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It's the Terroir, Stupid

terrior

#1

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this little piece by Margaret Rand in Tim Atkins’s website:

https://timatkin.com/how-much-terroir-expression-do-you-really-want-in-your-wine/

Some of her points were very interesting, for example - the notion that we want terrior expression in our wines, but only when ‘it works’. Or her suggestion that there is something a little fashion-conscious about the regular use of word, as if the winemaker’s decisions are a trivial part of the process of making wine.

Would love to hear what people think! :+1: :grinning:


#2

I agree 100%. And would in fact go further.

Of course the terroir influences a wine. How could it not? At the bare minumum, there are some places good for growing vines, and some that are not.

But the current emphasis on terroir is unjustified, and there are too many people claiming to understand what it does.


#3

Latest article by Andrew Jefford in Decanter suggests that it’s what happens above ground that really matters. In other words the micro climate of the site, and the techniques used, more than what’s happening below.

Petrus is used as an example.


#4

Not that I’ve tried any for a very long time, but I like her Meursault example.

People want fresher, lighter wines. Fashion, you see. Those cabbagey flavours must have had a lot to do with sulphur compounds, delicious as they were. They were a winemaking flavour. We associated them with terroir, but they were probably just acquired in the cellar. I can’t pinpoint when Meursault changed – sometime in the last 10 years – but you never find those flavours now, at least when the wine is young. Now it’s much more like other Côte d’Or whites. Yes, it gets buttery with age, but it has changed. Which style expresses the terroir of Meursault? I don’t know. Do you? Which style reflects winemakers expressing their terroir in the way demanded by their customers? Both, I don’t doubt.

If we’re being brutally honest, perhaps ‘fashion’ should join latitude, soil, exposition, etc as part of a wine’s terroir…!


#5

Certainly the meaning of “terroir” has changed a lot over the centuries, and the current idea of it imparting important (positive) nuances of flavour to wine is relatively recent.

It’s not a light read, and not specifically about wine, but I found the book Tasting French Terroir interesting. I wrote a bit about it here:


#6


Did someone say “It’s the stupid Terrier? Huh”


#7

But what a gorgeous stupid terrier!!

I absolutely agree with this. While soil types have an impact on water retention, heat deflection/attraction and how deep & far the roots can go, fundamentally its the winemakers decisions which effect whether or not we can taste “terroir” or what exactly we can taste due to their viticulture, canopy management and winemaking decisions.


#8

Also, I can’t help but think of those exalted plots of land which, not that long ago, needed a good slug of Algerian durif in order to express their terroir properly…


#9

Thanks for the share - good read.

I can’t get over the concept of Slate Fertilisation. Ridiculous, back-breaking labour.


#10

Similar things happen in Burgundy - they haul soil from the bottom of the top of vineyards. I’m not sure that the purpose is fertilisation in either case, but more just a practical measure to stop the slope levelling out through erosion.


#11

The article is a good rant.

I remember when ‘terroir’ started being used in wine talk. There’s a reason the word is French. It’s because the French wine industry became alarmed at the popularity and quality of New World wines sold by grape variety, especially as these grape varieties came from France.

Others could grow ‘their’ varieties and make good wines but, said the French, what made French wines unique was their terroir. Anyone could make Chardonnay but what made Burgundy special and unique was its terroir.

Wine is made from grapes, and grape grow in the ground, affected by what is in the ground, its aspect and weather.

So, IMO, terroir is a factor.

But only one of a whole load of factors, including the choice of rootstock, clone, how vine is cultivated, when it’s harvested, its treatment in the winery including choice of yeast, fermentation time, aging.

I think the viticulturist and especially, winemaker are more important in the final wine than terroir.


#12

And, of course, winemakers in a particular region will tend to make their wines to a particular consensus of the right ‘style’ for that region and then suddenly that is the ‘terroir’ of that region. (New world winemakers seem rather less tied to such styles, although I guess Australian Shiraz or Chardonnay have gone through something similar).

Occasionally winemakers will step outside that style and then, shock horror, there is something different. Like maybe the super Tuscans (although that’s probably mostly down to stepping outside the allowed grape varieties).


#13

Hmmm. Certain varieties of fruits do reflect the nature of the soils they are grown on. Raspberries are a case in point - the same variety can taste quite different when grown on different soils.

Another couple of things - we are becoming increasingly aware of the extent to which nutrient uptake may rely on mycorhizal associations, and fungi can be pretty picky about what soils they will grow in. Also, fruit quality and intensity can be affected by the degree of stress the plant is under. Hydric stress is an obvious one, but it’s not the only one. Low trace nutrients can lead to the sudden appearance of distinctive flavours, especially calcium and magnesium.

I am completely in agreement with the comments made so far that many things can affect wine quality and flavour, but the underlying soils and geology does have its part to play I am sure.

A couple of examples - a few years ago, geologists completed their definitive maps of the (very complex) geology of McLaren Vale. This coincided with a project amongst many of the winemakers to make wines from individual sites to examine the difference it had on their Shiraz particularly. I was able to taste quite a few of these blind, and noticed the recurrence of a particular note which appealed to me. Though these came from a variety of winemakers, I was intrigued when it was revealed that these samples all came from sites on the Blanche Point limestone formation. d’Arenberg now produce around a dozen super-premium shiraz wines from individual sites. I’m pretty sure that more than half of those are on the Blanche Point formation, which extends from the coast eastwards inland from memory.

(Stock image of Blanche Point. The limestone is the lower, paler layers. The upper eroded stratum is Maslin Sands.)

A second example might be the rieslings grown in Clare Valley. Basically, the main road that runs N/S through the valley centre at least runs along the division between limestone on one side and slate on the other. The most famous rieslings mostly come from the Polish Hill River area, which is on slate. But many growers also have plots on the other side, and frequently bottle the two separately. They do have a difference in taste.


#14

I’d be interested in learning more about this “couple of things”. Probably more than can sensibly be discussed here. Could you please provide links or references?


#15

The first of the ‘couple of things’ is quite incredible (to me, at least). I’m only vaguely aware of the details, but for a low level intro, this piques the interest, though a little old:

Lots of papers on Nature.com on mycorrhizal associations in more specific circumstances.

Finally, if you have the time, though wide-ranging and potentially controversial in places, the two Joe Rogan podcasts with Paul Stammets as guest are fascinating if, like me your awareness of fungi is rather one-dimensional.


#16

Lots of interesting stuff in this thread, and I very much agree that while terroir is important, it’s only one element, and the winemaker’s choices have a far more direct effect on what you’re going to taste.

One example that springs to my mind are the wines of Léon Beyer. A number of their wines are made exclusively from grapes grown on the Pfersigberg and Eichberg Grands Crus, though they’ve only recently been labelled that way. Beyer’s bone dry style is very distinctive, and while you can taste some of the terroir characteristics in the wines, they have much more in common with each other than with wines made on the same Grand Cru by different winemakers. That’s all down to what’s been done at the harvest and in the winery.


#17

Steve - apologies for the delay in responding, but I’ve been away. I’ll try to put something together if I get a moment soon.


#18

Absolutely no hurry