very interesting, that they used the same vinification methods, but a pure terroiriste would have to object, that they apparently used external yeasts - and that many of us believe, that diffťrences in wines are a lot influenced by the "indigene" or natural yeasts of a special terroir (and year and way of spraying...). Research has to reduce the parameters, but nature never does...

11.26.07 at 6:14 AM

Actually, a number of very good Riesling producers use neutral oak for their wines. Of course, a number use steel as well. It's the center of a ... I wouldn't say fierce ... debate among producers there.

Jack wrote:
11.26.07 at 9:33 AM

Alas, we don't have to rely on wine studies about terroir, because wine is not the King of Terroir Expression. No, it's Oysters. All hail the mighty oyster, who tastes of the spot in the sea where they live.

11.26.07 at 5:05 PM

Geez Alder you sure get people wound up! I having grown up in the Napa valley have been a Terroir believer ever since the 60's it was the BV Cabernet and the taste of the Rutherford dust that originally convinced me the wine has that consistent flavor they identify as the Rutherford dust which is easily identified if one has any ability to taste whatsoever. I guess I have placed myself in the Geologist camp, frankly I cannot image anyone arguing against terroir

11.26.07 at 8:55 PM

Anyone who doesn't believe in terroir is either just an idiot or doesn't know a damn thing about wine. Just my opinion though. Oh, and I have never met a person who doesn't think terroir exists.

Wine Scamp wrote:
11.26.07 at 9:05 PM

I have been thinking about this post all day! I love your comparison of terrior and God; they both create such zealots and are (heretofore) so impervious to scientific analysis.

How fascinating that some objective data has been added to the seas of subjectivity that plagues discussions of terrior. Now if we could just discover the odds at which Pascal's Wager is paying...

Jacob wrote:
11.27.07 at 9:08 AM

It would be interesting to get my hands on the study itself, since it seem to have a few limitations, mainly the lack of a control group and, of course, potential financing conflicts.

But, terroir exists in everything produced properly as John pointed out, so, to me, the real issue is not wheather terroir exists but rather why so many big producers do their best to eradicate it from their wines.

Alder wrote:
11.27.07 at 10:20 AM

I agree that it would have been better if it was done by folks who didn't live in Germany.

Tyler T wrote:
11.27.07 at 1:44 PM

So the same grapes from different places make different wines, right? I know they said the climate was the same, but I wonder what physiological parameters (of the vine) they measured. I don't doubt terroir's existence. However the soil's impact per se is often over stated IMO. Of course maybe it's a chicken and egg question. I don't think it is so much what the vine takes from the soil as much as it is what the soil does to the vine (mainly water availability). Water (and to some extent nutrient) availability as defined by soil type has been shown to be one of the main variants to show a significant impact on berry/wine composition.

The real test would be to transplant a Cosco container's worth of soil from one place to another (and vice versa), grow vines adjacent to one another in the different soil types, then see if the wine is generally the same as wine made in the original location of the soil. Anyone want to fund that project? To what end...I think we'll still learn that wine made from different regions produces different wine. I'd do it for fun though!

Vinama wrote:
11.27.07 at 2:24 PM

Indeed Iris, I participated last month in a tasting pannel at a University where I blind tasted 12 white chardonnay wines made from the same grapes, same wineyard but fermented with 12 different external yeast sorts and the difference in taste was huge. Incredibale what effect the yeast can have on the final product.

Iris wrote:
11.28.07 at 2:11 AM

Vinama, very nice illustration of this topic in an article with impressing illustrations on one of my favorite websites: look under wineterroirs and additives shop, to find it.

Alder: its true, Germany and soil are always an awkward combination:-))

Tyler T wrote:
11.28.07 at 5:18 PM

Vinama - Any idea how old those wines were that you tasted? Yeast definitely have an impact on wine flavor...but sometimes long term impact is minimal. Yeast produces esters which have a tremendous impact on aroma early in a wine's life (most the Beaujolais Nouveau aromas are yeast esters) but within a couple of years the esters dissociate into more innocuous products. It'd be interesting to follow those wines as they age.

Arne wrote:
12.12.07 at 10:59 PM

Very interesting post.
For myself, which is very new to the wine-arena, it sounds very logical, but again, science always seems to be the final nail in the wood.

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