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Can We Taste Terroir?

You bet we can, says a new study from Italy
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Feb 17, 2017 1:10pm ET

Scientists in Italy tested the notion that wines from different regions can be distinguished solely by their aromatics. Turns out that yes, they can. Experienced wine hands may say "duh" to this news, but according to the study, published in December, this is the first time scientists double-checked it with technology in a laboratory setting.

Not only that, but novices could make the distinctions just as well as professionals.

Francesco Foroni, a researcher who focuses on social psychology, emotion and cognitive science at Australian Catholic University in Strathfield, Australia, and SISSA in Trieste, Italy, led the team behind "The smell of terroir! Olfactory discrimination between wines of different grape variety and different terroir." The SISSA lab used an olfactometer, a device that controls exactly how much of an aroma gets to a subject's nose, to put all the tasters—er, smellers—on a level playing field.

They put participants through their paces, running them through 96 pairs of Merlots and Cabernet Sauvignons from two relatively obscure northeastern Italian regions 15 miles apart: Colli Berici, south of Vicenzo, and Colli Euganei, south of Padova. Sometimes the pairs were identical, other times different in variety or where they were grown.

The 32 panelists got it right significantly more often than random chance. They found different terroirs more often than distinctions between varietals. The hit rate was best when both the region and varietal were different.

I heard about this study from a snarky article in the U.K.-based Daily Mail, headlined, "Sour grapes as 12 wine professionals are humbled by 20 novices in a 'spot the difference' blind sniff test." It gleefully noted that the pros fared no better than the amateurs.

Actually, that's good news. The result that novices did just as well as professionals underlines the point that even an untrained palate can tell differences in both terroir and varietal.

Olfactory scientists I interviewed early on in my career as a wine and food writer taught me that we all have roughly the same basic sensory equipment, although professionals have more experience and can describe aromas and flavors with a more precise vocabulary. As I've said many times talking to non-professionals, trust your palate, even if you can't put it into words.


Alan Gavalya
Hampton VA USA —  February 22, 2017 11:42am ET
More often than not, Harvey, I "enjoy" the frustration of not being able to put it into words. Fortunately the pleasure of the sensation more than makes up for the frustration.

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