Terroir is a term that is crucial to the understanding of quality wines and the differences between them. Yet many wine lovers do not understand terroir. Many have not even heard of it. The following is an examination of the term as it relates to French and American wines. We’ll begin with a modified excerpt from the excellent wine writer Hugh Johnson as he defines the term. Then we will discuss it as it relates to a general French area (Bordeaux) as well as a specific Chateau (Latour). We’ll conclude with a lengthy discussion of the current wine scene in California as it relates to terroir.
English has no precise translation for the French word terroir. Terrain comes nearest, but has a much less specific, let alone emotive, connotation. Perhaps this is why many wine loving Anglo-Saxons mistrust it as a Gallic fantasy; a conveniently mysterious way of asserting the superiority of French soil and landscape and the unknowable peculiarities that give French wines special qualities.
Yet there is no mystery about terroir. Everyone — or at least every place — has one. Your garden and mine have terroirs; probably several. The front and back of your house almost certainly offer different growing conditions for plants. That is all terroir means.
At its most restrictive the word means soil. By extension, and in common use, it means much more. It embraces the dirt itself, the subsoil beneath it, its physical properties and how they relate to the local climate — for example how quickly it drains rainwater, whether it reflects sunlight or absorbs its heat. It embraces the lie of the land: its degree of slope, its orientation to the sun, and the tricks of its microclimate that spring from its location and surroundings.
Thus if the foot of a slope is frost-prone, the fact is an aspect of the terroir. Warmth or mist arising from nearby water is another — mist can encourage botrytis and make golden sweet wines possible. Cooling afternoon or evening breezes off a body of water, such as is the case in many coastal areas of California, will also have a great effect. An east slope that catches the morning sun may have identical soil to a west slope that warms up later in the day and holds the evening rays: its terroir is different — and its grapes will be subtly different too.
So are two plots of soil that nature made identical, but one of which has been pampered and the other neglected. Investment in cultivation has a marked effect on terroir. This is part of the exorbitant price of the best vineyard land (Grand Cru in France). It was the best situated in the first place; then nurtured for centuries.
An extension of this aspect of terroir is the view held by some organic wine growers that the term should also apply to all the flora and fauna of the land, whether visible or microscopic. Some claim that chemical treatments which kill microfauna denature the terroir. This would apply to tiny inhabitants of the soil as well as the indigenous yeasts, which almost certainly impart their territorial character to the wine.
Next month we will take a closer look at the terroir of Bordeaux. However, the first methodical identification and definition of different terroirs we know about (and still profit from) was done by monks in the Middle Ages, most famously by the fanatical Cistercians in Burgundy. They are said to have “tasted the soil” in their efforts to understand its secrets. Their efforts were not just directed at making the best wine. They were obsessed with the consistent differences between plots of land. To make wines that were as distinctive, as recognizably unalike as possible was their passion — handed down to us in the jigsaw pattern of crus that makes study of the Côte d’Or so perplexing today.
Climate and microclimate: Bordeaux is the perfect place to seek answers to the question of terroir. We can look at Bordeaux from two perspectives: how the region in general differs from other wine growing areas and how differences within Bordeaux can create great and only good wine producing properties in close proximity. The most earnest studies have been made to decide what it is that makes one piece of land superior to its neighbor. In the end, we will glimpse hints of the truth, but we will have at least as many questions left as we have answers.
The Médoc (the western part of Bordeaux) lies on the 45th parallel. It is situated between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gironde estuary (where the Garonne and Dordogne rivers join) in southwest France. This explains its relatively warm, damp climate, bathed in light, sun and freely circulating air. This protects the vines from the late spring frosts and cryptogamic diseases which might easily develop at the time of the summer rains. The peninsula’s geographical position, lying between two water masses which act as thermal regulators, creates a highly propitious micro-climate. It provides a moderate and stable climate: the summers are warm, but not typically hot, and the winters are mild. In addition, Europe’s biggest forest, on the ocean side of Bordeaux and to the south, protects it from strong salt winds and reduces the rainfall.
Variations in the weather every year affect the style of the vintages. The grapes generally ripen well because the months of August and September usually have little rain and a great deal of sunshine. The very great vintages are always the result of relatively hot, dry summers. And if pollination is delayed by rain and cold while the vines are in flower, they merely reduce the har-vest quantitatively without impinging on the quality.
The diversity of the terroirs: The character of the Médoc soil and subsoil also greatly influences the wines’ style and quality. At the end of the Tertiary and particularly in the Quaternary eras, layers of pebbles, sand and clay which we call graves were laid down in time and space. The oldest layers, the Pyrenees gravel on the west part of the vineyards, are a mixture of quartz and small shingle. After these layers chronologically, came the sedimentary structures of early Quaternary (Günz). These very coarse layers combine quartz, sandstone, chert, volcanic lydians, millstone grit, sand and clay, swept down by the mighty floods of the Garonne and Dordogne Rivers of bygone days. The greatest of the Médoc crus are planted on this Garonne gravel, all along the estuary.
Later, geologically, other layers of gravel (Mindel) were formed as well as coarser gravel (Riss) of which there remain only the barest traces of a greatly reduced terrace, at Lamarque and towards Macaw. Between these two main types of gravel, there are outcrops of calcerous clay which are also advantageous for vine-growing.
A relief of ridges: For the specialists, the most important event, geologically speaking, was the destruction of the terraces by erosion, when tributaries of the Garonne cut out valleys, the “jalles” or brooks. This destruction explains the succession of ridges of gravel whose topography of depressions and folds plays an irreplaceable role in water drainage.
The characteristic trait of the Médoc landscape is its gentle undulations with the highest point at 43 meters at Listrac-Médoc. And yet its relief is complex, made up of a succession of gravelly ridges overlooking the low-lying land by the estuary and the small brooks which flow out into it. These ridges are the vineyards’ favorite terrain.
An alternate view: Some take a different geological view of terroir, focusing not on subsoil structure, but on drainage. According to these theorists, a vine will find all the nourishment it needs almost anywhere, in many soil types. But the poorer the soil, the deeper and wider the vine will root. Hence the paradox that poor soil generally makes good wine. Give the vine rich soil, or spread generous helpings of manure around it and water it frequently and its roots will stay near the surface. But plant it in stony ground, give it only the bare necessities, and it will plunge meters deep to see what it can find. The deeper the roots go, the more constant is their environment, and the less they are subject to floods on one hand, drought on the other, and fluctuations of food supply from manuring or lack or manuring. The vine can feed normally, as long as the subsoil is well drained, so that the roots do not drown during the wettest times.
Dr. Gérard Sequin of the University of Bordeaux goes so far as to theorize that the nearer a vineyard is to an effective drain, the drier the subsoil will be and the deeper the roots will go; that the first-growths are vineyards nearest the drainage channels, the second-growths slightly further from them, and so on. There is an ancient Bordeaux saying that “the vines should look at the river.” This theory explains it. It also explains why old vines give the best wine: their roots are deepest (although declining vigor leading to reduced yields may also be a factor).
Hence, Dr. Seguin continues, it is not the chemical composition of the soil, but its physical make-up that must be taken into account. Heavy clay, which drains badly, or sand are the least propitious components for wine; gravel and larger stones are the best. Add to this the way stones store heat on the surface and prevent rapid evaporation of moisture from under them, and it is easy to see that they are the best guarantee of stable conditions of both temperature and humidity.
In the Haut-Médoc, it is the deep gravel beds that form gentle hills in Margaux, St-Julien and Pauillac, which drain best. Further north, the proportion of clay increases, so that in St-Estèphe, despite steeper hills, drainage is less effective. This does not mean that all Margaux wines are first-growths and all St-Esèphe fifth — although there are many more classed growths in Margaux — but it does account for the higher acidity, tannin and color and the less aroma in St.Estèphe wines. As one moves further north into the Bas-Médoc, the clay increases and the wines become coarser, although some very good wines can still be made at the best properties.
Even when vineyardists hundreds of years ago wanted to make one consistent wine from their property, they became acutely aware of the terroir(s) at their disposal. The recently published archives of Chateau Latour (unique in their completeness over 300 years!) give glimpses of how, in the 17th and 18th centuries, this especially privileged terroir revealed itself to its stewards. Its 100 odd acres at the time were divided into 19 plots, from 3.5 to 13 acres in size, according to their soil (particularly the size of the big pebbles that cover the surface), their drainage, their orientation and their performance.
Latour, like the other first growths, divided its crop into Grand Vin and Second Vin, just as it does today. The second wine always came from the less privileged terroirs; the base of the slopes, with more clay and smaller stones, and poorer drainage of both water and cold air.
It was soon discovered, and has been regularly confirmed, that the site of Latour as a whole has unique qualities. Its bank of pebbles sloping almost to the edge of the estuary is the least frost-prone site in the Médoc! Undoubtedly the ebb and flow of the tide in the estuary contributes by keeping the air constantly in motion, however slightly. Even hail storms, for some unexplained reason, seem to avoid the Enclos, as the exposed riverside hillock is called.
The same records also reveal, however, exactly how much money the owners spent on keeping their vineyard in peak form. One regular task was to collect all available soil from ditches and roadways and spread it on the land, which was only manured once in every 20 years. In the early 19th century, the vineyard keepers noticed that the quality of the wines was flagging. Their response was a 13 year program bringing 1000 wagon-loads each year of fresh soil from adjacent fields to be spread among the vines! It is a philosophical question whether or not this altered the terroir.
Terroir – Two California Perspective
Historically, America rejected much of its European/British roots and perspectives. Despite the conscious rejection, much remains in our language, certainly, but also in our culture, thinking and world view. With regards to wine, we rejected the emphasis of Europe on geography. Instead, labels emphasized grape varietal. Geographical origin wasn’t ignored, but the assumption was that if you knew the grape, you pretty much knew what to expect of a wine. Although they readily admit that some areas are better for growing a particular varietal than others, many (but, clearly not all) Californians completely reject the notion of terroir.
Dan Berger’s Commentary
Those who believe in terroir must take a lot on faith. Those who detest the idea say it is blind faith to accept it as fact. Basically, the theory states that the soil and weather have as much of an influence as does the variety of grape.
What makes the concept so hard to grasp is that there is no direct parallel in other fruits or vegetables. An Early Girl tomato grown in Bakersfield smells and tastes pretty much the same as it does when grown in Ukiah. Or does it? No one ever stages a blind tasting of Early Girl tomatoes from different regions. It may be that soil does impart a special character to all sorts of other plants and we simply haven’t seen it at this point. How many professional tomato tasters are there? And, more to the point, does it matter? Even if there were a significant difference between the same variety of tomato grown in different regions, would one be worth more than the other? Tomatoes are a commodity and price is set by the market, not generally on its quality.
But if terroir does exist, as so many people say, then it is obvious that it competes with varietal character for the dominant feature in a wine’s character. And which is more important, the regional or the varietal? This question perplexes philosophers more than wine purists.
The Terroir Fallacy (?) – The French, notably in regions like Bordeaux and Burgundy, believe that terroir is an essential element in the makeup of a wine. But why on earth did they restrict the grapes that may be grown in the primary (prestigious) growing regions when they didn’t restrict them in such “lesser” regions such as Provence or Alsace. (Incidentally, the concept of terroir is far less ingrained in the wine growers of these regions.) Why restrict the varietals allowed if it is terroir that is crucial, not varietal? They could well have permitted Riesling to grow in Montrachet, with their faith in terroir giving them the confidence that the resulting wine would be reflective more of Montrachet, the region, than of the grape or grapes that made the wine.
Still, I believe in terroir, since I have seen it often enough to verify its presence. The French adherence to this notion may be a chicken-and-egg proposition, but it explains much about how the French justify calling certain characteristics elements of greatness in certain wines from certain regions. Those same characteristics might be termed “odd” or “atypical” from wines from another region.
This brief look at terroir does not reveal any new truths, but it does unveil some of the inconsistencies in the concept, how it can be viewed with some skepticism without destroying the entire idea. In the following excerpts from a speech given by Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Winery, you will see a list of the enemies of terroir. I believe the most important is related to the harvesting of grapes later and later to achieve a richer, riper, more concentrated wine. This tastes artificial to me, a result of the quest for higher scores to justify a wine’s higher price. Instead of regional and varietal character, we get higher alcohol and the ultra-ripe flavor associated with raisins and port. This trend has happened slowly, allowing wine makers to justify their “new” style of wine by arguing that things haven’t changed radically over the years.
Sure, but if you pick Cab at 24 brix in 1990 and pick only .1 brix higher each year, by 2000 you’re at 25 brix. Duh! When did you last see a California Cabernet with 12.5% alcohol? And whoever said that 22.5 brix was going to make lousy wine? We did it for decades and made great wine. But the concept of “great” 15 years ago is radically different from our use of the term today. Riper is now better. So is oakier, more alcoholic and less acidic, characteristics that make a wine taste softer, sweeter and fuller, even if the flavors are not fruit-derived. This is the International Style of wine so popular today that even Chablis makers employ tactics to make their wines in a manner that will gain them precious points from Parker and the Spectator.
As you read through Randall Grahm’s speech/essay, be aware that his concerns about a loss of terroir are not the least bit worrisome to many of today’s “bigger is better” collectors, some of whom still believe that terroir is merely an excuse for wimpy wine.
I note for the record the huge difference between wimpy and sublime. Wines of real character, notably those with perfect terroir components, can be far more classic than some clumsy, raisiny/porty, overly weighty wine whose main aim is to impress, not necessarily to please.
The Reign of Terroir
by Randall Grahm
(from a speech given May 21st at Terroir International 2000, a two-day symposium)
I am a lover of terroir and my passion burns with a white-hot geek love supreme, largely in virtue of the fact that it remains utterly unrequited. I am proud to call myself a terroirist, but more as one who has sought terroir than has ever definitely basked in all of its calcaire-infused, mud-soaked glory.
Matt Kramer (writer for the Wine Spectator) has given us the most poetic definition when he called terroir “somewhereness.” That is to say, it is the sum total of all of the natural features of a site (topography, geology, exposition, microclimate) which impart a distinctiveness to the wine, independent of (or perhaps I should say despite) the stylistic imprint of the wine maker. The terroir of a site is its qualities that outlive the wine maker and one hopes outlive the stylistic manias du jour. The animist in me believes that terroir is like a soul or a conscience that hovers above the site. Sometimes it will descend into the corporeal body of the wine maker if it finds him a worthy vessel for terroir’s expression.
I believe that in the modern world of wine making, terroir is in flight and its gradual disappearance is provoking a longing in us to comprehend it before it disappears altogether. Terroir speaks quietly and there is very little in modern culture that is apprehended beneath the blare of the superficial and the obvious.
For the French, the existence of terroir is an absolute article of faith. I shouldn’t really say “faith” — it is more a feature of their experience. The French are very particular and scientific about organizing their sensual experience. This derives from the fact that they are at the same time both highly analytic Cartesians and utter horn-dog hedonists who have developed a very precise language to describe the complete range of their sensual experience.
Certainly, they taste wine (or historically have tasted wine) very differently than we do. They are (or I should say were) far less interested in whether the wine is “clean,” “fruit-driven” or contains hedonistic gobs of up-front jammy fruit. Their more relevant question is, “Does the wine express typicity?” i.e. the revelatory signature of its origins. For the French, the tell-tale expressions of bitumen and pet de cheval bespeak the schistous soils of St. Chinian in the Languedoc; the fingernails on the chalkboard, limey minerality of Chablis virtually shrieks its eponym. In Germany, the steep slatey vineyards of the Mosel valley produce, especially with very old vines, wines of immense concentration and extract, with unmistakable terroir shining through all of the riotous Riesling razzmatazz.
Unbelievably, there are still some who doubt the existence of terroir, but this is merely a function of ignorance and pride. One simply has to taste the wines made by Deiss in Alsace, Raveneau in Chablis or others I might mention, where the expression of the mineral quality of the wine can be far more dominant than any discernible varietal characteristics.
For those who have grown to appreciate it (and it is definitely an acquired taste as I will explain), the expression of terroir is arguably the most interesting element of a wine, one that for me provokes intellectual engagement. But perhaps as a culture, intellectual engagement with our wines is no longer what we seek.
The notion of terroir is endangered on a number of fronts. If you imagine terroir as a greater or lesser set of defining characteristics that differentiate one site from another, many of us can still perceive the larger, more obvious differences, the difference between limestone and granite, for example. But the very fine differences that once distinguished one small sub-parcel from another have, I fear, already mostly been lost. Perhaps it is the curse of modernity; the Burgundian or Alsatian farmer is not spending his every waking hour focused on his vines. His precious psychic resources are squandered on worrying about what web sites his kid is visiting or how many cases he should set aside for his Japanese importer.
There have been many viticultural developments in France and elsewhere that I think have rendered differences in terroir progressively less distinct. I will discuss them shortly. But the bigger problem is that as an increasingly international culture, we are progressively less attuned to fine detail. We take in our information in gross and broad outline, suitable for mass consumption — a sort of one-size fits all kind of epistemology. Many of the so-called “great wines” have begun to lose their identity and like vast Hollywood productions have become increasingly formulaic. With the exception of the very fine small estates, modern “chateau” wine making at least in Bordeaux and Napa has largely gone the corporate route. There is increasing pressure to get the big score at all costs and to make wines in a certain style that an influential critic might deem “collectable.”
But by following this path, modern Lafite is beginning to taste a lot like Mouton, which tastes a lot like Margaux. It is my fear that a wholesale alteration of our tasting Gestalt has taken place, largely unremarked; we now attend to the (voluptuous) figure of the flavors of hypermaturity instead of the soil. Hedonistic fulfillment is everything; we live in the age of the “bomb” — the vinous equivalent of the blonde bimbo bombshell. We confuse the richness and sweet texture of new wood and big alcohol for real depth and extract. I detest the current fashion, but I often find myself getting inexorably sucked into the seductive vortex of vinous easy listening. One tunes into the soft, ripe flavors of a wine made in the international modern style as easily as one finds oneself tuning into yet another mindless program on TV in favor of spending some time with a great novel. (Modern New World wine making is to real wine what Keanu Reeves is to Laurence Olivier.) Make mine the Cuvée Bruce Willis.
The shallowness of much of modern wine making simply mirrors the shallowness of our culture. We can’t seem to get beyond our compulsion to give people what we think they want and ultimately we permit ourselves to be led by an unknown, faceless wave-force that has itself little sense of where it is headed. If we don’t as wine makers resist the immense pressure to internalize the programmed appetites of the thirsty masses, we will certainly lose our way and it will be very difficult to find it again. Terroir is one path that enables us to remain honest; if we are true to terroir, we are making wines in service of something beyond our own egos, we are subordinating ourselves to a greater reality.
Most of us New Worlders believe it would be amusing, rewarding or interesting from a marketing perspective to make wines that express terroir. We are fooling ourselves. I doubt that many of us are actually prepared to do what it takes to fully embrace terroir as it really is and not as some idealized fantasy. It is a little bit like meeting God. We like the concept, but none of us is quite ready for the reality.
Preconditions of Terroir
As I have said, I am a seeker of terroir, not a finder. But I would like to explore what some people have felt to be some of the preconditions for its expression:
a) Yield restriction. In Europe, the magic number hovers somewhere around 40-45 hecto-liters/hectare, which is about 3 tons/acre.
b) Plant density. In Europe we see a much denser plantation than what we typically see here in the New World, and an individual vine might carry only 1-2 kg. of fruit. In any event, there is a much higher root mass per volume of fruit, and perhaps this leads to a potentially greater concentration of soil characteristics expressed in the fruit itself. To take this to the ultimate extreme would be the “plantation folle” — the ultra-dense plantation that was practiced in the pre-phylloxera era. It is utter speculation, but perhaps these legendary ultra-concentrated wines were even more expressive of terroir than the wines of our modern era. (At the very least we know they weren’t over-oaked.)
c) Cool climate. Grapes grown at the limit of their possibility (the coolest area where they can still ripen) will yield wines with the highest theoretical aromatic potential.
d) “Smart” or homeostatic, self regulating soils. Continental climates are by definition unsettled climates. Soils with the drainage/water retention characteristics to perform (that is to say produce wines that express finesse and typicity) in conditions of either drought or inundation are “smart” soils.
e) Relatively low vigor/low nutrient, old weathered soils. Old soils are like old souls; they have attained a sort of wisdom in virtue of their extended tenure on the planet.
f) Genetic diversity of vine population. Massal, rather than clonal selection in the vineyards yields wines of greater finesse and harmony. Wine makers talk about attaining a sort of “trans-parency” in the wine to allow the terroir to speak. I take this to mean that there is no single dominant taste element — even a lovely flavor like primary fruit may be too dominant.
g) Deeply rooted vines. The vines must periodically experience significant water deficit to induce deep rooting. There are still a very, very few fanatical terroirist growers who will actually practice root pruning to encourage deeper rooting.
h) Normal maturity: neither under-ripeness nor over-ripeness.
i) Mono-cépagement (single varietal). I think that this is purely a function of the limitations of our cognitive abilities. One keeps one variable (the grape variety) fixed, the better to observe the subtle variations due to the contribution of terroir. In regions where blends are the norm, at least keep the percentages roughly equivalent.
Enemies of Terroir
a) Drip irrigation. Clearly one of the mortal enemies of terroir, as it tends to restrict the depth to which the roots will grow and, thus, the volume of the soil in which the plant will root.
b) Young vines. The vines are not yet in equilibrium, nor have the roots penetrated to any depth.
c) Compacted soil. Any practice that limits the rooting depth is non terroir-philic.
d) Pesticide/herbicide treatments that kill off the soil’s natural ecological balance. Lest this talk be taken as an unqualified paean to French viticulture, the French have in modern times been guilty of killing many of their great terroirs through intense herbicide use. Yet the practice of biodynamique (organic) viticulture is growing in France.
e) Extensive inorganic fertilization. Among other things, this tends to increase yields.
f) Sandy soil. Sandy soils are generally poor in exchangeable minerals; furthermore, grapes grown in sandy soils will typically experience severe water stress on an annual basis, compromising the finesse of a wine.
g) Over-ripeness. That intrusively dominant cooked or raisiny quality couples with staggering alcohol degree character insisted upon by the so-called vintelligencia.
h) Overcropping. Duh!
i) Over-extraction. Ultra-long maceration (the length of time the skins sit in contact with the juice during fermentation) enhances some flavors at the expense of terroir. It makes for a “look at me!” type of wine.
j) New Oak. Don’t get me started!
k) Wine Additions. Adding “ameliorants,” especially tannin and acid, is like putting the wine’s clear and distinct voice through a scrambler.
l) Botrytis. A beautiful complexing element, but too marked a flavor component.
Making a wine that expresses terroir involves an element of risk. If one wishes to control all of the variables of wine making, one cannot make a wine that expresses terroir. Growing grapes at the limit of their possibility, at the very edge of their ripeness threshold, definitely carries some risk. In some years the wines will be perceived as hard, mean or austere. Wines that express terroir have a strong personality and will be found extreme or offensive by some people. Producers can’t be paralyzed by fear of making some of our potential customers unhappy.
Terroir is the quality of wine that keeps us coming back, enabling us to maintain a lifetime of interest. It is that difference between wines that makes a difference, clearly distinguishing one wine from another, and in so doing, adding immeasurable value. Terroir is the quality that confers uniqueness and ultimately gives wine a sort of soul, an element that persists long after the wine maker has passed on.
Why are we ultimately willing to pay the breathtaking prices we do for great wines? It is more than the fact that they simply taste wonderful. Great wines possess elegance and balance that take our breath away. They inspire us to believe that perhaps anything might be possible. Great wines affect us in a manner similar to the way that poetry creeps into our brains, that is to say through metaphor, the holding together of two elements from disparate realms that normally would never be able to shake hands. And what is a more powerful poetic trope than the identity of a special place and a distinctive taste. Terroir is a mediating agent of the mystical property of transubstantiation where a wine can be both a wine and a place at the same time. It enables us to have our wafer and to eat it too. Terroir thus confers the gift of identity, of presence. It is the poetry, the linkage, where the unified whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts in the same way that a friend acquires a special meaning to us beyond a mere collection of his or her quirks and idiosyncrasies.