Terroir is a term that is crucial to the
understanding of quality wines and the differences between them.
Yet many wine lovers do not understand terroir. Many have not
even heard of it. The following is an examination of the
term as it relates to French and American wines. Well begin
with a modified excerpt from the excellent wine writer Hugh
Johnson as he defines the term. Then we will discuss it as it
relates to a general French area (Bordeaux) as well as a specific
Chateau (Latour). Well conclude with a lengthy discussion
of the current wine scene in California as it relates to terroir.
English has no precise translation for the
French word terroir. Terrain comes nearest, but has a much less
specific, let alone emotive, connotation. Perhaps this is why
many wine loving Anglo-Saxons mistrust it as a Gallic fantasy; a
conveniently mysterious way of asserting the superiority of
French soil and landscape and the unknowable peculiarities that
give French wines special qualities.
Yet there is no mystery about terroir. Everyone
-- or at least every place -- has one. Your garden and mine have
terroirs; probably several. The front and back of your house
almost certainly offer different growing conditions for plants.
That is all terroir means.
At its most restrictive the word means soil. By
extension, and in common use, it means much more. It embraces the
dirt itself, the subsoil beneath it, its physical properties and
how they relate to the local climate -- for example how quickly
it drains rainwater, whether it reflects sunlight or absorbs its
heat. It embraces the lie of the land: its degree of slope, its
orientation to the sun, and the tricks of its microclimate that
spring from its location and surroundings.
Thus if the foot of a slope is frost-prone, the
fact is an aspect of the terroir. Warmth or mist arising from
nearby water is another -- mist can encourage botrytis and make
golden sweet wines possible. Cooling afternoon or evening breezes
off a body of water, such as is the case in many coastal areas of
California, will also have a great effect. An east slope that
catches the morning sun may have identical soil to a west slope
that warms up later in the day and holds the evening rays: its
terroir is different -- and its grapes will be subtly different
So are two plots of soil that nature made
identical, but one of which has been pampered and the other
neglected. Investment in cultivation has a marked effect on
terroir. This is part of the exorbitant price of the best
vineyard land (Grand Cru in France). It was the best situated in
the first place; then nurtured for centuries.
An extension of this aspect of terroir is the
view held by some organic wine growers that the term should also
apply to all the flora and fauna of the land, whether visible or
microscopic. Some claim that chemical treatments which kill
microfauna denature the terroir. This would apply to tiny
inhabitants of the soil as well as the indigenous yeasts, which
almost certainly impart their territorial character to the wine.
Next month we will take a closer look at the
terroir of Bordeaux. However, the first methodical identification
and definition of different terroirs we know about (and still
profit from) was done by monks in the Middle Ages, most famously
by the fanatical Cistercians in Burgundy. They are said to have
tasted the soil in their efforts to understand its
secrets. Their efforts were not just directed at making the best
wine. They were obsessed with the consistent differences between
plots of land. To make wines that were as distinctive, as
recognizably unalike as possible was their passion -- handed down
to us in the jigsaw pattern of crus that makes study of the Côte
dOr so perplexing today.
and microclimate: Bordeaux is the perfect place to seek answers
to the question of terroir. We can look at Bordeaux from two
perspectives: how the region in general differs from other wine
growing areas and how differences within Bordeaux can create
great and only good wine producing properties in close proximity.
The most earnest studies have been made to decide what it is that
makes one piece of land superior to its neighbor. In the end, we
will glimpse hints of the truth, but we will have at least as
many questions left as we have answers.
The Médoc (the western part of Bordeaux) lies
on the 45th parallel. It is situated between the Atlantic Ocean
and the Gironde estuary (where the Garonne and Dordogne rivers
join) in southwest France. This explains its relatively warm,
damp climate, bathed in light, sun and freely circulating air.
This protects the vines from the late spring frosts and
cryptogamic diseases which might easily develop at the time of
the summer rains. The peninsulas geographical position,
lying between two water masses which act as thermal regulators,
creates a highly propitious micro-climate. It provides a moderate
and stable climate: the summers are warm, but not typically hot,
and the winters are mild. In addition, Europes biggest
forest, on the ocean side of Bordeaux and to the south, protects
it from strong salt winds and reduces the rainfall.
Variations in the weather every year affect the
style of the vintages. The grapes generally ripen well because
the months of August and September usually have little rain and a
great deal of sunshine. The very great vintages are always the
result of relatively hot, dry summers. And if pollination is
delayed by rain and cold while the vines are in flower, they
merely reduce the har-vest quantitatively without impinging on
The diversity of the terroirs: The character of
the Médoc soil and subsoil also greatly influences the
wines style and quality. At the end of the Tertiary and
particularly in the Quaternary eras, layers of pebbles, sand and
clay which we call graves were laid down in time and space. The
oldest layers, the Pyrenees gravel on the west part of the
vineyards, are a mixture of quartz and small shingle. After these
layers chronologically, came the sedimentary structures of early
Quaternary (Günz). These very coarse layers combine quartz,
sandstone, chert, volcanic lydians, millstone grit, sand and
clay, swept down by the mighty floods of the Garonne and Dordogne
Rivers of bygone days. The greatest of the Médoc crus are
planted on this Garonne gravel, all along the estuary.
geologically, other layers of gravel (Mindel) were formed as well
as coarser gravel (Riss) of which there remain only the barest
traces of a greatly reduced terrace, at Lamarque and towards
Macaw. Between these two main types of gravel, there are outcrops
of calcerous clay which are also advantageous for vine-growing.
A relief of ridges: For the specialists, the
most important event, geologically speaking, was the destruction
of the terraces by erosion, when tributaries of the Garonne cut
out valleys, the jalles or brooks. This destruction
explains the succession of ridges of gravel whose topography of
depressions and folds plays an irreplaceable role in water
The characteristic trait of the Médoc
landscape is its gentle undulations with the highest point at 43
meters at Listrac-Médoc. And yet its relief is complex, made up
of a succession of gravelly ridges overlooking the low-lying land
by the estuary and the small brooks which flow out into it. These
ridges are the vineyards favorite terrain.
An alternate view: Some take a different
geological view of terroir, focusing not on subsoil structure,
but on drainage. According to these theorists, a vine will find
all the nourishment it needs almost anywhere, in many soil types.
But the poorer the soil, the deeper and wider the vine will root.
Hence the paradox that poor soil generally makes good wine. Give
the vine rich soil, or spread generous helpings of manure around
it and water it frequently and its roots will stay near the
surface. But plant it in stony ground, give it only the bare
necessities, and it will plunge meters deep to see what it can
find. The deeper the roots go, the more constant is their
environment, and the less they are subject to floods on one hand,
drought on the other, and fluctuations of food supply from
manuring or lack or manuring. The vine can feed normally, as long
as the subsoil is well drained, so that the roots do not drown
during the wettest times.
Dr. Gérard Sequin of the University of
Bordeaux goes so far as to theorize that the nearer a vineyard is
to an effective drain, the drier the subsoil will be and the
deeper the roots will go; that the first-growths are vineyards
nearest the drainage channels, the second-growths slightly
further from them, and so on. There is an ancient Bordeaux saying
that the vines should look at the river. This theory
explains it. It also explains why old vines give the best wine:
their roots are deepest (although declining vigor leading to
reduced yields may also be a factor).
Hence, Dr. Seguin continues, it is not the
chemical composition of the soil, but its physical make-up that
must be taken into account. Heavy clay, which drains badly, or
sand are the least propitious components for wine; gravel and
larger stones are the best. Add to this the way stones store heat
on the surface and prevent rapid evaporation of moisture from
under them, and it is easy to see that they are the best
guarantee of stable conditions of both temperature and humidity.
In the Haut-Médoc, it is the deep gravel beds
that form gentle hills in Margaux, St-Julien and Pauillac, which
drain best. Further north, the proportion of clay increases, so
that in St-Estèphe, despite steeper hills, drainage is less
effective. This does not mean that all Margaux wines are
first-growths and all St-Esèphe fifth -- although there are many
more classed growths in Margaux -- but it does account for the
higher acidity, tannin and color and the less aroma in
St.Estèphe wines. As one moves further north into the
Bas-Médoc, the clay increases and the wines become coarser,
although some very good wines can still be made at the best
Even when vineyardists hundreds of years ago
wanted to make one consistent wine from their property, they
became acutely aware of the terroir(s) at their disposal. The
recently published archives of Chateau Latour (unique in their
completeness over 300 years!) give glimpses of how, in the 17th
and 18th centuries, this especially privileged terroir revealed
itself to its stewards. Its 100 odd acres at the time were
divided into 19 plots, from 3.5 to 13 acres in size, according to
their soil (particularly the size of the big pebbles that cover
the surface), their drainage, their orientation and their
Latour, like the other first growths, divided
its crop into Grand Vin and Second Vin, just as it does today.
The second wine always came from the less privileged terroirs;
the base of the slopes, with more clay and smaller stones, and
poorer drainage of both water and cold air.
It was soon discovered, and has been regularly
confirmed, that the site of Latour as a whole has unique
qualities. Its bank of pebbles sloping almost to the edge of the
estuary is the least frost-prone site in the Médoc! Undoubtedly
the ebb and flow of the tide in the estuary contributes by
keeping the air constantly in motion, however slightly. Even hail
storms, for some unexplained reason, seem to avoid the Enclos, as
the exposed riverside hillock is called.
The same records also reveal, however, exactly
how much money the owners spent on keeping their vineyard in peak
form. One regular task was to collect all available soil from
ditches and roadways and spread it on the land, which was only
manured once in every 20 years. In the early 19th century, the
vineyard keepers noticed that the quality of the wines was
flagging. Their response was a 13 year program bringing 1000
wagon-loads each year of fresh soil from adjacent fields to be
spread among the vines! It is a philosophical question whether or
not this altered the terroir.
- Two California Perspective
Historically, America rejected much of its
European/British roots and perspectives. Despite the conscious
rejection, much remains in our language, certainly, but also in
our culture, thinking and world view. With regards to wine, we
rejected the emphasis of Europe on geography. Instead, labels
emphasized grape varietal. Geographical origin wasnt
ignored, but the assumption was that if you knew the grape, you
pretty much knew what to expect of a wine. Although they readily
admit that some areas are better for growing a particular
varietal than others, many (but, clearly not all) Californians
completely reject the notion of terroir.
who believe in terroir must take a lot on faith. Those who detest
the idea say it is blind faith to accept it as fact. Basically,
the theory states that the soil and weather have as much of an
influence as does the variety of grape.
What makes the concept so hard to grasp is that
there is no direct parallel in other fruits or vegetables. An
Early Girl tomato grown in Bakersfield smells and tastes pretty
much the same as it does when grown in Ukiah. Or does it? No one
ever stages a blind tasting of Early Girl tomatoes from different
regions. It may be that soil does impart a special character to
all sorts of other plants and we simply havent seen it at
this point. How many professional tomato tasters are there? And,
more to the point, does it matter? Even if there were a
significant difference between the same variety of tomato grown
in different regions, would one be worth more than the other?
Tomatoes are a commodity and price is set by the market, not
generally on its quality.
But if terroir does exist, as so many people
say, then it is obvious that it competes with varietal character
for the dominant feature in a wines character. And which is
more important, the regional or the varietal? This question
perplexes philosophers more than wine purists.
The Terroir Fallacy (?) - The French,
notably in regions like Bordeaux and Burgundy, believe that
terroir is an essential element in the makeup of a wine. But why
on earth did they restrict the grapes that may be grown in the
primary (prestigious) growing regions when they didnt
restrict them in such lesser regions such as Provence
or Alsace. (Incidentally, the concept of terroir is far less
ingrained in the wine growers of these regions.) Why restrict the
varietals allowed if it is terroir that is crucial, not varietal?
They could well have permitted Riesling to grow in Montrachet,
with their faith in terroir giving them the confidence that the
resulting wine would be reflective more of Montrachet, the
region, than of the grape or grapes that made the wine.
Still, I believe in terroir, since I have seen
it often enough to verify its presence. The French adherence to
this notion may be a chicken-and-egg proposition, but it explains
much about how the French justify calling certain characteristics
elements of greatness in certain wines from certain regions.
Those same characteristics might be termed odd or
atypical from wines from another region.
This brief look at terroir does not reveal any
new truths, but it does unveil some of the inconsistencies in the
concept, how it can be viewed with some skepticism without
destroying the entire idea. In the following excerpts from a
speech given by Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Winery, you will see
a list of the enemies of terroir. I believe the most important is
related to the harvesting of grapes later and later to achieve a
richer, riper, more concentrated wine. This tastes artificial to
me, a result of the quest for higher scores to justify a
wines higher price. Instead of regional and varietal
character, we get higher alcohol and the ultra-ripe flavor
associated with raisins and port. This trend has happened slowly,
allowing wine makers to justify their new style of
wine by arguing that things havent changed radically over
Sure, but if you pick Cab at 24 brix in 1990
and pick only .1 brix higher each year, by 2000 youre at 25
brix. Duh! When did you last see a California Cabernet with 12.5%
alcohol? And whoever said that 22.5 brix was going to make lousy
wine? We did it for decades and made great wine. But the concept
of great 15 years ago is radically different from our
use of the term today. Riper is now better. So is oakier, more
alcoholic and less acidic, characteristics that make a wine taste
softer, sweeter and fuller, even if the flavors are not
fruit-derived. This is the International Style of wine so popular
today that even Chablis makers employ tactics to make their wines
in a manner that will gain them precious points from Parker and
As you read through Randall Grahms
speech/essay, be aware that his concerns about a loss of terroir
are not the least bit worrisome to many of todays
bigger is better collectors, some of whom still
believe that terroir is merely an excuse for wimpy wine.
I note for the record the huge difference
between wimpy and sublime. Wines of real character, notably those
with perfect terroir components, can be far more classic than
some clumsy, raisiny/porty, overly weighty wine whose main aim is
to impress, not necessarily to please.
Reign of Terroir
by Randall Grahm
(from a speech given May 21st at Terroir International 2000, a
am a lover of terroir and my passion burns with a white-hot geek
love supreme, largely in virtue of the fact that it remains
utterly unrequited. I am proud to call myself a terroirist, but
more as one who has sought terroir than has ever definitely
basked in all of its calcaire-infused, mud-soaked glory.
Matt Kramer (writer for the Wine Spectator) has
given us the most poetic definition when he called terroir
somewhereness. That is to say, it is the sum total of
all of the natural features of a site (topography, geology,
exposition, microclimate) which impart a distinctiveness to the
wine, independent of (or perhaps I should say despite) the
stylistic imprint of the wine maker. The terroir of a site is its
qualities that outlive the wine maker and one hopes outlive the
stylistic manias du jour. The animist in me believes that terroir
is like a soul or a conscience that hovers above the site.
Sometimes it will descend into the corporeal body of the wine
maker if it finds him a worthy vessel for terroirs
I believe that in the modern world of wine
making, terroir is in flight and its gradual disappearance is
provoking a longing in us to comprehend it before it disappears
altogether. Terroir speaks quietly and there is very little in
modern culture that is apprehended beneath the blare of the
superficial and the obvious.
French, the existence of terroir is an absolute article of faith.
I shouldnt really say faith -- it is more a
feature of their experience. The French are very particular and
scientific about organizing their sensual experience. This
derives from the fact that they are at the same time both highly
analytic Cartesians and utter horn-dog hedonists who have
developed a very precise language to describe the complete range
of their sensual experience.
Certainly, they taste wine (or historically
have tasted wine) very differently than we do. They are (or I
should say were) far less interested in whether the wine is
clean, fruit-driven or contains
hedonistic gobs of up-front jammy fruit. Their more relevant
question is, Does the wine express typicity? i.e. the
revelatory signature of its origins. For the French, the
tell-tale expressions of bitumen and pet de cheval bespeak the
schistous soils of St. Chinian in the Languedoc; the fingernails
on the chalkboard, limey minerality of Chablis virtually shrieks
its eponym. In Germany, the steep slatey vineyards of the Mosel
valley produce, especially with very old vines, wines of immense
concentration and extract, with unmistakable terroir shining
through all of the riotous Riesling razzmatazz.
Unbelievably, there are still some who doubt
the existence of terroir, but this is merely a function of
ignorance and pride. One simply has to taste the wines made by
Deiss in Alsace, Raveneau in Chablis or others I might mention,
where the expression of the mineral quality of the wine can be
far more dominant than any discernible varietal characteristics.
For those who have grown to appreciate it (and
it is definitely an acquired taste as I will explain), the
expression of terroir is arguably the most interesting element of
a wine, one that for me provokes intellectual engagement. But
perhaps as a culture, intellectual engagement with our wines is
no longer what we seek.
The notion of terroir is endangered on a number
of fronts. If you imagine terroir as a greater or lesser set of
defining characteristics that differentiate one site from
another, many of us can still perceive the larger, more obvious
differences, the difference between limestone and granite, for
example. But the very fine differences that once distinguished
one small sub-parcel from another have, I fear, already mostly
been lost. Perhaps it is the curse of modernity; the Burgundian
or Alsatian farmer is not spending his every waking hour focused
on his vines. His precious psychic resources are squandered on
worrying about what web sites his kid is visiting or how many
cases he should set aside for his Japanese importer.
There have been many viticultural developments
in France and elsewhere that I think have rendered differences in
terroir progressively less distinct. I will discuss them shortly.
But the bigger problem is that as an increasingly international
culture, we are progressively less attuned to fine detail. We
take in our information in gross and broad outline, suitable for
mass consumption -- a sort of one-size fits all kind of
epistemology. Many of the so-called great wines have
begun to lose their identity and like vast Hollywood productions
have become increasingly formulaic. With the exception of the
very fine small estates, modern chateau wine making
at least in Bordeaux and Napa has largely gone the corporate
route. There is increasing pressure to get the big score at all
costs and to make wines in a certain style that an influential
critic might deem collectable.
But by following this path, modern Lafite is
beginning to taste a lot like Mouton, which tastes a lot like
Margaux. It is my fear that a wholesale alteration of our tasting
Gestalt has taken place, largely unremarked; we now attend to the
(voluptuous) figure of the flavors of hypermaturity instead of
the soil. Hedonistic fulfillment is everything; we live in the
age of the bomb -- the vinous equivalent of the
blonde bimbo bombshell. We confuse the richness and sweet texture
of new wood and big alcohol for real depth and extract. I detest
the current fashion, but I often find myself getting inexorably
sucked into the seductive vortex of vinous easy listening. One
tunes into the soft, ripe flavors of a wine made in the
international modern style as easily as one finds oneself tuning
into yet another mindless program on TV in favor of spending some
time with a great novel. (Modern New World wine making is to real
wine what Keanu Reeves is to Laurence Olivier.) Make mine the
Cuvée Bruce Willis.
The shallowness of much of modern wine making
simply mirrors the shallowness of our culture. We cant seem
to get beyond our compulsion to give people what we think they
want and ultimately we permit ourselves to be led by an unknown,
faceless wave-force that has itself little sense of where it is
headed. If we dont as wine makers resist the immense
pressure to internalize the programmed appetites of the thirsty
masses, we will certainly lose our way and it will be very
difficult to find it again. Terroir is one path that enables us
to remain honest; if we are true to terroir, we are making wines
in service of something beyond our own egos, we are subordinating
ourselves to a greater reality.
Most of us New Worlders believe it would be
amusing, rewarding or interesting from a marketing perspective to
make wines that express terroir. We are fooling ourselves. I
doubt that many of us are actually prepared to do what it takes
to fully embrace terroir as it really is and not as some
idealized fantasy. It is a little bit like meeting God. We like
the concept, but none of us is quite ready for the reality.
As I have said, I am a seeker of terroir,
not a finder. But I would like to explore what some people have
felt to be some of the preconditions for its expression:
a) Yield restriction. In Europe, the magic
number hovers somewhere around 40-45 hecto-liters/hectare, which
is about 3 tons/acre.
b) Plant density. In Europe we see a much denser
plantation than what we typically see here in the New World, and
an individual vine might carry only 1-2 kg. of fruit. In any
event, there is a much higher root mass per volume of fruit, and
perhaps this leads to a potentially greater concentration of soil
characteristics expressed in the fruit itself. To take this to
the ultimate extreme would be the plantation folle --
the ultra-dense plantation that was practiced in the
pre-phylloxera era. It is utter speculation, but perhaps these
legendary ultra-concentrated wines were even more expressive of
terroir than the wines of our modern era. (At the very least we
know they werent over-oaked.)
c) Cool climate. Grapes grown at the limit of
their possibility (the coolest area where they can still ripen)
will yield wines with the highest theoretical aromatic potential.
d) Smart or homeostatic, self regulating
soils. Continental climates are by definition unsettled
climates. Soils with the drainage/water retention characteristics
to perform (that is to say produce wines that express finesse and
typicity) in conditions of either drought or inundation are
e) Relatively low vigor/low nutrient, old weathered soils.
Old soils are like old souls; they have attained a sort of wisdom
in virtue of their extended tenure on the planet.
f) Genetic diversity of vine population. Massal,
rather than clonal selection in the vineyards yields wines of
greater finesse and harmony. Wine makers talk about attaining a
sort of trans-parency in the wine to allow the
terroir to speak. I take this to mean that there is no single
dominant taste element -- even a lovely flavor like primary fruit
may be too dominant.
g) Deeply rooted vines. The vines must
periodically experience significant water deficit to induce deep
rooting. There are still a very, very few fanatical terroirist
growers who will actually practice root pruning to encourage
h) Normal maturity: neither under-ripeness nor
i) Mono-cépagement (single varietal). I think
that this is purely a function of the limitations of our
cognitive abilities. One keeps one variable (the grape variety)
fixed, the better to observe the subtle variations due to the
contribution of terroir. In regions where blends are the norm, at
least keep the percentages roughly equivalent.
Enemies of Terroir
a) Drip irrigation. Clearly one of the mortal
enemies of terroir, as it tends to restrict the depth to which
the roots will grow and, thus, the volume of the soil in which
the plant will root.
b) Young vines. The vines are not yet in
equilibrium, nor have the roots penetrated to any depth.
c) Compacted soil. Any practice that limits the
rooting depth is non terroir-philic.
d) Pesticide/herbicide treatments that kill off the
soils natural ecological balance. Lest this talk
be taken as an unqualified paean to French viticulture, the
French have in modern times been guilty of killing many of their
great terroirs through intense herbicide use. Yet the practice of
biodynamique (organic) viticulture is growing in France.
e) Extensive inorganic fertilization. Among
other things, this tends to increase yields.
f) Sandy soil. Sandy soils are generally poor in
exchangeable minerals; furthermore, grapes grown in sandy soils
will typically experience severe water stress on an annual basis,
compromising the finesse of a wine.
g) Over-ripeness. That intrusively dominant
cooked or raisiny quality couples with staggering alcohol degree
character insisted upon by the so-called vintelligencia.
h) Overcropping. Duh!
i) Over-extraction. Ultra-long maceration (the
length of time the skins sit in contact with the juice during
fermentation) enhances some flavors at the expense of terroir. It
makes for a look at me! type of wine.
j) New Oak. Dont get me started!
k) Wine Additions. Adding
ameliorants, especially tannin and acid, is like
putting the wines clear and distinct voice through a
l) Botrytis. A beautiful complexing element, but
too marked a flavor component.
Making a wine that expresses terroir
involves an element of risk. If one wishes to control all of the
variables of wine making, one cannot make a wine that expresses
terroir. Growing grapes at the limit of their possibility, at the
very edge of their ripeness threshold, definitely carries some
risk. In some years the wines will be perceived as hard, mean or
austere. Wines that express terroir have a strong personality and
will be found extreme or offensive by some people. Producers
cant be paralyzed by fear of making some of our potential
Terroir is the quality of wine that keeps
us coming back, enabling us to maintain a lifetime of interest.
It is that difference between wines that makes a difference,
clearly distinguishing one wine from another, and in so doing,
adding immeasurable value. Terroir is the quality that confers
uniqueness and ultimately gives wine a sort of soul, an element
that persists long after the wine maker has passed on.
Why are we ultimately willing to pay the
breathtaking prices we do for great wines? It is more than the
fact that they simply taste wonderful. Great wines possess
elegance and balance that take our breath away. They inspire us
to believe that perhaps anything might be possible. Great wines
affect us in a manner similar to the way that poetry creeps into
our brains, that is to say through metaphor, the holding together
of two elements from disparate realms that normally would never
be able to shake hands. And what is a more powerful poetic trope
than the identity of a special place and a distinctive taste.
Terroir is a mediating agent of the mystical property of
transubstantiation where a wine can be both a wine and a place at
the same time. It enables us to have our wafer and to eat it too.
Terroir thus confers the gift of identity, of presence. It is the
poetry, the linkage, where the unified whole becomes greater than
the sum of its parts in the same way that a friend acquires a
special meaning to us beyond a mere collection of his or her
quirks and idiosyncrasies.
Website Design ©Maron Marketing Consultants, Inc.