Talking Terroir

Explore / The Road Less Travelled

Talking Terroir


Margaret Rand Margaret Rand

Margaret Rand is an award-winning wine journalist and author. Here, she asks, 'Every wine grower talks about terroir. But how many actually take it seriously?'

First, a definition: terroir is the specific combination of soil, exposure to the sun and climate that makes each vineyard different to its neighbour.

The smaller the area under discussion, the more it means. To talk about the terroir of Bordeaux means very little; but to talk about the terroir of Pomerol's 14-hectare Vieux Château Certan, or the terroir of one of its 23 tiny and precise parcels, means a great deal.

When I was narrowing the wines of the world down to just 101 for my new book, 101 Wines to Try Before You Die (Octopus), terroir expression was my main criterion, although sometimes I used different words for it: wildness, vitality, energy, individuality, a sense of place.

Homing in on a sense of place

But what is it, this sense of place? It can't be analysed, and it can barely be described. The answer that most people in wine might give is that they know terroir expression when they see it. When you taste a Chave Hermitage, it tastes of something far beyond grapes. Pauillac, says Christian Seely, who runs second growth Bordeaux property Château Pichon-Longueville, is the only place in the world where cabernet sauvignon doesn't taste of itself. Look at the differences between any two Burgundies from the same grower – De Montille, perhaps, or Domaine Dujac – in the same vintage. Look at rieslings from adjoining vineyards in Austria's Wachau. It's true that there can be as many differences between growers in the same vineyard as between vineyards, but really great terroirs like Alsace's Rangen de Thann (where Zind-Humbrecht is the greatest grower) or Schoenenbourg (where Hugel grows its Schoelhammer) put their fingerprint on every wine. The reason that terroir fascinates us is because we feel, irrationally, that wine is more than just a matter of grape variety and ripeness.

Vineyard at Zind Humbrecht

Even the most scientific winemakers feel this irrationality. Alberto Antonini, a star global winemaking consultant, said to me a few years ago of a new project in Uruguay, that its 'mixture of forest, palus, rocks and small vineyards generates complexity in the wines. I don't know how, but I think it does'. Somehow wine seems to be capable of expressing a whole landscape. But even the most stringent laboratory can't tell us how.

Landscape of Uruguay

Some terroirs have more to express than others, it's true. Some sopranos get to sing Tosca; others stay in the chorus. Great vineyards are at least soloists, and some are prima donnas – often in more ways than one.

Enemies of terroir

A sense of terroir is a fragile thing, however. Says Antonini, 'there are five enemies of terroir wine: overripeness, over-extraction, overoaking, viticulturalists killing the soil, and a winemaker making wine that is about him or her.' It could not be put more neatly. The less you do, the more you get, in terms of terroir expression. If you do those things you will not produce a terroir wine. And if you do those things you don't intend to produce a terroir wine – whatever your press releases might claim.

But of course as a grower you can't do nothing. A vineyard is an unnatural thing – vines do not grow naturally in neat classrooms, pinned to wires, pruned to make them grow in certain ways. Everything a grower does, from putting in drainage and planting windbreaks, to deciding the orientation of the rows, to choosing cover crops, is an intervention designed to adjust what the terroir might give. And that's before you leaf-pluck, green-harvest, and decide the moment to pick.

Harvesting in Burgundy

Antonini has another insight: 'Burgundy is the place that really understands terroir. Bordeaux wants to be perfect, but Burgundy wants to be unique.' You can see the same difference in Champagne: the grandes marques want to be perfect; the top individual growers want to be unique. To be perfect means being glossy, glamorous, made-up, perhaps Botoxed, perhaps with a nose job. To be unique means going out without make-up – but to be beautiful as well as unique you have to have extremely good bone structure in the first place.

Back to the soil

Soil matters probably more than climate. Not because the vine sucks up the minerals in the soil and transmits them to the wine – that is total nonsense, though it still gets repeated. Vines obtain nutrients via bacteria and microfungi in the soil – and it might be that each vineyard's population of these is different, just as each vineyard's population of wild yeasts is different – unless everything is slaughtered by chemicals. This is what Antonini means by 'viticulturalists killing soil': industrially farmed vineyards, doused in chemicals, obediently yielding reliably commercial crops of analytically correct wines, may have little or no microbiological life. They tend not to make anything that tastes alive, vital. Safe, yes; energetic and alive, not so much.

..and what else?

What else makes a difference? Allowing those wild yeasts to ferment the juice, rather than killing them with sulphur and adding a laboratory yeast chosen for its ability to enhance particular flavours or aromas. Winemakers who prefer to ferment with wild yeasts have always asserted that it gives a greater sense of place. It certainly gives wines that taste different: less obviously fruity, more vinous. Closel's Savennières 'La Jalousie', for example, or Schloss Gobelsburg's top grüners.

Irrigation, too. Great terroir is wasted unless roots go deep into it; and why would they bother to do that, if there's water available near the surface?

This is an uncomfortable question for many growers in desert areas of the new world. Nature seldom ticks all the boxes for great terroirs.

Cooperage in Muga

And oak. The understanding of oak has expanded in recent years: good coopers will tailor their barrels to your wine, rather than vice versa; and flavours like coffee, chocolate and coconut that come from the barrel and only from the barrel are out of fashion.

So it's a simple recipe, for making terroir wines? You abandon chemicals, stop irrigation, use natural yeasts and keep your fingers crossed?

A question of compromise

Unfortunately, all winegrowing involves compromise: on the one side there is nature, on the other, economics. That might, in a wet year, mean that even biodynamic growers have to resort to spraying chemicals. In the wet, mildew-ridden summer of 2016, dozens of organic and biodynamic growers in Burgundy did just that. The alternative would have been no crop at all.

All winegrowing, all winemaking, is a compromise. The greatest terroirs can mean the most work: they're seldom the easiest. And the greatest growers are those with the humility and the determination to let the terroir sing.

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