Not my words, but a parting shot from Malcolm Gluck as he recently left The Oldie magazine. Taken at face value anyone who spares a moment to think about his assertion would have to disagree. Even using the narrowest of definition of terroir, it is clear that certain soils and vineyard slopes are more auspicious for viticulture than others. And using the broadest definition, which as far as I can make out encompasses just about everything that influences wine production, it is trivially true that terroir is important. But I doubt that Mr Gluck was thinking in those terms, and neither are most people who enthusiastically embrace the concept.
I think the real issue is how meaningful all the various usages are. My observation is that terroir can mean all manner of things to different people and that the meaning subtly shifts depending on what point is being made. It is often justified in the terms I have given above, and then used in whatever way is most convenient. In that sense, I think Gluck has a valid point.
It is informative to consider the history of the terroir concept. According to this article, from the 18th century people wrote about the peculiarities of various Burgundian vineyards, but the T-word was not extensively used in that context. “In the early 19th century, when experts were beginning to speak of ‘fine wines’, terroir had pejorative connotations. To speak of a terroir wine was to speak of a peasant wine – harsh and earthy – a definition that was to stick until the 20th century”, and “the contemporary idea of terroir – that a wine (or food) acquires a particular quality and character because of where it was produced – is a relatively recent phenomenon”. And the rest of the article goes on to explain how the 20th century notion of terroir was closely linked to the creation of the AOCs in France. You have to wonder if the Gallic explanation “c’est le terroir” for a badly made wine refers back to 19th century usage.
Whatever the details of the history, I think we have to accept that the concept has evolved rapidly in the last two centuries. And even today there is little agreement about what it means. I think that is why it lends itself so well to misuse and exploitation – bollocks if you like. Here are some examples of what I see as more bollocky usages:
- Several years ago Bordeaux was promoting itself by saying that it was its terroir that made the wines so great. Terroir is a marketeer’s dream. With it you have a ready made USP for your wine, especially if you include in your definition of terroir that the wine making methods have to be traditional in the area. And does Bordeaux really only have one terroir? If there is one thing that unites the whole of the region, surely it it simply climate. Of course this is not the only example of marketing using terroir in a questionable way. One of Gluck’s earlier tirades was directed at WOSA.
- Another misuse in my book is to distinguish between terroir-driven and fruit-driven wines. I can understand fruit-driven – it means fruity I presume. So are we really talking about fruity and non-fruity wines, with the implication that wines without fruit have some mystical relation with the terroir not available to fruity ones? I find it very difficult to buy into that idea.
- The above distinction also seems to hint at the fact that terroir-driven wines might taste earthy or minerally, which brings me onto another point: the naive assumption that wines taste of the soil the vines were planted in, or indeed that rocks taste of anything at all. The vast majority of rocks have no flavour, the most common exception being Halite, which is rock salt. Others are listed here on page 15.
- Then there is the idea that winemakers allow the terroir to express itself through minimum intervention. Putting aside anthropomorphic objections, one wonders why it is the terroir in particular that expresses itself under those circumstances. Why, for example, do the grape varieties decide to take a back seat. Besides, how can one isolate the influences of terroir from anything else on the palate, especially if your concept of terroir covers pretty much everything anyway? In blind tastings people have enough difficulty telling white from red, let alone identifying terroir influences.
So in principle I think I agree with Gluck. I just wouldn’t use such extreme language.
The terroir in the picture is from Côte de Py by the way, but of course you knew that. How could it be mistaken for anything else?