What Is Terroir?

Nobody quite understands this intangible characteristic, yet it’s incredibly important in the wine world.

Recently, I tasted a funky, unfiltered and unsulfured Chenin Blanc from the Catalonia region of northeastern Spain. Chenin Blanc, as you may know, is native to northern France, not Spain, which created an interesting context for the wine. “Whoa,” I said. “That’s some really Bretty wine,” referring to a bacteria called Brettanomyces that is often present in unsulfured wines made with natural yeasts like this one. Bretty-ness, if you will, is considered a flaw by some wine drinkers, myself not included.

A sales rep from Indie Wineries, which imports the wine, just shook his head. “That’s not Brett,” he said. He went on to explain that Pascaliene Lepeltier, a widely respected master sommelier with a penchant for Chenin Blanc, had told him that this was how the grape variety tasted when it was grown in a certain soil type. To me, this made sense. After all, Lepeltier drinks more Chenin Blanc than some winemakers in the Loire Valley who grow the grape. But there is not one scientific study out there that has proven a connection between soil type and flavor in a wine. In fact, I’ve heard winemakers profess that it is absolutely untrue that a vine’s roots can absorb nutrients from rocks or minerals in the soil. For this reason, people lambaste the common tasting note “minerality,” saying it is a new word in the lexicon and has no real meaning. So who is right?

The soil question is part of the ongoing debate over the meaning of the term “terroir.” As in: “Yes, this bottle is a particularly good expression of Burgundy’s terroir.” It’s a word you hear, over and over, on the lips of your somm, on the “shelf-talkers” at your local wine shop (you know, those little tags that detail a wine’s flavor profiles and point ratings), even at the cheese and charcuterie counter — because terroir, of course, does not apply only to wine. Nevertheless, it is the wine world that places incredible weight on terroir and ties it directly to a wine’s value. It is also, within the world of wine, a hotly contested topic that brings to the table issues related to stylistic differences in grape-growing and, above all, winemaking. In addition to the topic of soil, the terroir debate also includes questions about sulfur and yeast.

You cannot see terroir; it cannot be observed in any tangible way or scientifically calculated. Many scientists out there would probably swear that you cannot even taste it, but master sommeliers around the world would beg to differ. That, of course, is partly what makes terroir so interesting, and wine so captivating of our attention: It cannot be fully understood or charted, yet we can taste a Chardonnay from the Côtes de Beaune and immediately get a sense of the centuries of tradition, soil types and vineyard practices, and that mystical connection between a grape and the place it is grown.

What Is Terroir

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