Have you ever being asked to lick a piece of stone? No, I am not joking. There are many people out there who say that their wines taste like the stones on which the grapes are grown. The same people would also try to convince you that this is what terroir is. Please don’t be the victim of argumentum ad populum (if many believe so, it is so). Don’t subscribe to the idea that if grapes are grown on slate that the wine will taste like slate.
If not the above, what does this mysterious, romantic sounding word terroir mean? Is terroir a myth or reality? One little word means so much, just like love. However, terroir is not only about romanticism. It is a word come from the Latin word terra (earth or land) and was adopted by the French to demonstrate a wine’s sense of place.
The closest translation of terroir into English would be territory; however, it is impossible to explain this encapsulated word with such a simple example. Various factors such as geology, geomorphology, soil science, climatology, soil microbiology and traditions all come together into one word, terroir.
However, we usually forgot the most important factor, which is the grapevine itself. Terroir is about interactions between the grapevine and the environment, climate, soil and more. The Human factor cannot be underestimated as this is also one of the main features as grape growing for wine is not a natural system, it is a cultivated system.
The old world wine producers are not the only ones who have terroir. A region with a rich history can produce great wines as they would have more trial-error but they don’t have a monopoly on terroir. If terroir is about the sense of place, then both new world and old world wines can be examples of terroir wines.
Tasting minerality in wine and associating it with terroir is highly fashionable but it is not that clear. It is obviously an attractive idea; tasting minerals in the wine that were transmitted there through the vine from the vineyard. There are also a bunch of people who believe old vines, with their extending deep roots, pick up minerals from deeper layers and that gives an enhanced minerality to the wine and it is a critical factor in terroir expression. However, the reality is quite different.
Let’s make it clear! It’s true that the Benedictine monks tasted the soil when deciding which new vineyard plots to plant in. However what they tasted wasn’t the minerals, it was the organic material (humus) being volatilized. The geological minerals in vineyard ground are inorganic, solid, complex molecules that have no taste with an exception of salt. A grapevine also isn’t able to take those complex molecules up and transfer them to its fruit. The mineral nutrients the wine can take up are the singular elements dissolved in solution and again with no taste. These mineral nutrients are essential in vine growth, especially nitrogen which is one of pillars of terroir expression.
What do people taste which they describe as mineral then? The earthy smell some of us might call minerality in our wine sometimes derives from the compounds called geosmin and 2-methylisoborneol. Geosmin is formed by bacteria and moulds and 2-methylisoborneol from algae can be also smelled when the earth is being tilled. Similarly, an aroma of wet stone may be due to the release of these organic oils together with petrichor.
To summarise, researches show that most people use the term minerality to actually describe acidity, reductive notes, earthy and smoky notes and absence of compounds related to fruitiness in wine.
Viticultural practices and winemaking techniques are strictly ruled by law in some wine growing regions; producers need to follow the rules if they choose to be part of the appellation system (i.e. Burgundy). So, if the viticultural practices and winemaking techniques are identical, why do wines from different plots taste different? We don’t need much science to convince us that this is terroir, we just need to taste some wines from Burgundy. However, science is the tool used to explain, measure and code the terroir as well as optimizing terroir expressions by specific management practices.
Timing of phonology (ripening), water status and nitrogen status are the pillars of terroir expression. They all depend on vine, climate, soil and human factors. Terroir is a multi-component equation and none of the components have an ideal value such as there is no ideal climate, soil or whatsoever. What is the most important, the ideal interaction between the grapevine and climate, soil and human factors.
The reason why terroir wines don’t focus solely on the grape variety is because what matters is the interaction between the origin and the variety. If you grow the wrong varieties in the wrong place, then you will no longer have great terroir. However, not all the wines we drink are terroir wines. There as referred to as varietal wines. Varietals don’t need necessarily to be adapted to local conditions as terroir wines do. Here is where the technology comes to the stage to make varietal wines taste better. They might still taste good but never be terroir wines and unique. What I believe in my heart is low-invasive and low-intervention wine growing is essential to produce terroir wines.
Perhaps, the sense of place is usually lost when we focus too much on the variety or being team red or white. The question is, will you be ordering your wine by its terroir instead of its variety or colour next time?Huia Sauvignon Blanc 2016
This Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc offers gooseberry and elderflower notes along with gentle herbal nuances on the nose. There is a burst of mouth-watering citrus on the finish of this nicely concentrated wine.
Available at: Redmonds, La Touche, Blackrock Cellars, Jus Divine
Aged in oak for 24 months, this Chianti Rufina Riserva shows deep layers of blackberry, black cherry and dark chocolate followed by vanilla. This Sangiovese-based elegant wine shows bright acidity and smooth mouthfeel.
Available at: Redmonds, La Touche, Blackrock Cellars, Jus Divine
Lush of red cherry and raspberry aromas are marked by hints of vanilla and earthy notes. This richly textured Syrah from Cornas delivers all the way through the long, velvety finish while retaining crispness.
Available at: Green Man Wines
Sevgi’s passion for wine begun while she was studying food engineering in one of the wine-producing regions of her native Turkey. Following her graduation, she chased her dreams and started to work as a winemaker in her home country.
She obtained her MSc in Oenology & Viticulture from the Montpellier SupAgro and Hochschule Geisenheim University. Mosel in Germany, one of the most respected wine regions, is where she experienced the practice of growing grapes in the extreme steep-slope vineyards. Later, she conducted research for her postgraduate study about the wine market in Ireland.
Currently, she provides wine education and consultancy through her company A WINE IDEA based in Galway.