Wine tasters argue over the value of terroir, whether it exists, and the extent of its tangible effect in a glass of wine. Terroir believers say that the soil drawn from the roots leaves its mark within the taste of the grapes. Not that it creates healthier grapes—no, it can literally be tasted in the glass. Opponents point to the lack of scientific evidence and an exceptional marketing job by famous, Old World regions like Chianti or Bordeaux in order to discount soil-based terroir.
What is Terroir?
With so many people disagreeing on how to define and detect terroir, it’s become a slippery subject. A conference that assembled at the University of California-Davis specifically attempted to define terroir and failed in their attempt (Word 2010, 54). Generally speaking, proponents of terroir argue that a bottle of wine tastes like where it comes from. Factors such as geography, soil, and climate all will impact the taste found inside the bottle.
Climatic terroir, or how the grapes get impacted by variables such as sun, rain, and temperature, has long been accepted as a method to qualify good wine. For this reason, wine experts often refer to good wine years and bad wine years, depending on the weather patterns in a certain region.
Some regions always produce better wines than others—or so wine experts claim. The Burgundy region, for example, possesses the “best area” for growing Pinot Noir Grapes (Word 2010, 54). By putting that species into its ideal climate (like Burgundy claims to do), the plant should be healthier and more successful than in other places. Ideal weather conditions, little wind, and less animal involvement creates the best grapes. That feels like common sense. But climatic terroir is not the terroir that tasters refer to when they suggest a wine mimics the vineyard it came from.
The “minerality” that respected critics claim to love comes from a vineyard’s soil. The merits of this type of terroir are much more controversial. Logically, at least the small parts of the argument make sense, even if the conclusion might be more of a jump. This vineyard is not the same as the one down the street, or the one in a country over, or the one across the world. Therefore, a glass from this vineyard should taste slightly different from that other vineyard.
Soil terroir is highly emphasized in France and much of the Old World, often because smaller vineyards focus on producing a few, high-quality bottles a year, rather than hundreds of two buck bottles. Some wine enthusiasts point to the soil as the main agent in distinguishing high-level wines. In Mosel, at Bernkasterler Doctor vineyard, the wine is said to have a distinct minerality. People visit and lick the slate around the vineyard to detect the taste (Lewin 2010, 48). At some point, those who believe in terroir taste, have to accept a presumption that the soil literally leaves a small taste of itself within the wine.
Does Soil Terroir Exist?
Even science can’t prove that soil terroir is impossible. Master of Wine, Benjamin Lewin validates that the essential nutrients for survival such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium sulfur and mycorrhizal fungi, could affect a plant. But any imbalance in these essential nutrients might produce an unhealthy plant and change its taste. Although that doesn’t address the “minerality” that critics love to emphasize, it’s possible that this flavor only results in grapevines that have ideal soil balance.
On a larger scale, soil affects root growth potential because “differences in the structure of the soil determine how easily and how far down the vine’s roots can penetrate” (Lewin 2010, 43). If roots had to dig through several different layers of soil and rock, it seems possible that the unique blend of nutrients that plant picks up along the way would vary from its neighboring plants, let alone vineyards on the other side of the planet. Most people in the wine world accept that alkaline soils create fruits with higher acidity, but no scientific evidence supports this claim (Lewin 2010, 45). But so long as people buy the wines from the locations with the best terroir, producers will follow the same patterns that have given them their success.
Are We Making Up Terroir?
On the other side of the debate, many New World growers argue that soil does not affect the quality of wine in any measurable way. New World growers produce large quantities of wine, rather than focusing on the quality of only a few bottles—so it is to their benefit to discount the merits of terroir. That does not mean the argument doesn’t have validity. They bring up the huge variety of choice a winemaker has during the harvest and fermentation process. Winemakers alter strategies and deal with different obstacles every year. The overall taste of the wine can be so drastically affected at this stage, minerality plays a minuscule part in the quality of the wine in the bottle.
In research taken at Bordeaux vineyards, Gerard Seguin concluded that “it is impossible to establish any correlation between quality of wine and the soil content of any nutritive element” (Lewin 2010, 44). Seguin adds that if people knew the chemicals and soil properties that made up great vineyards, they would have artificially mixed these ingredients into the soil around the world, nullifying terroir (Lewin 2010, 44).
My Terroir is Not Your Terroir
Making the whole debate even more confusing, many wine drinkers misattribute soil terroir to climatic conditions. Heat, weather, protection, precipitation, sunlight, and similar environmental conditions directly affect the growth of the plant and its grapes. Although most people mix the two together when they refer to a wine’s terroir, they mistake a healthy growing year with the mineral taste in a glass of wine. For example, in Bordeaux, gravel-based soils of the right bank of the river favor Merlot because gravel heats up more than clay. Limestone is regarded as a great base for vineyards—but not because it changes the taste of the wine. It drains more effectively than other bases (Lewin 2010, 45). These climatic factors affect the quality of the grape, but they do not account for the subtle minerals wine drinkers claim to detect.
The Terroir Debate Rages On
Both proponents and opponents of terroir have evidence supporting their divergent claims. The grapevine has to gather nutrients from the soil and its environment, so proponents can argue that the taste of a place exists. On the other side, opponents that very little scientific correlation exists for soil flavors in the wine.
No matter whether the debate ever finds a definitive answer or not, terroir is real—real in the sense that it definitively impacts the price of the highest quality wines in the world. As an economic asset, especially when viewing wine as a commodity rather than a beverage, terroir’s impact cannot be ignored. To read about the economics of terroir, read our next article about why terroir matters so much when differentiating cheap wines from the best wines in the world.
Colman, Tyler. 2008. Wine Politics. Berkeley, University of California.
Cross, Robin, Andrew J. Platinga and Robert N. Stavins. 2011. “What is the Value of Terroir?” American Economic Review. <http://www.aeaweb.org/articles.php?doi= 10.1257/aer.101.3.152>
Lewin, Benjamin MW. 2010.Wine Myths and Reality. Dover, Vendange.
Staff. 2007. “New Scientist.” The Word. Feb. 24, p. 54.
Trubek Amy, Kolleen M. Guy and Sarah Bowen. 2010.“Terroir: A French Conversation with a Transnational Future.” Contemporary French and Fracophone Studies vol. 14 no. 2. March, 139-148.