Text Size:-+

Terroir vs. Pleasure in Wine

green_drops.jpgHow many times have I told myself not to meddle in the world of terroir? Having (or starting) discussions about the traditionally French notion of how wines possess unmistakable signatures of their place of origin is not unlike having discussions about religion and sexual orientation: you need to take care who you have them with.

But here I am again meddling in the "somewhereness" of wines, to borrow writer Matt Kramer's favorite shorthand for terroir.

The question of the day is whether terroir includes the "bad" flavors as well as good -- and if it does, whether such flavors should be eliminated, or not.

We've already had part of this discussion here on Vinography, in the context of a previous discussion about the role of yeasts in terroir. While not a part of the main post, the conversation in the comments quickly turned to the role of the Brettanomyces yeast and whether it is a fundamental flaw, or whether it might be considered part of the regional terroir of the southern Rhone. While some might object to the suggestion that Brett and its typical horsey, barnyard aromas are a part of terroir, the question of whether it represents (or represented at one time) a regional style.

A recent piece of news bears on such questions. Scientists in South Africa, in collaboration with regional winemakers, have undertaken a series of investigations to identify the source of a series of aromas found in South African red wines. These aromas, which range from green wood to burnt rubber, are considered objectionable by some (myself included) while others consider them to merely be one of the typical regional qualities of wine produced in the country, and therefore an important signature of terroir.

Let's assume for a moment that such flavors are indeed endemic to, and produced by, the region's particular combination of geology, climate, and (sound) winemaking practices. If this is the case, but still many consider such flavors so objectionable that they will not buy (or worse, won't rate highly) the region's wines, should those flavors be eliminated?

To wit: if the scientists in South Africa manage to figure out what causes these aromas and then what to change in winemaking or winegrowing to eliminate them, should winemakers go ahead and effectively erase what many have come to consider a fingerprint of the region in an effort to make their wines taste better?

There are those who will stridently declare that just like the Brett that characterized Rhone wines of a certain era (much less commonly now), these aromas are fundamental flaws and need to be stamped out like nesting cockroaches. And there are those who will just as violently argue that stripping such qualities out of South African red wine will rob it of its individuality.

My interest in all this has to do with the implied balance between typicity on the one hand (how much a wine represents a certain place or type) and pleasure on the other hand. If winemakers make wine that is indelibly true to a place, but if very few people like it, does it matter how well the wine represents the place?

There's no easy way to answer such a question, though I find it perhaps easier than most to step back from the romanticism of terroir and ask the question: what do these winemakers want to do with their wine? If they only aspire to sell it to a local market of people who don't think it's red wine unless it tastes like peeled willow bark, then there's no need for a change. If they want to sell their reds on the global market, however, and that market demands wine without burnt rubber, then perhaps the terroir, or at least the regional style, needs a bit of an overhaul.

What do you think?

Buy My Award-Winning Book!

small_final_covershot_dropshadow.jpg A wine book like no other. Photographs, essays, and wine recommendations. 2015 Roederer Award Winner.Learn more.

Follow Me On:

Twitter Instagram Delectable Flipboard Pinterest

Most Recent Entries

Vinography Images: Unglamorous Work A Lesson in the Loss of Denis Malbec I'll Drink to That: Kimberly Prokoshyn of Rebelle Restaurant Wine News: What I'm Reading the Week of 6/19/16 Vinography Unboxed: Week of June 12, 2016 Warm Up: Richebourg I'll Drink to That: Jean-Nicolas Méo of Méo-Camuzet Vinography Images: It's Nice to be King It's Time for American Wineries to Grow Up I'll Drink to That: Joy Kull of La Villana Winery

Favorite Posts From the Archives

Wine Will Never Smell the Same Again: Luca Turin and the Science of Scent Forlorn Hope: The Remarkable Wines of Matthew Rorick Debating Robert Parker At His Invitation Passopisciaro Winery, Etna, Sicily: Current Releases Should We Care What Winemakers Say? The Sweet Taste of Freedom: Austria's Ruster Ausbruch Wines 2009 Burgundy Vintage According to Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Charles Banks: The New Man Behind Mayacamas Wine from the Caldera: The Incredible Viticulture of Santorini Why Community Tasting Notes Sites Will Fail Chateau Rayas and the 2012 Vintage of Chateauneuf-du-Pape A Life Indomitable: The Wines of Casal Santa Maria, Portugal Bay Area Bordeaux: Tasting Santa Cruz Mountain Cabernets Forgotten Jewels: Reviving Chile's Old Vine Carignane The First-Timer's Guide to Les Trois Glorieuses of Hospices de Beaune

Archives by Month


Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson Wine Grapes The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson to cork or not to cork by George Taber reading between the vines by Terry Theise adventures on the wine route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud