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Terroir? What Exactly Do You Mean?

Is it just the place, or how it defines the wine?
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Apr 7, 2014 1:28pm ET

We can't really talk seriously about wine without bumping into the notion of terroir, that French concept of place reflected in the glass. I am more concerned about making sure we're all talking about the same thing when we use the word.

Actually tasting the effects of terroir in a wine can be problematic. This elusiveness makes cynics wave off the idea as nothing but a marketing ploy by French vintners looking for an edge. Although that does happen, I do believe terroir applies not just in France but anywhere in the world serious efforts go into the wine.

We often can't agree on what the word means, however. For some of us, myself included, it comprises all the physical elements of a place that can affect the character of wine made from it. To others it's a specific character, or a cluster of characteristics, they expect to find in the wine at hand, even if introduced by the winemaker.

In other words, is terroir about the basic material, or how it expresses itself in the wine?

For me, terroir covers the sum total of a site's constants, including soil composition, latitude, elevation, contour, sun exposure and climate (but not vintage, as that changes every year). It does not include vine training, irrigation, leaf pulling or anything else that humans might do, especially anything that happens after the grapes are picked. It's important to separate what Mother Nature gives us from how we transform it into wine.

Is grape variety part of terroir? I say no, but certain grape types will certainly express a specific terroir better than others. In Burgundy, Pinot Noir does this much better than Gamay, and better in Burgundy than it would in the warm vastness of Provence. Yes, terroir can apply to a village or a region, not just a single vineyard. Most of us certainly can cite the different characteristics we expect from a comparison of, say, Chambolle-Musigny with Nuits-St.-Georges, or Burgundy with Russian River Valley.

Winemaking? Not part of terroir, although a winemaker's every choice affects its expression in the finished wine. How and when to crush and press the grapes. How much to press. Ferment in stainless steel, concrete, wood or something else? Temperature and length of time in contact with the skins. Punch-downs or pump-overs? Barrels or larger containers for aging? New barrels or old? How long to age before bottling? Those are just a few options that will significantly affect the character of the finished wine. Within a region, most winemakers might favor certain of these choices over other options. In some European appellations, these questions are precisely defined by law.

If it's common for people to do things a certain way in a village or region, that can become what seems to be a constant characteristic of the wines from there. Some want to include "the work of man" in their definition of terroir. But that's regional style, not an expression of terroir.

We use terroir too loosely. We refer to a specific vineyard as "a terroir," although the French correctly employ a different word, climat. We say a wine has goût de terroir, a French term for tastes we expect to find in a wine made from a specific place. Too often it's misused as a synonym for earthy notes. But it can be anything—fruitiness, spice, savory notes, tannin qualities, to name a few.

Every wine reflects terroir. Some do it by amplifying specific characteristics possible from a single vineyard. Others make interesting wines by blending several vineyards within a larger area, playing the strengths of one against others' weaknesses, hoping for a more compelling wine that still reflects the region. Some wines may be missing something on their own, but blended with others can make a lovely wine when their assets and deficits combine to best advantage. This is an example of a winemaker using terroir subtlely.

Books that address terroir seldom make the connection between site and what characteristics it produces in wine. They go on and on about the soil, and the slope, and exposure, but don't always relate it to what's in the glass. That's probably because it's so difficult to tease out these elements from all the rest, as we struggle to describe a wine.

Terroir is a useful and meaningful idea. Let's just try to be clear about what we intend to say when we wield it.

Paul Jacroux
Kirkland, Washington, USA —  April 7, 2014 5:06pm ET
I assume Harvey would exclude man's intervention in the vineyard such as row orientaion, vine spacing, clone and root selection, use of pesicides and hand harvesting from his definition of terrior.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  April 7, 2014 5:18pm ET
Yup, Paul. All those elements are choices imposed by humans, not by nature.
Robert Camuto
France —  April 8, 2014 1:22pm ET
Interesting post Harvey.
Very true that man can only influence expression of terroir. Age and cultivation of vines and what is put in soil can affect microorganisms that attach to vine roots (which studies from Italy show bring mineral terroir flavors to a wine). Also there's the 500 pound gorilla: YEAST! What yeasts (native, selected) are part of terroir and which ones crush it?
Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  April 8, 2014 5:49pm ET

It has been discovered that insects such as wasps actually carry the wild wine-making yeasts in their gut, thus maintaining a continuity in the vineyard from year to year. As these wild yeasts are a natural part of the character of the wines thus produced, these insects then may also may be seen as a part of the Terroir of a region.

Fascinating topic!

David Clark
for The Wine Connection
Mario Smet
Belgium —  April 9, 2014 10:38am ET
It is a good thing to reflect on what we may mean talking about terroir and to try to use this term unequivocally. However, terroir is French word that has a certain meaning, regardless the way (foreign) people use it in a specific context such as wine, and this meaning is not restricted to physical elements, but certainly encompasses also culture. In that sense, one may say that an invidividual decision of a winemaker is not part of terroir. On the other hand, a 'collective decision made by the tradition' such as a typical way of winemaking (e.g. making wines with oxidation notes like in the French Jura) could reasonably be considered part of terroir.
See: http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terroir The English version is remarkably different, maybe reflecting the misunderstanding that often seems to occur when Americans and French start discussing about terroir...
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  April 9, 2014 12:58pm ET
Thank you, Mario, for the best explication I have found yet (the French wiki article on terroir) of why the French tend to include the work of humans in their definition of terroir for wine. It's because the word is also used independently of wine, for individual social structures and civilizations.

Even in this article, however, the "viticole" definition of terroir says, basically, "wine quality is affected by micro-local conditions." The more general application of the term to societies explains why so many Frenchmen I talk to about terroir scrunch up their faces when they consider the notion of terroir applied to the New World. After all, we don't have the long histories of a local consensus on how wines of a place should be done.

Maybe we need a new word that's less fraught.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  April 9, 2014 1:01pm ET
Roberto and David, microorganisms including yeast certainly are part of the natural setting of a vineyard site and develop in tandem with the vines, affecting the outcome of the wine made from them. Although it's possible for humans to manipulate them, it's also possible to manipulate the slope and texture of the land. It's all a slippery slope, isn't it?

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