Does Terroir Matter?
Does Terroir Matter?
During the mid-1990s, sales of New World wines saw astronomical growth; partly due to a clever decision to market wine by grape variety rather than by region. This helped the consumer navigate the complex world of wine, as it was easier to decide if we preferred fruity Sauvignon Blancs over oaky Chardonnays (or vice versa), rather than recall that Pouilly Fumé was made with Sauvignon Blanc and Pouilly-Fuissé with Chardonnay. Or that Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Nobile de Montepulciano were all made with the same grape variety (Sangiovese), and those looking for a bottle made with Montepulciano grapes needed to buy Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, not Nobile de Montepulciano.
It seemed that the New World had found a golden compass to navigate the complex world of wine. Until we realized that New Zealand did not have the monopoly on Sauvignon Blanc or that Shiraz was not the national grape of Australia but was in fact grown around the world and originated in the Rhône-Alpes region, where it tasted quite different. In fact, it quickly became apparent that there are stylistic differences between a Chilean Sauvignon Blanc and a New Zealand Sauvignon. From there, it was a quick jump to realize that for example Hunter Valley Semillon is taut with low alcohol, yet Barossa Semillon is bold with high alcohol. Grape variety alone was no longer a guarantee of style or quality; the local environment of the grape matters! And that brings us to terroir. Labelling by grape variety is not wrong, but labelling by regions adds an extra signpost that lets the consumer know about the style of the wine.
So, what exactly is terroir? The Oxford companion describes terroir as the ‘total natural environment of any viticultural site. No precise English equivalent exists for this quintessentially French term and concept’. It somehow manages to capture both the elusiveness of the term and gives a complete and exact description: the total natural environment of any viticultural site. Together with vintage, grape variety and winemaker, terroir is fundamental to making a great wine. Though the term may suggest that it refers to the soil, terroir actually refers to the entire environment of the vine, which includes climate, soil and aspect and encompasses something as broad as a region or as small as a vineyard or individual row of vines. I would also like to add to this an extra dimension that says that terroir may also include a human element (but more on that later).
Climate plays a decisive role in determining the style of wine, mainly because of the way it affects ripeness. Warm climates in general lead to higher alcohol, riper aromatics (lush, ripe fruit in reds and more exotic fruit notes in whites) and lower acidity. Warm climates in general see less vintage variation. Cool climates can produce more tart fruit aromatics and preserve acidity better and likely produce wines with lower alcohols. The affects of warm climates can be countered by picking earlier to preserve acidity and avoiding heady alcohols, but while grapes such as Syrah and Cabernet can benefit from a ‘green’ streak, it is tough to produce a great Pinot Noir without full phenolic ripeness (flavor ripeness). In cool climates, delaying the harvest to reach ripeness often involves the risk of losing a crop to rot or frost. Certain varieties show a natural preference to certain types of climate. For example, Grenache thrives in hot and arid conditions, while Riesling prefers a cool climate. Therefore, climate will often dictate which varieties are grown, as well as the style of the finished wine.
It is interesting to note that within the European appellation systems, the delineated geographical regions also regulate which grapes can be grown where, in correspondence with the grapes that were traditionally able to grow in the local climates. One of the challenges European vineyards face is global warming. Will a change in climate conditions lead to a change in regulation of prescribed grape varieties? In Burgundy for example, Jasper Morris MW notes that the quality of the wines has been going up hill during the past few years. Instead of the golden belt of Grand Crus mid-slope, he notices a sweet spot 50m higher in vineyards, such as Taillepieds or Fuées, and notes in the World of Fine Wine that ‘should the effects of climate change become yet more pronounced, there is a very real danger that the Pinot grape may no longer be as well suited to the golden limestone slopes of Burgundy as it has been for the past many hundred years. There are already those considering Syrah in the granitic Beaujolais’.
Topography: Altitude, Aspect and the Influence of Water.
Topography is a vital aspect of terroir. Bordeaux looks very flat, yet all five First Growths are located on hills and the importance of being located on a hill can be seen in the original names: Motte means ‘hill’ in France, from which both Mouton-Rothschild and Ch. Margaux (originally named La Mothe de Margaux) trace their names. Ch. Lafite derives its name from an old French term “la fite”, which means ‘small hill’’, while Ch. Haut-Brion is thought to derive from the Celtic ‘briga’, meaning ‘hill’. Historically, most prominent wine regions are located on the edge of where the grape will ripen and therefore a slight elevation will give the producer an extra benefit. Burgundy’s most famous Premier and Grand Cru vineyards are located on East and South-East facing vineyards, which protect from westerly winds and maximise exposure to the sun, allowing the grape an extra chance to fully ripen. In contrast, in the hot climate of the Midi, northern (cooler) exposures can delay maturity and aid complexity, as is found in the small appellation of Palette.
In terms of topography, altitude can be as important a decision when planting a vineyard as aspect. In countries such as Argentina, where heat may be a problem, the greatest Torrontes vineyards are located at altitude where significant drops in nighttime temperature preserve acidity. Spanish producer Artadi, the flag-bearers of single vineyard Rioja, show the importance of aspect by bottling the wines from their Valdeginas and la Poza vineyards separately. These two neighbouring vineyards are divided by a small stream, but the East facing Valdeginas receives the afternoon sun and thus benefits from a slightly cooler micro-climate that intensifies its flavours, while the West facing La Poza receives the midday sun and the grapes bathe in sunlight for most of the day with the warmth reflected in the supple richness of the final wine.
In addition to altitude and aspect, soil colour (see soil type below) and the effects of the surrounding area are important, especially bodies of water. Water is such a great heat conductor that it can have a substantial moderating affect on the surrounding area, as can be seen with the Gironde in Bordeaux or the Marne for Champagne. This is even more important when there is a cooling affect as a result of an underlying ocean current. For example, the cooling affect from the Antarctic-origin Benguela current that sweeps past the West coast of South Africa, allows for cool-climate grapes to be grown here that one would not expect at this latitude. Similarly, the wines from the Santa Rita Hills show restrained fruit and alcohol, which is different from most Californian East/West facing vineyards (rather than the more common North/South as a result of a geological fault), which allows full exposure to the cooling influence of the Pacific Ocean that helps restrain the style of the wines. Bodies of water can have a further effect on the style of wine as it can promote the growth of botrytis, for example, the proximity to the Garonne and the cooler Ciron in Sauternes allows for autumn mists that encourage the growth of the botrytis which makes Sauternes such an exceptional dessert wine.
The word terroir itself seem to imply that soil has an important influence on wine. Indeed, there are two ways that soil affects wine: soil texture and soil type.
The actual soil type affects both grape variety and style of wine. For example, there is an affinity between Syrah and granite. On granitic soils, Syrah shows more freshness, more body and more tannins, which is why the best sites in the Northern Rhône have a high proportion of granite in the soil. Similarly, the main reason that Bordeaux’s right bank is planted to a majority of Merlot rather than Cabernet, is that Merlot thrives on clay (Pétrus is on a buttonhole of blue clay) and Cabernet prefers the gravelly soil of the left bank. In Burgundy, it has been suggested that the lace-like elegance of Chambolle is the result of a higher level of active limestone in Chambolle, compared to the more powerful, darker and more muscular Gevrey-Chambertin or Vosne-Romanée. This active limestone causes a slight chlorosis, which reduces photosynthesis in the vines thereby reducing yields naturally.
Soil colour can influence the ripening of grapes, especially in marginal climates. Dark soils, such as the slate in the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and the terra rossa of South Coonawarra absorb the warmth and release warmth back to grapes at night, aiding ripening and potentially avoiding frost damage. Similarly, the large puddle stones in the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape retain the heat and aid the production of powerful reds. Light soil can radiate light back to the vine aiding the process of photosynthesis and in turn phenolic ripeness, especially important in areas which are often overcast. Etienne de Montille claims that with global warming heat is less of an important factor than light in current Burgundy vintages.
Soil structure is also very important, especially in relation to drainage. Waterlogging (for example in clay soil) can be lethal to vine health, as it increases microbial activity (and rot). Similarly, drought is lethal to a vine. Vines with short roots are more susceptible to immediate climatic conditions and therefore older vines (with longer root systems) on a soil with stones (or cracks in a rock soil) that encourage root growth, allows the vines to take greater advantage of the natural water levels, which have substantial advantages over an impenetrable subsoil. In fact, in Sequin’s soil survey of Bordeaux, the two unifying elements among the top Châteaux (across left and right bank) were relatively infertile soils and excellent drainage, though with enough water supply for periods of drought, rather than the type of soil.
After considering the above factors, it is evident that the elements that form the vineyard habitat or terroir, have an enormous impact on the style and quality of the final wine as much as the choice of grape. Yet the European appellation names include another element that should be discussed: heritage or tradition. Local appellation laws include elements such as maximum yields or winemaking techniques (e.g. chaptalization), which may safeguard the quality of a Grand Cru Burgundy for example even in the hands of a mediocre producer. In fact, the European appellation system protects certain wine styles which are wholly dependent on their wine-making process such as Champagne or port of Madeira. For a Madeira wine to be called Madeira it must be a fortified wine made with one of the locally sourced grapes allowed by local regulations and have a rancio element as a result of ageing, either cheaply in Cuba de Calor or with care in Canteiro. As such, the designation of region incorporates not just the natural environment of the grape, the grape choice itself or even the yield….it may even refer to the winemaking process. Though heritage is not part of ‘terroir’ in the strictest sense of the meaning, it certainly can be part of the system referred to as ‘geographical labelling’.
It has taken me a surprisingly long time to write this essay on terroir, given that it is a topic that I talk about every day, have very clear views about and that I would absolutely call myself a terroirist… it has been extremely hard to put into words my understanding of terroir.
I hope that I have shown that as the Oxford Dictionary of Wine so aptly says, terroir can be described as ‘the total natural environment of any viticultural site’ and that the subtle changes in the natural habitat of the vine can be translated into the wine. This can be interpreted with sweeping statements about a region, or the individual conditions of a vineyard, or even a row of vines, thus including the vine’s macro-, meso- or micro-climate. The differences in small habitats is celebrated at its best in Burgundy, where the concept of terroir forms the heart of the classification system. For example, if you were to try a Nuits-St-Georges Vaucrains and its neighbour Les St Georges from the same producer, you would notice that the steeper aspect and extremely poor soil of Vaucrains combined with its slightly cooler location just above Les St Georges produces more minerally wines, while the deep-brown soil and more mid-slope location of Les St Georges produces fuller and richer wines with rounded full tannins.
Yet, terroir alone does not determine the quality or style of the wine. Terroir can help create a great wine, but vintage, winemaker and choice of grape variety are equally as important.