t is for terroir
By Matthew Latkiewicz
T is for Terroir, the elusive, even controversial concept in winemaking that is sacrosanct to many in the wine-loving world and pure marketing myth to others.
To those who subscribe to it, terroir means the sense and flavor of place that each wine carries with it from the vineyard to the bottle. Terroir means “earth” or “soil” in French, and originally, it wasn’t actually a good thing in wine. As Bianca Bosker notes in her incredibly well researched and written article about the great terroir debate, the french originally used to terroir to describe “some disagreeable quality that comes to it from the nature of the terroir (soil) where the vine is planted.” But in the 1900s, that taste of soil became a selling point.
A flood of knockoff “Champagnes” in Europe and the U.S. prompted the winemakers in Champagne to campaign for strict laws in France about where and how grapes are grown and what the resulting wines can be called. You may call your sparkling wine from Portugal champagne, but read the label and it will read “sparkling wine.” The region of Burgundy did the same thing soon after, and now much of European wine operates according to a very hierarchical land based value system. The very taste of the soil that was derided by Emperors a few centuries before became the mark of quality. If you grow grapes in Burgundy or Champagne or Tuscany, your wines are presumed good because the land itself imparts something rare and precious.
Not all wine growing region do this. American wine tends to be organized varietally, for instance, by the grape, rather than regionally; which the wine people call appellation because they got a word for everything.
Wine, the fussy alcohol!
But while terroir is a long established concept in wine-making and something most oenophiles love poeticizing, there are some in the wine world think it is just a marketing term that old world wine makers – not surprisingly, the wine world still calls European wines new world and non-europeans wines old world like its the 1500s – a term they use to maintain their premium prices. There’s no scientific way, they claim, that the soil can impart a flavor. I’ll spare you the arguments, but essentially, it is impossible for the vine to absorb the compounds in the soil, “as difficult as it is for humans to breath underwater,” a geologist in Bosker’s article says. How do you explain the differences in flavor between a pinot grown in Burgundy and one grown in Oregon in that case? The fruit itself and what humans do to it. It takes quality out of the land and gives it to the winemaker.
For those of us who don’t care to take our wine drinking like school, this debate can seem like much ado about nothing. But it illustrates something about the Sideways style wine drinking pursuit that I admire, though I am not of their tribe. Wine people are obsessed by what makes a wine good. Not whether it is good, but why it is good, and their rigor is impressive. They are so obsessed with quality and how to define it, they’ve created a marketplace of such minute distinctions that it puts record store nerds to shame. “This one is worth $200 because it’s from here, but this year was better, so it’s $250, and this one is a steal at $80.” Hey nerds gonna be nerds. I’m cool with that.
And I’m also cool with the concept of terroir. Wine is regional and of the earth much more so than most other alcohols, which are recipes of multiple ingredients like in beer or extreme processing like in spirits. Wine is essentially one ingredient with minimal processing. Unless it’s a blend, what’s in the bottle is a direct product of a spot on this earth, and that is cool. I don’t know if it’s $200 cool, but whatever, not my fight. And I’ll let the scientists hash out where exactly the different flavors come from. I’ll happy drink a glass of Burgundy, and imagine the flavor is from there.
T is for Terroir.