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Terroir


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This post was suggested by Craig Camp when we struggled over definitions

So what is terroir? This French word has no exact English translation, terrain or territory don’t cover the sense of place this term covers. It encompasses all the factors in a vineyard or wine area which give a wine its individual character, it’s why, at least when wines are produced by a small winemaker rather than a large conglomerate, an educated oenophile can tell not only what commune a wine comes from but can sometimes distinguish the individual vineyard even when adjacent vineyards produce wine in the same style. For instance many chateaux produce at least two wines from the same property, the Grand Vin is produced from the more favoured terroirs, the second wine from poorer parts of the estate, such as those with more clay and smaller rocks which have poorer drainage.

The major components of terroir are the soil itself (and its underlying layers), the physical properties and nutrient or mineral content, type such as clay or sand, drainage, aspect, altitude and binding these all together is the climate as experienced in that particular small location. Then you get other influences such as the type of wild yeasts that grow on the grapes and local flora and fauna which in turn (together with geological and climatic conditions) determine what method of viticulture is used.

In the days when the (French) industry was made up of many relatively small producers they would take the product of the terroir and use the simplest basic techniques to turn it into wine. What you tasted in the glass accurately reflected the place it had come from. Then along came the modernisers, the bulk processors who used all the new techniques of vinification to produce wines of consistent, if moderate, quality which owed nothing to the area they were grown and everything to the techniques of the winemaker. In the latest wave these new techniques are being used to accentuate the qualities of the terroir on which the wine was grown whilst taking out some of the risk factors which led to some less than stellar vintages.

Strangely enough we talk about the quality of the soil but generally poor soil will give low yields of good quality wine while rich soil will give greater yield but of lesser quantity. In poor soil the vine has to develop a deep and extensive root system to extract moisture and nutrients from the subsoil which contains the minerals needed for good quality growth. Different soils lend themselves to growing different kinds of wines, so good white wines are often grown on chalky or limestone soils, on the other hand granite is more suited to red wines.

Drainage, for both water and air, is also part of terroir. Water must drain freely so that the roots do not get waterlogged in downpours but must also be accessible to the root system during prolonged dry spells, and this will be determined by its granularity, type and the frequency of rocks and stones in the soil. Air drainage can also be important, vines on lower slopes and valley bottoms can be affected by cold air which settles and has no place else to go and it sits there chilling the vines.

Geographical location is important, how high are the vines, do they catch the rising or setting sun for maximum sunlight, do they face south, are they shadowed, all of which will alter the ripening pattern of the grapes which in turn may affect the finished wine.

Which brings us to climate, the temperature, sunlight and rainfall through the growing season, the way that the local geography can influence these to produce small climate zones which can be surprisingly different from neighbouring properties or areas. Usually, but incorrectly, called microclimates these mesoclimates can determine the amount of cloud cover, they can cause a rain shadow, make an area prone to frost and the presence and proximity of large bodies of water (from rivers upwards to oceans) will also moderate the local climate. To clarify the definition, strictly speaking microclimate refers to the climatic conditions within a confined area from fractions of an inch to a few yards, mesoclimate applies from a few yards to a few miles, after that we’re into area macroclimates. All of these will have an effect on the growth, ripening and quality of the grapes.

So all in all areas which look fairly similar can produce radically different results. The only parallel I can think to draw (although there must be better) is in a city, two adjacent areas no more than a block apart, in one you could walk down the street at night with an elderly relative and feel entirely safe, in the other you wouldn’t go out in the day without heavy protection.

To finish up there is the term used in Burgundy, climat, which roughly translated (and there is no other way) means an area with the same geographic and climatic conditions and is usually equivalent, because that’s the way they arrange things in Burgundy, to a vineyard.

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Thank you for a great summary: I am going to bookmark this thread for future inquiries.

I have two questions:

1. I get the feeling that, at least in an ideal France (Italy is also suggestive in this regard), the varietal is actually a component of the terroir. I.e., using an easy example, Syrah is Cornas on some level -- you can't define the latter without the former (and the AOC rules are the effect, not the cause of this situation). I have always understood the idea of "autochthony" in this way.

2. What about a short definition? Is it worth trying?

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Well I admit I had to look up autochthony, but I figure I'm not alone. Varietal is certainly part of the terroir, certain geographical, geological and climatic conditions make an area more suitable for certain grape varieties. Sure you can grow Chardonnay practically anywhere but you can't make it taste like Chablis anywhere but Chablis. You can try (and usually fail) to make a decent wine out of Pinot Noir anywhere in the world but the Cote d'Or will still make the best Burgundy. The varietal suits the terroir and vice versa, and to that extent the varietal IS part of the terroir.

A short definition? Terroir is the ability of a wine to tell you about the the area it was produced in.

As for Cornas, always a case of the Clape.

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As for Cornas, always a case of the Clape.

ouch.

you inspired me: a picture is worth a thousand words.

(sorry, shitty geocities account, so you have to click to see for yourself).

EDIT: we were discussing autochthony on an earlier thread, thought you might have seen it.

Edited by badthings (log)
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I just spent part of this afternoon at an absolutely fascinating lecture and tasting with Nicholas Joly. The man is Grand Poobah and High Priest of Biodynamic winemaking. Such energy! Such passion! Good grief - I thought the man was going to keel over at one point from the sheer exhaustion of explaining his techniques with the arm gestures and the melodrama! Really interesting and a fascinating perspective of terroir from someone who lives and breathes to have his wine express the terroir from whence it came.

The wines were excellent as well. The Coulee de Serrant and the Savennieres were glorious and stupendously flavorful. I am fortunate to taste a lot of wine, but few that are as awe-inspiring as those of Monsieur Joly. Have a sip of these wines and suddenly "terroir" begins to have a palpable meaning. :wub:

Katie M. Loeb
Booze Muse, Spiritual Advisor

Author: Shake, Stir, Pour:Fresh Homegrown Cocktails

Cheers!
Bartendrix,Intoxicologist, Beverage Consultant, Philadelphia, PA
Captain Liberty of the Good Varietals, Aphrodite of Alcohol

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KL, I couldn't agree more about Joly and his ilk. I think that's why French biodynamic and organic wines continue to be the best vehicles for experiencing terroir, or climat. The winemakers and vineyard managers simply eschew all the high-tech toys (BTW: great article, Craig) and stick to what their grandpappies taught them. Okay, so it's not all Steinbeck and granola, but their goal in the whole process is to celebrate, not hide, the flavor of the land.

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KL, I couldn't agree more about Joly and his ilk. I think that's why French biodynamic and organic wines continue to be the best vehicles for experiencing terroir, or climat. The winemakers and vineyard managers simply eschew all the high-tech toys (BTW: great article, Craig) and stick to what their grandpappies taught them. Okay, so it's not all Steinbeck and granola, but their goal in the whole process is to celebrate, not hide, the flavor of the land.

Indeed. At one point Monsieur Joly was talking about the different "forces" that effect the vines such as the opposing pull of gravity vs. the plant reaching toward the sun, the "life forces" vs. the "death forces" and the effect of the type of manure (cow, horse, pig, etc) used as mulch and fertilizer. I had no idea I'd be getting such an education about farm animal manure today :blink: !

Katie M. Loeb
Booze Muse, Spiritual Advisor

Author: Shake, Stir, Pour:Fresh Homegrown Cocktails

Cheers!
Bartendrix,Intoxicologist, Beverage Consultant, Philadelphia, PA
Captain Liberty of the Good Varietals, Aphrodite of Alcohol

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Okay, so it's not all Steinbeck and granola,

John Steinbeck? Of Grapes of Wrath and the Red Pony fame? I am not sure he was a biodynamic farmer, but surely an enjoyer of the early jug wines of California :laugh: He mentions consuming copious amounts of cheap jug wine in letters he wrote, previous to literary fame. Nonwithstanding, if poor Jody had had access to antibiotics surely the pony wouldn't have died. The description of the cutting open of the pony's trachea sans anesthesia is another scene very hard to forget. There is a great deal to be said for the employment of balance; using modern advances along with time worn truths.

over it

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Britcook,

Your opening diatribe sounds to me like someone who just took a wine course and has become a convert. None of the stuff you talked about is new or secret to those of us who know wine well. Terroir is best tranlated as "flavor". The best terroirs, whether they are La Mouline, Le Musigny, Chassagne Morgeot, Rutherford Bench, Coulée de Serrant, express themselves. Their flavors are there to taste. Here's a free tip:

French grapes struggle with bad weather, no irrigation, hungry crows. California grapes are pampered with water, sun, heat. There is no question why French wines have more local personality than California wines.

Mark

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None of the stuff you talked about is new or secret to those of us who know wine well.

I know that, it was just that in another thread I indicated that that Craig Camp's definition of terroir was not sufficiently accurate and he suggested that I post something about the differences between terroir, microclimate and climat. It is not a diatribe, you may not like my style but please don't patronise my motives. "Those of us who know wine well" indeed.

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Mark, I think you're being too harsh on britcook - I don't think his post was intended as a diatribe, he was just covering what people understand by terroir in order to start a discussion.

Terroir is certainly what causes flavour, but would suggest that translating it directly as flavour is unwise.

Do we have to have an English equivalent? I don't think that we necessarily do, but something like "growing environment" encompasses everything it should although it's rather boring.

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A more interesting debate is to what extent "terroir" is an invention of French and other European winemakers in an attempt to justify high prices for their wine when in fact you can make just as good wine in many other parts of the world (Argentina, Australia, Oregon and so on).

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For me, in practice, an easy-to-understand textbook example for "terroir" is Barolo vs. Barbaresco.

These DOCs are almost adjacent, cover roughly a circle of about 15 miles, made by 100% nebbiolo grapes, produced by many different winemakers, yet the wines display in general a recognizable sensoric pattern.

If this difference is not terroir, what else?

Make it as simple as possible, but not simpler.

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You are absolutely right that the difference in climate (Barbaresco ripens earlier) is important here, but there are other effects -- doesn't Barolo have to be spend longer in wood? And when Barbaresco is aged longer then it starts to resemble Barolo; there is even a verb "baroleggiare" applied to barbaresco which resembles barolo.

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A more interesting debate is to what extent "terroir" is an invention of French and other European winemakers in an attempt to justify high prices for their wine when in fact you can make just as good wine in many other parts of the world (Argentina, Australia, Oregon and so on).

Terroir is not a European "invention", but is certainly used by some winemakers to support their inflated prices, after all you can only produce Chateau Latour at Chateau Latour, even more specifically from the wines in the Grand Enclos otherwise it's Les Forts de Latour. This does not mean that good, even excellent wine cannot be made elsewhere, it's just that it doesn't reflect its origins as closely. Whether you wish to pay a premium for wines with a known provenance is a different matter.

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I meant the term and concept "terroir", which is a European invention, not terroir which is a property of the real world not invented by anyone.

I guess to me "terroir" means the idea that each type of wine can be made only in that particular region; as opposed to the idea that you can make a similar wine pretty much anywhere in the world with the right climate and soil type. The AOC/DOC systems of course enshrine the notion of location as being the prime determiner of wine quality. (A simplification because they often include limits on yield and aging etc.).

Re-reading my first post, it comes off as a bit of a troll, but I am genuinely agnostic about the whole expression of terroir thing, particularly in its more mystic variant, where you bring in the culture and food and so on. Thanks for your essay which was very lucid.

I guess the sort of thing I have doubts about is your statement:

Sure you can grow Chardonnay practically anywhere but you can't make it taste like Chablis anywhere but Chablis

I can't disagree with this very strongly since I haven't drunk a wine not from Chablis that really tasted like Chablis :wink: But it seems reasonable that somewhere in South America there is a bit of land which could do quite well.

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You are absolutely right that the difference in climate (Barbaresco ripens earlier) is important here, but there are other effects -- doesn't Barolo have to be spend longer in wood? And when Barbaresco is aged longer then it starts to resemble Barolo; there is even a verb "baroleggiare" applied to barbaresco which resembles barolo.

Hi balex

> there is even a verb "baroleggiare" applied to barbaresco which resembles barolo.

Didn' know that. "Baroling" a Barbaresco. Funny.

> doesn't Barolo have to be spend longer in wood?

Correct. Barolo requires londer maturing before realease. But wood can be very different

For sure there are Barbarescos that are more Barolos than some real Barolos.

My idea was: Given the large number of producers and styles, in the end the difference - under statistical considerations - should be mainly due to reasons of different terroir and less to different winemaking.

Make it as simple as possible, but not simpler.

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I guess the sort of thing I have doubts about is your statement:
Sure you can grow Chardonnay practically anywhere but you can't make it taste like Chablis anywhere but Chablis

I can't disagree with this very strongly since I haven't drunk a wine not from Chablis that really tasted like Chablis :wink: But it seems reasonable that somewhere in South America there is a bit of land which could do quite well.

Given the context of Craig's original article which led to this post you're almost certainly right, you could make a passable Chablis clone in several places in the world, but what makes Chablis what it is rather than just another dry, lightly oaked Chardonnay is that "mineral" edge which is said to to derive from the Kimmeridge limestone under the vineyards. I suppose you could try growing it at the other side of the Kimmeridge basin which is in Dorset, England but then the climate would be different. If you found somewhere with a similar climate and a limestone base you might come closer! I suppose it depends on how discriminating your palate is and how much you're prepared to pay for a subtle difference.

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what makes Chablis what it is rather than just another dry, lightly oaked Chardonnay is that "mineral" edge which is said to to derive from the Kimmeridge limestone under the vineyards.

I think this is the right way to understand the notion of "terroir". It needs to be linked to "terre", i. e. earth, ground, soil. What makes the terroir is that a wine will reflect the place the vines have been cultivated in and therefore all wines from this place will have something in common. This something in common that is a reflection of a given soil in a given place, that is the terroir.

This is why a vin de cépage, a wine designated by the name of the grape and not the name of the place the vines were cultivated, even if it can be very nice, will never have the emotional dimension that a wine linked to a place can have. It also much more than emotional, as terroir is really to me what makes wine fascinating and creates the most interesting way to go about the wien world.

This is also why a very good wine can lose a lot of its appeal if it reflects its terroir poorly. For example, if I buy a Cote Rotie, I do not expect a nice syrah, nor do I expect another finely-crafted, well-balanced wine. I want truffles and violet and game, I want all of the Cotes Roties that I have drunk so far coming back to me through this one evocation of the terroir, I want another variation on this same terroir, this idea that makes a Cote Rotie what it is.

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Somebody should print this thread and publish it. Terroir is so hard to explain to someone who doesn't know much about how wine grapes are grown and the vinification process.

Bravo britcook for a very thorough well thought out post.

Mark, I think you're being too harsh on britcook - I don't think his post was intended as a diatribe, he was just covering what people understand by terroir in order to start a discussion.

Definitely.You are harshing my mellow! No room for wine snobbery here.

Joly is such a brilliant madman. My favorite anecdote about him is where he burns the bodies of dead rabbits and scatters their ashes in the vineyard to ward off pesty lapin .

wine is proof that god loves us and wants us to be happy
Ted Cizma

www.cheftedcizma.com

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The single most intensively "terroir" driven wine that I remember tasting recently, was a 1997 Coteaux de Layon from the Domaine de la Bergerie. An incredible honeyed nose, very good weight on the palate. The finish shouted flavors of minerals: chalk, magnesium and flint. The chalk was the most pronounced. This wine freaked me out.

Mark

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Terroir   is so hard to explain to someone who doesn't know much about how wine grapes are grown and the vinification process.

I think you can apply the notion of terroir to many other products.

Cheese is a great example. I think it's not possible to copy/imitate certain cheese with distinct aromatics and produce it at different places in the world. I believe that individuality (or terroir) is even more important than with wine.

Another example: I regularly buy abricot marmalade by a famous Austrian producer.

He offers two "vineyard" selection vintage marmalades from two different, but near places.

One tends to a hedonistic profile (i.e. Californian Chardonnay), the other is rather lean (Chablis Chardonnay). It's always fun to compare those two styles.

Make it as simple as possible, but not simpler.

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I agree. Terroir is important to cheese for the same reasons it is to wine. Indigenous soil and plants ( which the chow, sheep or goat consume ) weather and other factors of "place" all combine to give any natural product, cheese, wine, or fruit it's own identifiable characteristics.

wine is proof that god loves us and wants us to be happy
Ted Cizma

www.cheftedcizma.com

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Joly is such a brilliant madman. My favorite anecdote about him is where he burns the bodies of dead rabbits and scatters their ashes in the vineyard to ward off pesty lapin .

Nicolas Joly is clearly an intelligent and well versed pioneer in the field of biodynamics. Please lets not forget however that many in the loire have but one reservation about him - he does not know how to make wine.

straight out, he makes wine like a columbia MBA grad...

He is passionate, charismatic, but perhaps noo very good at his job. A great terroir - perhaps the most expressive of all, frequently turned into an acedmic exercise.

How many great coulee's have you tried compared to the disappointments?

Madman or egocentric?

A meal without wine is... well, erm, what is that like?

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