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What the heck is Terroir and does it matter?

Before I even start down this road, I invite those who want to flame me for the title alone – go ahead.

Over the last several years, we here in America (the “New World” of wine) have been seeing and hearing the French word “Terroir” thrown around with reckless abandon and quite frankly, most people either a. don’t know what it means, b. don’t give a damn or c. both. 

First, I’ll address the folks in group “A” – Terroir is the fancy French word which means: 

“….Very loosely translated as “a sense of place” which is embodied in certain qualities, and the sum of the effects that the local environment has had on the manufacture of the product.”

The notion is that a vineyard’s “Terroir” has more to do with the flavor profile of the grapes which come from it than anything else. This is one of the primary reasons we’ve seen the word elevated to an almost rock-star status. Now that you have an idea about what the word means, you’ll be able to help propagate its madness at the next wine-tasting you go to.

From the wine industry’s perspective – certainly vineyard owners – it makes sense to promote Terroir as it helps validate their reasons for continually opening up new AVA (American Viticulture Area) regions – thus helping to draw more attention to their vineyard. The whole goal is to make us, the consumer, get a certain mindset that thinks “if I buy (for example) a bottle of wine from Red Mountain (a leading AVA in Washington State), then I’ll be certain to get a great bottle of wine.” While folks in the industry may never admit that out-right, that is ultimately one of the goals.

There are clearly self-evident truths to the idea of Terroir – for example, if you take Syrah grapes from Rhone and Syrah grapes from California and could harvest them at the exact same brix levels – use identical yeast, barrels and time-in-barrel, you’d still have two Syrah’s that taste different. 

Secondly, let’s address those in group “B” – these are my kind of peeps.

There’s not much to address to group “B” because they – like me – care first and foremost about good wine, regardless of where it came from or how it got in the freakin’ bottle. They pride themselves in not allowing fancy words being tossed around with reckless abandon get in their way of pleasure or displeasure with wine – to you, I salute!

Quite frankly there are a whole host of things which happen at the winery which can alter a grape’s Terroir – everything from the yeast-type to what kind of barrel (oak or stainless, new or used), to how long it sits in the barrel and other things. Of course, the industry at large seems to turn a blind eye to that aspect which I feel is really unfortunate as it diminishes the skills of the winemaker. 

Winemakers play such a pivotal role at wineries that we’ve seen large groups of customers follow a particular winemaker when he/she leaves a winery – something similar happened not long ago with Pax Cellars in California. It begs the question – if Terroir is so important to the success of a winery, why do people stay more focused on its winemaker?

How come we don’t hear more accolades to those winemakers who know when to hold em’, know when to fold em’ and know when to way away? That is to say, they have the artistic touch to know exactly what to do with the grapes so they produce kick-ass wine.

Most winemakers I know are more on the humble side and that’s great, however, if you or I have a winemaker we feel does a consistently great job with wines – regardless of the vintage – then we should not only give them a high-five for their strong kung-fu of winemaking but make sure to support them by buying their wines.

In our efforts to help get rid of the snob out of wine, I’d encourage you to forsake all of your preconceived ideas about grape varieties, wine regions or even pretentious labels. Please DO get out there and taste EVERYTHING you possibly can – your palate will thank you and the experience and knowledge you’ll gain from doing that will last a lifetime. How much cooler would it be to know what wines taste like from all over rather than stress out about which microclimate it came from?

No need to address group “C” – See previous two answers.

  • http://www.chevsky.com Gary “Iron” Chevsky

    Hi Duane,
    I think terroir (or source) of a wine is important when consumers try to make a purchase decision. There are so many choices, and if they enjoy a wine from a particular region (or even vineyard), it helps them narrow things down. Of course, producer and vintage play a critical role as well. Yes, it’s great to be able to try everything, but people are creatures of habbit, and they tend to drink what they loved before, and occassionally also follow suggestions from their trusted wine merchant when it comes to taking a plunge into new varieties, producers, and regions.

    Regards,
    Iron Chevsky.

  • Ben

    Thumbs up on this rant, Duane.

    While I do think that it’s necessary to counterbalance the OVERblown sense of “terroir”, I also think that its important that a wine have a sense of place.

    I’ll use a music analogy. (since I’ve been a music geek for 30 years, and I’m new to wine)

    In the 80′s, we had a new explosion of heavy metal bands. But, due to influence, there was (IMHO) a *huge* difference between the British bands, and their American counterparts. Alot of people probably couldn’t tell the difference between Iron Maiden and Ratt if you put a gun to their head…but I SURE COULD! There is a difference of attitude, a difference of style and ultimately…a sense of place. When you’re truly into music (and if the artist is truly doing their job of putting their passion into their art) you can almost get a flavor of their background. What they grew up with, and what they are trying to achieve.

    Both sides of the Atlantic have their individual styles, and I love it all for what each of them are in their own way. Comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges.

    But when too much production gets involved. People try to make the music (or the wine for the sake of this analogy) a little bit *too* perfect. It loses its sense of “place”. It loses its individuality. Because there’s money to be made, everything becomes homogenized until it all sounds the same to suit the tastes of the lowest common denominator….most people don’t want something you have to think about, they just wanna dance….right? Everything becomes over processes and sythesized.

    Ultimately…either extreme is bad for the market. There has to be wine/music for the analytical deep thinkers…and then there will always be wine for the people who “just want to dance”. I tend to lean towards the former, but I’d like to think I understand the need for balance, and I hate it when one side feels the need to stamp out the other.

    Nevertheless. When the market gets over saturated with one side of the arguement, someone has to cry out as the voice of reason. I feel you’ve done a good job with this post…even if I tend to be (I think) just a little bit on the other side of the arguement from you.

    APPLAUSE!!

    Ben “Jammin”