A plea to believe in Terroir-ism whilst burying long held myths
What is Terroir?
erroir is a French concept in wine that tries to encapsulate all the local environmental influences on the grapes and the final product, the wine. Terroir is generally when used in France and increasingly in the New World to describe the nuanced aspects of the vineyard; the local climate, soil, wind, and local fauna. Some wine people, myself included, like to include culture as a part of Terroir; Rutherglen Muscat, Champagne, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer Riesling, Barossa Shiraz are as much a product of the local geology and climate as they are of the local culture, this is often overlooked when describing Terroir.
Terroir is soil, right?
When speaking to fellow wine buffs or talking to customers, their understanding of Terroir is interlinked strongly with soil. When the term is used in France, soil is held with the most reverence. However recent studies suggest that soil has less of an impact than first claimed, more important is the soils interaction with water and its nutrient value.
A French wine doctor, (cool job right?), Dr Gerard Seguin did extensive studies on Bordeaux and found no correlation between the types of soils and the best wines. What he did find though, was a strong link between low nutrient availability and soils abilities to give the vines access to water which top wine sites shared. So, in a nutshell soil plays a role in Terroir, but not as much as some old and new French wine writers pontificate, and certainly not as much as marketers would lead you to believe.
If not is not the soil, then what…?
Terroir is really then a description of the climate, mesoclimate and microclimate in that vineyard. This is not to devalue the soil as it is important piece of the puzzle, but it is just that one piece. You’re probably wondering what a mesoclimate is… Mesoclimate is the smaller climatic system of that part of the vineyard, for example; your house is situated in the same one climate, however one side of your house tends to be hotter, drier, windier and harder to grow things, we all have that spot, and other parts of the garden you have no problem at all, these are examples of mesoclimates.
Microclimate is smaller again, the vines create their own microclimate that is cooler and more humid than the surrounding climate, when you are getting shade on a hot summer’s day under a gum tree, you are taking advantage of that trees microclimate. Modern studies of Terroir suggest it is these climatic and mesoclimatic influences that play the biggest part in the best vineyard sites coupled with the right soil for that site. This is why some parts of the same vineyard consistently produce fantastic wines.
Cultural aspects of Terroir
The cultural component is often overlooked when discussing Terroir, however it is incredibly important. The wines I mention in the first paragraph would not exist in the form we know and love without a cultural aspect. Rutherglen Muscat is extreme, with the juice of barely fermented raisined grapes halted with neutral spirit alcohol, the cultural process makes an interestingly true expression of Terroir as the character of the fruit is not hidden by fermentation derived compounds. Another extreme example is Champagne, where the method to produce the bubbles, “Methode Traditional” is purely cultural and economically driven.
Even at its most basic level wine itself is a cultural expression, the monoculture of a vineyard does not exist in nature, either does wine which quickly becomes vinegar it its natural state. The concept of Terroir must include the culture of the region.
What does all this mean and why should I care?
So, Terroir for us is the wines birthplace, its influences that make it…it. Each Terroir is as unique as the people who make the wine and the people who vociferate wines greatness. With this individuality is interest and diversity that makes greater wines for us, the wine drinkers. You as a wine drinker should care, we should all care about wine that speaks of a place.
The best wines ever made or will ever be made come from a single site. As they are true to the place that grew them, Terroir is the most important aspect in wine and it takes truly great winemakers to put their egos aside and let the place truly shine. So, Terroir matters.
I have chosen below 3 wines I believe are great representations of Terroir. All come from single vineyards, and all 3 are truly excellent wines. I have also chosen 3 grape varieties that are what we call in the trade “grown wines”, meaning these are varieties that are very expressive of their growing environments.