Vines as a component of terroir

I am probably a lot more sceptical about the concept of terroir than most wine lovers.  Nevertheless, I do find the subject fascinating, and it leads to many insights.  When people speak about terroir, they use it to refer to the vineyard rock, soil, drainage, aspect and climate.  Some will add viticultural and winemaking practice to the list, providing it is traditional for the region.


But what about the vine stock of the vineyard?  I am sure most would argue that the vines planted, however traditional, are independent of terroir.  However, it has come to my attention recently that there is maybe an alterative view.  Here is what Dr Jules Lavalle has to say in his 1855 book Histoire et Statistique et des Grands Vins de Bourgogne – translated by Charles Curtis in The original Grand Crus of Burgundy:

[The value] is also in the age of the vines, which for Cos de Bèze notably, goes back 12 or 15 centuries during which the soil, purged of all foreign plants and removed from all addition, is enriched only by the detritus of the vine, and has created an exception and perfectly homogenous terrain, with which the vine, which has never changed, is in some fashion united and acquires the properties which can be given only by the conjunction of all these conditions.  Such is the privilege of the grand crus of the Côte d’Or that certain Belgian amateurs refer to them as  having “race” [lineage] and certain English refer to them as “being of good family”.

This was written at a time when the concept of terroir did not exist in quite the same way as it does now,  and I have no evidence that the view was common in Lavalle’s day, but I think it remains an interesting perspective on what we would now probably call terroir.

When the author writes about unchanging vines over a periods of 12 or 15 centuries, he is not referring to the age of individual vine trunks, but presumably to provignage over that period of time – the practice of propagating vines by burying a shoot and allowing it to develop roots, something only possible pre-phylloxera.  Thus, in a sense, the vines will have been in that vineyard over that period.  At the very least, the mix of clones in the vineyard will have remained stable.  It will not be identical because the vigneron will chose to propagate from the most promising vines, and there will also be genetic mutations.  Nevertheless that idea of connection between the vines and the vineyard over many centuries remains powerful and evocative, and something we have now lost in our age of grafting onto American rootstock.  Even if scions from the same vineyard are used, somehow the link seems now to have been broken.  The introduction of grafting may not merely have affected the quality of the wine, but arguably an aspect of terroir has been destroyed.

It is also noted that the vineyard was only fertilised by detritus of the vine, which I take to mean pruning cuttings and marc.  This too emphasises a connection between the vines and the vineyard, and I would go so far to say that it seems more intuitively appealing than even biodynamic treatments, which would often have to made from ingredients sourced from outside the vineyard.

But stepping back a little from Lavalle’s proposition, and returning to my usual sceptical self, how important do I think the connection between vine and vineyard is?  Let’s just say that when I am told that Burgundies from vineyards either side of a footpath are markedly different due to terroir, I do wonder how much of that is really down to different clones of Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, or indeed rootstock.  But perhaps there is no conflict, and traditional vines should be counted as part of terroir even in this modern age of grafting.

Update 12/01/16: I have just been reading “Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing”, and was interested to note that according to Aristotle, vines and other plants were quite literally part of terroir. That is to say that soil contained corpusles of vines, which were in effect minute versions of the vines we can see, touch and make wine from. These corpusles were taken in by the roots to become the actual vines. This theory was accepted by some plant anatomists at recently as the early 1700s. In medieval times, there were also alchemical ideas about the soil being physically transmogrified into plant material. It is less clear what the man-in-the-vineyard thought about all this, but presumably they were not in touch with the latest scientific thought.

Author: Steve Slatcher

Wine enthusiast

4 thoughts on “Vines as a component of terroir”

  1. That’s a very interesting angle Steve and makes for an excellent article, thank you. Much to think about as a result. When I meet up with my winemaker friend later this week this will certainly get an airing as we are currently doing some grafting. Many winemakers use nurseries they trust but not necessarily terroir specific. Much to consider.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Alan. Let me know if you have further thoughts after the “airing”.

  3. Hi Steve, I talked to my friend about this and he has a lot of sympathy for your argument. Vine stocks are American, he uses a trusted pépiniste to provide his vines although he does use massal selection too from within his vineyard. Naturally the use of ‘foreign’ material does mean that they do not reflect local terroir though by the time they mature enough to be used they are beginning to do so more. However, as he says since phylloxera how can any vines be totally reflective? It is a matter of degree I suppose but you have created plenty of discussion 🙂

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