Debunking Terroir

January 2nd, 2010 • 2 Comments

I’ve heard so much about terroir in the wine press/blogging/twitter the last few years, that I’m past overwhelmed by all the statements and now into my denial phase. If you’re not familiar with “terroir”, it’s all about the “placeness” of a wine: the what, where, and how of the type of vine chosen, the varietal, the roots, the soil, the micro-climate, the wine maker, the regionality and of course all the factors that go into making the wine. For example, the “terroirists” or proponents of the idea that wine (and cheese, and beer, and pretty much anything you consume) should represent the unique characteristics of its region, are generally against much human manipulation, ie. chemical fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides, and too much use of new oak (this is a very short list, there are many more!). Their thinking is that we should taste nature’s gift the way nature intended it to be–use natural yeast, don’t filter or fine, and let the grapes ferment and express themselves the way they were meant to..enough, enough!

So what’s my issue with the concept of terroir? Does my skepticism towards the idea that you can (or can not) taste the soil in the final expression of the wine give me the right to throw the whole idea of nature’s expression out the window? Well, that’s not my point. I actually believe that better wine makers know and understand the locality they live in and they should use the least aggressive means of getting the vine to ripen grapes and express the full range of flavors. I believe that terroir, like character, is personal to each wine consumer. We each HAVE our own terroir (where you were born, your family history, the way you were brought up, etc.) and VIEW terroir differently – you say tomato, I say tomaato, well..you get the picture. We all express our own terroir, taste things in our own way, and we should each express our own opinions. The terroirists like many idealists are just too fanatical for my tastes, so to speak. They often condemn “manufactured wines” that have no soul, no individuality, and don’t represent a unique micro-climate. Fine–but just like the average American consumer, I want to enjoy a wine and I want it to taste good – what if 2 Buck Chuck tastes better to my palate than a $45 bottle of Burgundy, does that make me insincere? Isn’t there a place for mass market wines just like there’s a place for chain stores, or other commercially made products? Sure, I prefer handmade chocolates, but I’m not offended by the highly industrialized manufacture of Hershey Kisses, hey they taste good too!

The French say “to each his own” – so be it with wine. You only buy grass-fed organic beef from the farmer’s market, I like Prime-Aged corn-finished meat, but my mother swears by the tenderloin at Costco. Same with wine, each of us has different needs and goals in mind, so that should sincerely respected. I’d rather drink a local Virginia or Maryland wine (non-organic – it’s not possible at this point to produce organic wines in our area primarily due to humidity and rainfall during harvest issues) than an organic wine from say Chile. Both wines are great, but I can see the face of the Virginia winemaker at a local wine tasting room or at local tastings. I like the idea to keep money in the community when possible – that’s my feel good issue. For me, my sense of terroir is connected with the people I help in life – economically, spiritually, and in whatever way I can be of assistance. I don’t give money to international charities because I try to assist the homeless that live within a mile of a my home. My terroir is right here..

Charlie “I Drink on the Job” Adler

2 Responses to “Debunking Terroir”

  1. John Cesano Says: January 3rd, 2010 at 12:51 am

    Your article is well written. Your prose is superior to mine.

    That said, I think Terroir is real and a valuable tool for wine consumers.

    If you love a Pinot Noir to have rose petal notes taste of bright velvety cherry notes, you might be best served picking up a Russian River Valley Pinot. If you like ’em minerally, like a Burgundy, you might look for a Carneros Pinot. If you want the iron fist, perhaps you will like a Monterey Pinot from the Gavilan Mountain area.

    Willamette Valley Pinot does not taste like Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. It just does not.

    Happy with one, a “house palate” developed, the other might displease you. It pays to look at where your wines come from and appreciate that one of the things that you taste when you enjoy a wine might be Terroir.


  2. idrinkonthejob Says: January 3rd, 2010 at 7:24 pm

    Yep, all these wines taste different..but the “terroirists” would have you believe that this sloping hill, on this type of soil with this different wind pattern, etc..will make a world of difference in the final taste of the wine..who’s to say? And if weather is the only difference, or climate in general, is that terroir? It’s a two-edged sword – maybe you can taste the difference between say a Pinot Noir from Burgundy vs. Monterey, California, but who is to say that the winemaker doesn’t use different production methods or that the flavor differential can be explained away simply by the ripeness of the vintage?

    I’m noticing more year by year that Chardonnay tastes very similar from totally different regions of the world – sometimes the main difference is the type of oak and amount of oak being used? That’s not really terroir..on the other hand, I completely respect wine makers who are true to their local conditions – “keep it real” as they say hear in DC! I still think “terroir” is too often used as a marketing tool – it kind of reminds me when I was a kid and another kid would have an attitude and walk around telling everyone that they were related to royalty – the assumption was that they were “superior” due to their blood line..but in my experience, a great winemaker can do magic with the right experience. I guess what I’m really against is trying to make people feel bad for their decisions – give people a choice, don’t make it seem like drinking the wrong wine is a sacrilege..let’s get people consuming wine more often, we can deal with the details later!


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