There are many things to debate in the wine world. Corks versus screw caps, the case for and against natural wine, and even glass shapes. But perhaps the one I find most unnecessary is the significance of terroir. Loosely translated to mean “a sense of place”, the pretty French word refers to how geography affects its agricultural produce, hence giving the latter qualities unique to its origin.
I don’t fault people for falling in love with the word, even going as far as to market everything from chocolate to cola by drawing attention to how special the origins are. It’s a wonderfully romantic notion, since you can picture a winemaker toiling for months to create a wine that captures and ultimately reflects the land it grew on. And, because of this magical terroir, you can taste the Tuscan sun or the Spanish wood or the minerals from the soil that was once ploughed through by Napoleon’s horse. I’m not denying the existence of terroir. I just think it’s common sense.
Of course, different places bring different things to the table. That’s precisely my point – the concept of terroir can technically be applied to anything. If I told you with great conviction that margherita pizzas here taste vastly different from those made in Italy, you’d raise your eyebrows. Not at my “revelation”, but with amusement for making such a ridiculously obvious point. It’s not because Italy produces better tomatoes, basil or cows, but because the Italians have been making margherita pizzas for over a century. It’s about skill.
To prove that technique trumps terroir in winemaking, three American vintners and their respective vineyards got together to start the Cube Project. Each winery (representing appellations from Oregon, Santa Barbara and Carneros) selected six tonnes of the same grape varietal from their own vines to be divided among themselves. Because they were all picked on the same day, everyone would start with fruit of equal ripeness.
The winemakers then got started on making wine in their own style, and repeated this for vintages 2010 to 2012. When the experiment was over, taste testers found that alcohol levels varied in all but two of the final products, despite starting out with identical sugar levels.
Basically, the winemaker’s signature was more evident than whatever nature left behind in the grapes.
This simply means that even a beautiful grape kissed by Dionysus himself can be ruined in the hands of a poor winemaker, and the opposite can be true for a vineyard operating in unremarkable climes. Among countless factors, the size of fermentation tanks and the amount of time the fruit is in contact with its skin can also significantly change a wine’s flavour.
And, when people pick up a bottle of wine, chances are they don’t really care who made it. Varietal, vintage and the vineyard’s reputation will probably top their list of priorities. In this case, I think terroir comes in handy – for wine merchants. With numerous bottles to choose from in every price range, the one thing they can count on for distinction is terroir – no matter how minute the
Those who obsess over the impact of soil and water on wine are on another level of appreciation entirely, since they would need to have an extraordinarily keen nose and palate, superb memory and concentration, and a dedication to researching this most mythical of wine qualities.
I think the rest of us just want a wine that makes us happy to drink it.