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.