Terroir: the truth

  • Monday 16 July 2007

Terroir is one of those buzz-words that everyone in the wine world embraces, but what does it really mean? And does it really have the effect on wines that producers claim? Rupert Joy digs deep to find out

Terroir is one of those buzz-words that everyone in the wine world embraces, but what does it really mean? And does it really have the effect on wines that producers claim? Rupert Joy digs deep to find out

South of Condrieu in the northern Rhône lies the tiny appellation of Château-Grillet. Its 3.4 hectares of vines on the steep slopes of a natural amphitheatre produce minute quantities of wine from the same grape variety and soils as its much larger neighbour, Condrieu. But it has been recognised since 1936 as a separate AC, and sells for far more. Its owner, Isabelle Baratin-Canet, stresses that the originality of the wine made from its granite soils and south-facing exposure has been recognised for centuries. But some of her neighbours question whether there is such a difference between the terroirs of Château-Grillet and Condrieu.

The idea that particular patches of land produce particularly great wines is not new. The philosopher, John Locke, who visited Bordeaux in 1677, noted the ‘particularity in the soil’ of Château Haut-Brion that distinguished it from its neighbours. A book by Abbot Arnoux, published in London in 1728, attributed the greatness of Montrachet in Burgundy to a particular strip of earth on the Côte d’Or.

What is a modern phenomenon is the use of the word ‘terroir’ to describe the idea. Its original French connotations were pejorative. Until the mid-20th century, a vin terroité meant a rustic, earthy wine with, at best, a sort of yokel charm and, at worst, faults. A wine with a goût de terroir (flavour of terroir) was a shoddily made wine that tasted of unripe or rotten grapes. The idea of terroir as a more positive attribute did not emerge until the birth of the AC system in the 1930s.

Everyone has his own definition of terroir. Perhaps the simplest is that of American wine writer Matt Kramer, who describes it as ‘somewhereness’. Most French definitions, including that of the INAO (the body responsible for France’s AC system), include four key elements: the physical characteristics of a place (especially soil and exposure), its climate, the grape variety used and the role played by man.

Few people would dispute the basic premise that wines derive certain characteristics from the place where their grapes are grown, and that man plays a role in expressing those characteristics. But given that just about every wine producer these days claims to produce wines that respect terroir, and claims to take a ‘non-interventionist’ approach, the consumer has every reason to wonder what terroir means in practice.

The roots of terroir

Perhaps because the word is similar to ‘terrain’, we tend to associate terroir mainly with soil. This in turn can encourage the perception that wines directly derive a taste from the soil in which they are grown.

A classic example is Chablis, one of the world’s most recognisable wines. Despite being made from a ubiquitous grape variety, the Chablis expression of Chardonnay is unlike that from any other region. The most reputed wines come from soft Kimmeridgian chalky marl, composed of prehistoric oyster shells.

Producers and wine writers often make a link between the wine’s characteristic flinty-iodine taste and the region’s geology. ‘How else can you explain the iodised notes in Chablis if not by the composition of its soil?’ asks Bernard Billaud-Simon. ‘You don’t find this taste in Chardonnays grown elsewhere.’

This notion is challenged by scientists. Tasmania-based viticulturist Richard Smart is forthright: ‘It’s nonsense to imagine vines can assimilate anything more than simple chemical elements from the soil and up into the grape. In Chablis, the flinty taste can be associated with acidity. This is caused by differences in climate, primarily temperature. And if you want to call it terroir, that’s fine. The thing that’s important about soil is its ability to hold water.’

Kees van Leeuwen of Château Cheval Blanc agrees: ‘If there seems to be a link between the minerals in the soil and the taste of Chablis, it must be indirect. The taste is more likely to be an effect of the vineyards’ exposure and landscape.’

‘Goût de terroir does not mean the taste of earth,’ says France’s leading wine writer Michel Bettane. ‘Different geological origins influence the shape and texture of wine, and its balance in terms of sugar, acidity and tannins, more than its taste.’

Nevertheless, many producers insist on the role of soil type in wine taste. Anne-Claude Leflaive, who makes extraordinarily ethereal, intense white wines in Puligny-Montrachet, insists: ‘Eliminate all the variables and you’ll see clear differences between wines produced from vines 100m apart. Here we have a single grape variety grown on more or less homogenous soil types. All our grapes are harvested at roughly the same time and vinified and aged in the same way. The big differences between parcels seem to lie in the soil structure and the clay subsoils.’

Claude Bourguignon, who has spent many years working on the microbiological activity of the soil, is in no doubt that geology has an influence on wine taste and colour. ‘Chardonnay grown in Chablis gives a yellow-green wine, but a yellow wine in Montrachet. Champagnes from Kimmeridgian soil in the Aube have a different taste from Champagnes made on Marne chalk. A Muscadet grown on granite tastes different from a Muscadet grown on gneiss.’

Live earth

Bouguignon believes micro-organisms in the soil, in particular soil fungi called mycorrhizae, are the key to terroir expression. ‘It’s bacteria that enable the vine’s roots to assimilate nutrients. So it’s impossible to distinguish between wines from different terroirs if the soil is biologically dead. That’s why the role of terroir divides scientists. They never check the level of biological activity in the soil.’

Nicolas Joly, a leading exponent of biodynamic viticulture, agrees: ‘No roots can derive nourishment from the soil without a wide diversity of micro-organisms. They act as relays, transmitting each subtlety of a soil’s geology.’

François Perrin of Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, wonders if the local character of these soil micro-organisms might contribute to goût de terroir. He too is convinced that living soil is a key to great terroir. ‘There are clear differences between the mineral qualities of wines made from living and dead soils.’

Burgundy is at the heart of the notion of terroir. Its hierarchical system is based around the principle that different vineyard sites, often only a few metres apart, produce wines that vary substantially in quality.

But Jean-François Bazin, author of numerous books on Burgundy, points out that there is also a good deal of historical accident underlying this hierarchy: ‘The reason there are no grands crus in Beaune, Savigny, Pommard, Volnay and Meursault is that Beaune’s all-powerful négociants wanted to keep their marques.’

Few experts dispute that, overall, the hierarchy reflects wine quality, and that the truly great terroirs – what Bettane calls terroirs chaise longue – produce great wine every year, however they are worked. At an economic level, this is borne out by the price differences between generic Burgundy, village wines, premiers crus and grands crus, as well as by huge differences in the price of viticultural real estate. So what, in practical terms, makes the difference?

‘The grands crus and the premiers crus are incontestably the best sites,’ says Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. ‘They are always situated in the “palm” of the slope, the middle of the hillside where there is an accumulation of earth, an incline, good drainage and therefore ideal hydraulic conditions for the vine – in other words, in exactly the conditions that mean great quality in Burgundy.’

The supply of water to the vine is clearly critical. Producers often observe that wines produced from limestone soils have a ‘mineral’ quality, while wines from clay soils are richer and more opulent. But this may have less to do with the chemical composition of the soil than the fact that limestone soils are thinner and retain less water, exposing the vines to greater water stress. Research by Gérard Seguin of Bordeaux University seems to suggest that soil structure and drainage are the consistent factor in great terroirs.

Studies by Seguin and van Leeuwen suggest that there is no quality link between specific soils and great wines. ‘In Bordeaux, top wines are produced on soils as different as alkaline limestone soils (Ausone), acidic gravelly soils (Lafite), neutral gravelly soils (Cheval Blanc) and heavy clay soils (Pétrus). It is generally not possible to equate a soil map of a given region with a map of quality potential for wine-growing.’

Nadine Gublin of Domaine Jacques Prieur is convinced that microclimate, especially vine exposure, is key. ‘Last September I was at Meursault one evening. The vines were in shade, the temperature was 20ºC and the grapes already cold. Over the hill, a few minutes away, the vines in Puligny-Montrachet were still in full sunshine, the temperature was 25ºC and the grapes were very warm. It’s a perfect example of terroir in action.’

The human touch

However much we might want to think of wine production as a natural process, mankind remains at the centre of it. No vine varieties currently grown to make wine existed in nature. The choice of clones, planting density, vine training, pruning and other aspects of vineyard management are all inherently ‘unnatural’. ‘The great terroirs of Burgundy have all been worked on and developed for centuries,’ says Jean-Bizot of Vosne-Romanée. ‘Drainage has been installed, eroded soils carried back up the slopes. This makes a big difference.’

And that’s before the grapes even reach the cellar. Even at its least ‘interventionist’, vinification requires a range of decisions that affect wine style. Two years ago, researchers Victor Ginsburgh and Olivier Gergaud published a study that attempted to quantify the relative effects of terroir and technology on perceived wine quality. The results, they claimed, suggest ‘winemaking has become so sophisticated that it can completely shade the effect of terroir’.

They are not alone in arguing that producers play a more significant role than terroir in shaping wine. Vinification style – what the French call the coup de patte (helping hand) of the producer – is undeniably critical in influencing the final product. ‘Terroir speaks in a very still, small voice,’ says Randall Grahm. ‘It is easy not to hear it above the stentorian tones of 100% new oak, 15% alcohol and the extreme tannic extraction that we find in modern wines.’

In Bordeaux in particular, the quality of many wines has radically improved as a result of heavy investment and technical advice. Jean-Guillaume Prats of Château Cos d’Estournel sees terroir and technology as complementary. ‘The vins de garage phenomenon showed that with investment and attention to detail, good-quality wines can be made on soils not previously recognised as good terroirs. But where long-standing domaines with great terroirs made similar improvements, they’ve made better wines than ever. Today’s Cos is more concentrated and expressive of the terroir than Cos 40 years ago.’

Andrew Jefford, author of The New France, agrees: ‘I’d say that terroir needs good winemaking to become articulate. If you’re not making the right winemaking decisions, you won’t get a very full terroir imprint. The classic example is Pomerol. Only 100 years ago, no one took it seriously. Now its wines are sought after and it has distinctive terroirs. Modern approaches in Bordeaux have given us a welcome sense of aesthetic diversity. What we’ve lost are the weedy, green, ropily made wines of the 1960s-70s.’

The truth is that no one really knows how terroir works. Seguin, Smart and others have done much to define the key elements in scientific terms, but science cannot explain everything.

However hard the concept of terroir is to pin down, there is general agreement in Old and New Worlds that terroir is the antithesis of so-called ‘branded wines’, which derive character from winemaking processes and blending. ‘Ultimately,’ says Paul Draper of California’s Ridge Vineyards, ‘people who love wine see a connection to the earth which, in this virtual world, we are in danger of losing entirely. In a world of so many commodity wines, we must remain true to that.’

There is also widespread agreement that terroir lies at the heart of great wine, even if it is not always easy to explain. Gublin, one of the most articulate, straight-talking oenologists you can meet, is at a loss to say why Montrachet makes such sublime white wines. ‘There’s something extraordinary about the soil. I don’t know what it is, but it produces white wines that give the impression of tannins in the mouth, as if it were a red wine.’

It’s that mysterious quality, its elusive complexity, that makes it so fascinating. We may never fully understand the link between a wine’s taste and its terroir. And, in a way, I hope we never do.

Thoughts on terroir

‘The influence of soil, subsoil, weather, water, sun are all objective. The rest – grape variety, rootstocks, vineyard work, etc – are a product of man. Terroir cannot explain everything. It clearly exists, but it’s not the answer to everything’

Jean-François Bazin, wine historian

‘Science is still a long way off being able to define what makes a great terroir. It’s the quality of wine that proves the greatness of a terroir; scientific analysis simply confirms it’

Michel Bettane, wine writer

‘Vines don’t care whether they grow in Jurassic or Kimmeridgian soil: they just want somewhere to fix their roots. What makes the difference in great terroirs is that they have been worked on and perfected by man over many centuries’

Jean-Yves Bizot, Burgundy

‘To make a great wine, you need a great terroir that is biologically active, a vine adapted to this terroir and a good winemaker. All three are essential’

Claude Bourguignon, soil scientist

‘I accept that there’s no scientific evidence to prove that terroir exists. Maybe science will catch up one day and figure it all out. Or we may never have the tools to say why certain wines taste the way they do. But the empirical evidence is clear’

Paul Draper, California

‘Terroir is not only a myth, it’s a joke’

Victor Ginsburgh, economist

‘I’ve yet to hear a convincing explanation for how soil components can directly alter the flavour of grapes and hence the finished wine... A finished wine is almost unrecognisable from the starting point of freshly pressed grape juice. And beyond that point, terroir can have no effect’

Jamie Goode, wine writer

‘I think of terroir as the degree of organisation of a particular site, ie how well the site has solved the particular issues that a grape variety or varieties might face. Great terroirs somehow solve these issues more “elegantly”’

Randall Grahm, California

‘Wherever you grow particular grape varieties in particular places, and make the wine in a relatively simple, straightforward way, then you have an expression of terroir’

Andrew Jefford, wine writer

‘Terroir is like a musical instrument. Unless you know how to make use of it, it’s useless. If you have a good musician (viticulturist), a good musical instrument (terroir) and good acoustics (agriculture), there’s nothing to do in the cellar’

Nicolas Joly, Savennières

‘There’s no scientific proof for typicity: you can’t describe it in molecular terms. But you can see it at work in an appellation like St-Emilion. Some soils are limestone, some are gravel and some are clay. The wines from all three can be good, but the typicity is quite different in each case’

Kees van Leeuwen, Bordeaux

‘Wine production is all about liberating the energy in the grapes into the wine. The problem with New World producers is that they make wines that are dead, wines with no energy left’

Jacques Lardière, Burgundy

‘You can’t take man out of terroir. It’s like a rough diamond, waiting to be discovered and perfected by human intelligence’

François Perrin, Châteauneuf-du-Pape

‘Poor vintages tend to express terroir better than great vintages. In poor years, the only thing you can taste is the terroir; in

great years, you have to wait longer for the terroir in wines to express itself’

Emmanuel Reynaud, Châteauneuf-du-Pape

‘Minerality has no scientific name but plays a key role. It’s the key thread running through great wine – and it comes from the soil’

Jean-Louis Chave, Hermitage

‘Without terroir, a wine has no soul, however good it might be. Terroir is the central core around which a wine organises and balances itself. A wine can only be great if it is made to try to express terroir as perfectly as possible’

Aubert de Villaine, Burgundy

‘As long as you work in harmony with nature, you can find terroirs all over the world that produce great wines. The role of the producer is to act as a kind of musician, interpreting the music of the terroirs’

Anne-Claude Leflaive, Burgundy

‘I don’t believe in magical combinations of soil and grape variety. Soil is important to vines only in terms of its properties to absorb and retain moisture. If it were not for journalists, vineyard soils would never have been elevated to the status they have’

Richard Smart, viticultural expert

‘Happily, no one has yet shown that certain elements in the soil give particular characteristics to wine. But the absence of such knowledge is no reason to deny that each wine has its own typicity’

Lalou Bize Leroy

‘If you spend your life working on the land, you notice things. I can’t explain the science, but I know that if you taste a grape from the lower part of a slope and another from the middle, the taste is quite different – that’s the terroirs talking’

Christian Gouges, Burgundy

‘Our wines reflect their land and origin. The same can be said of cheeses or other agriculture products. But modern technology, use of industrial products and human intervention can quickly make any such traits disappear’

Samuel Guibert, Languedoc

‘Each climat in Chablis has its own clear identity, expression and potential. I can’t explain the science, but that’s terroir’

Bernard Billaud-Simon, Chablis

View from the Old World: Michel Rolland on terroir

What’s your definition of terroir?

Terroir is what determines a wine’s typicity and its capacity to evolve. But it isn’t what makes good wines: man plays an important role. We all know of great terroirs producing mediocre wines, and of people who can raise mediocre wines to the level of greatness.

Do you believe in the notion of

‘typicity’ – that a wine’s smell and taste can express its origin?

It isn’t easy to explain the concept of terroir. What is clear is that the soil gives a wine its typicity. The influence of certain soil compositions on the type of wine produced is undeniable.

Are characteristics attributed to regional ‘typicity’ actually technical faults?

In the past, certain ‘faults’ made wines recognisable: the green pepper taste of Cabernet Sauvignon was an easy way of distinguishing Bordeaux’s Right Bank wines from its Left Bank wines. Today – now that grape maturity is better understood – you don’t find these characteristics any more.

Hasn’t terroir just become a marketing tool?

In the last decade there’s been an improvement of quality in all terroirs.But there are still people who think terroir alone is enough. That’s not true: you also have to work and try to get the best from it. It’s true that, human nature being what it is, there is sometimes a tendency to abuse the notion of terroir.

The quality of Bordeaux has improved significantly as a result of investment and advice from consultants such as you. Does this suggest it’s above all the small details, rather than terroir, that dictate wine quality?

Every factor is important in producing good wines. Viticulture is the most crucial as it determines the quality of the grapes. The goal of the producer should be to make the best wine he can from the land he’s on; the market will reflect the wine’s worth.

Some critics claim that all your wines have a ‘Rolland style’ and are not terroir wines. How do you respond to the accusation?

I don’t need to defend myself. I don’t know if I make a ‘Rolland style’. I do know that I’ve spent my life trying to improve the quality of wines. I’ve tried to understand how to do things better around the world. There are always critics. If someone wants to discuss specific things, I’m happy to talk. Alas, that never happens because courage has never been the principal virtue of hypocrites.

View from the New World: Brian Croser

What’s your definition of terroir?

For me, terroir is the sum of all of the environmental inputs of a site integrated by the vine to produce fruit and wine of a unique and consistent quality and style. Truly distinguished sites are rare but most fine wine sites have a terroir, some more expressive than others.

If no scientific link has been established between geology and wine taste, should we be sceptical about the idea of ‘typicity’ and ‘terroir’?

There is too much emphasis on the role of geology in terroir. It plays a role, but it is subordinate to climate, aspect and soil. The geology is the one thing management cannot change easily, and that’s why the French have drilled their terroir flagpole into the unique geological matrix of their country.

Do you believe a wine’s taste and smell can reflect the soil in which it’s grown?

A strength of terroir as a concept of the place in wine is its evocative, suggestive role to the intellectually engaged taster. Some consistent characteristics of wines from a particular place – flint in Chablis, cigar box in Bordeaux, exotically spiced cherries in Burgundy, fine leather in Barolo – are mentally correlated with geographical characteristics and this is reinforced by fine wine literature.

Hasn’t terroir just become a marketing tool?

Terroir has always been a marketing tool. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have technical substance. I think it’s great that the New World is talking terroir.

Do you think terroir is as important a factor in wine quality as the role of the viticulturist or winemaker?

In order of importance, terroir is first, viticulture choices next and winemaking third, although all are important and interlinked. The level of investment in a distinguished site will profoundly affect the ability of the terroir to express itself.

The French sometimes say that Australia makes ‘technical’, rather than terroir, wines. Is this fair?

It suits the agro-economic strategy of the French to retain exclusivity of the concept of terroir and define all other wine as industrial. The truth is, of course, that the caves co-operatives of France produce more commodity wine than the whole of Australia and that there are more than 2,000 Australian vignerons staking their livelihoods on their terroirs.

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