Talking terroir

on 09 October, 2017

When Bordeaux was in fashion, it seemed almost logical that we should fetishise winemakers. Here were people responsible for brilliant acts of blending, across large estates and multiple grape varieties, including superstars such as cabernet sauvignon and merlot. These days, fashion has moved on and pinot noir is ascendant. As a result, the star of the winemaker has fallen and we find ourselves following a new star in the sky: terroir.

Historically, terroir is a Burgundian preoccupation that no one who plants pinot noir today can escape. To plant the Bordeaux varieties is to say 'I am a blender'. To plant pinot noir is to say 'I am a terroiriste'. Thanks to the efforts of generations of Benedictine and Cistercian monks, it stands alone as a red grape variety that's capable of acting as a transparent lens for site expression, and is rarely blended, unlike its Bordeaux cousins.

A profoundly monastic concept in origin, the idea of terroir is small-scale and local in origin, designating a particular flavour or personality in a specific vineyard or microclimate that comes through year after year. By contrast, the idea of blending is a commercial one that has its origins in expediency, from Jerez to Bordeaux.

It therefore follows that terroir when expressed in a wine should be specific and identifiable. Or, to put it another way, a wine that doesn't taste of the place it was grown in isn't a terroir wine. Even if the owner of the land changes, or the winemaker moves on, the new custodian producing wine from this site should continue to see its terroir expression. It surely means a winemaker, merchant or drinker should be able to taste it, which is an intimidating thought for those of us who engage in blind tasting.

That idea of uniqueness of style or flavour is central to the French idea of terroir. But, when we try to translate this elusive concept into English, it comes out as 'somewhereness', a decidedly less glamorous-sounding concept.  That's a shame, because somewhereness, though ugly, is intelligible, whereas the word terroir, glibly uttered at tastings, vineyards and in reams of marketing material, comes with considerable ambiguity that is often exploited for maximum effect. This suggestive use of terroir creates problems that become clearer if we translate terroir back into boring old 'somewhereness':

Somewhereness upscales badly. When a winery of 150 hectares tries to tell you that their wine, sourced from the best parcels across dozens of vineyards, soil types and microclimates, expresses terroir, one might be justified in asking whether this isn't simply a house style.

Somewhereness blends badly. Terroir suggests specificity, a unique set of flavours and sensations from a unique piece of soil. Once you stand blending the fruit from here with the fruit from there, you are blending two terroirs. And terroirs are a bit like paint: the more you blend them, the closer you get to gray.

Somewhereness is rare. Just because I plant vines doesn't mean I have terroir. The endless proliferation of AOCs, DOCs and AVAs is less about somewhereness and much more often about generating a point of difference (or winemakers who need some extra grapes).

Somewhereness is not the same as quality. It is about making the wine that most tastes like the place where you grew the vines. It is possible to make a high quality wine that tastes nothing like the region it was grown in, as many excessively manicured, stylised and undeniably well-made wines from warm climate regions can demonstrate.

Somewhereness is unregulated. You see, when we say somewhereness, and then someone goes on to talk about where they buy their non-estate grapes from, then we can immediately call a foul. But when the word used is terroir, then we might well heed Orwell's warning that language can be just as well used to obfuscate and obscure meaning as to bring clarity.

There current mania for talking terroir at every turn both devalues the idea of somewhereness even as it pretends to celebrate it. The idea of site expression, vineyard uniqueness, the expression of a place in the world is an enormously valuable one at the centre of many of the world's fine wines. However, the reality is that we can, and do, make truly great wine without terroir. You just can't make terroir wine without terroir.

Jason Millar is retail director at independent wine merchant Theatre of Wine. He can be contacted at  jason@theatreofwine.com and found on Twitter @jasondmillar.

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