Article By: Bill Nesto, MW
I studied for the Master of Wine exam during the early 199Os. At that time, the concept of terroir seemed to be a flash point for all sorts of discussions. As a fledgling blind taster, I desperately wanted to know more about the connection between a wine's organoleptic profile and its place of origin. The growing gulf between the production philosophies of "fine" manufactured wine and "fine" artisan wine had a lot to do with the terroir issue. Kermit Lynch's book, Adventures on the Wine Route, crystallized the camp favoring artisan wines. Above all, he warned that stabilization strategies such as filtration stripped a wine of its identity. On the other hand, the growing partnership between larger and larger wine distributors and larger and larger wine companies focused the public on brand identity. Branding is the antithesis of terroir. Brands are free and flexible market entities. They usually have few connections to people and place, preferring the language of symbols devised by strategic marketing.
While I was studying for the Master of Wine exam, within the program there was constant reference to an "Old World" and a "New World". On one hand the argument seemed forced. The divide of temperament and purpose between those countries that traded in wine previous to the17th century and those that began to do so afterward seemed forced. On the other hand, I could not help but find that the distinction was a powerful tool in helping me understand important issues of the day. One of the key ones was encapsulated in the concept of terroir. While the Old World wine producing countries had built their industries on a system that gave great importance to place of origin, the New World did not. More specifically, the Old World gave credence to the empirical observations of generations of wine growers who believed that a particular piece of land produced a wine with a unique taste. Without the benefit of this patrimony, New World producers relied on scientific research to help them site vineyards and to pair these vineyards with grape varieties. They scientifically assessed cultivation and vinification methods.
The first time that I ever encountered the word, terroir, was in 1992, when I read The Vintner's Art: How Great Wines are Made by Hugh Johnson and James Halliday. This groundbreaking book devoted a whole chapter to terroir, attaching the provocative question, "Does man matter more than the natural environment?" to the heading, "Terroir". Warning their readers that there was no precise definition or translation of the term, Johnson and Halliday presented the famous definition of Bruno Prats, at that time the proprietor of Chateau Cos d'Estournel. "The very French notion of terroir looks at all the natural conditions which influence the biology of the vinestock and thus the composition of the grape itself. The terroir is the coming together of the climate, the soil and the landscape. It is the combination of an infinite number of factors, to name but a few. All those factors react with each other to form, in each part of the vineyard, what French wine growers call a terroir."
I put this definition to memory, hoping to use its eloquence to spice up one of my Master of Wine examination essays. Those exams came and went. Eventually I passed and became a Master of Wine, but the word "terroir" and Prats' definition and those of others have remained percolating in my mind 'til this day.
After coming into contact with the Prats definition, I discovered that there could be more dimensions to the word. At a Masters of Wine Exam preparation course held in New York City, Larry Fuller Perrine, a shy, thoughtful winemaker in the middle of a professional leap from Long Island's Gristina Vineyards to nearby Channing's Daughter presented a more expansive definition. I learned that Prats' viewpoint expressed the traditional French understanding of what terroir meant. That definition did not include man's interaction with the growing environment. Perrine not only included the impacts of all those individuals who somehow had a direct impact on the wine, but included less immediate human-based impacts such as those of history and culture. The concept had become more exciting, but more difficult to grasp and use with precision. The term's context became grander, but also more amorphous and expansive.
France, and most of all Burgundy, had always remained terroir's touchstone during my many discussions. Halliday, in 1993, in an article entitled "Climate and Soil in Australia", published by the Journal of Wine Research, Number 4, said, "The seemingly precise and logical correlation between grape variety and terroir in France has come about as the consequence of many centuries of experience which no amount of money could buy and no amount of research duplicate. Of all the wine zones in France, Burgundy became the point of reference, the place where the concept of terroir had real meaning." Then in the May 1994 issue of The Wine Enthusiast, Randall Graham attached the terroir term to California: "California has reached macro-terroir status in much the same communal way as Bordeaux, but there is obviously a long way to go before we have identified our best micro-terroirs." Meanwhile, The New World scientific community gave little credence to the concept, particularly the fundamental determining factor of soil chemical composition. Ron Jackson's comments in the 1994 edition of Wine Science typified the New World view within the scientific community. He wrote, "soil type is the least significant factor affecting grape and wine quality" and "geologic origin of the parental material of the soil has little direct influence on grape quality." He also suggested that France's Appellation Control laws, a system inspired by the concept of terroir, tend " to increase the scarcity and prestige of the wine from those regions, potent attributes in increasing both the price and profitability of the wines." . . . Those sly French!!!
In 1995, Master of Wine Roger Bohmrich reviewed the many definitions and contexts of the word "terroir" in an essay, entitled "Terroir: Competing Perspectives on the Roles of Soil, Climate and People". He presented his thesis at a MW student study session. Later it appeared in the April 1996 issue (Volume 7) of The Journal of Wine Research, a publication with affiliations to the Institute of Masters of Wine. He presented his view that understanding the meaning of terroir is an evolutionary experience. Its meaning in wine literature is constantly expanding, becoming more inclusive: its presence, more pervasive. At his thesis' end, he presented what he believed to be the latest and most inclusive definition: in 1995, a researcher, D. Saayman, proposed the following definition to a group of Masters of Wine visiting South Africa: "A terroir is an existing (often still unknown) relationship/interaction between the natural environmental factors viz., climate, topography and soil which have the potential (also often unknown) to induce a specific character into an agricultural product (not necessarily wine)." In the New World, a key indicator of the growing interest in the topic arrived when, in 1998, geologist James E. Wilson's book was published. It is entitled, Terroir: The Role of Geology, Climate, and Culture in the Making of French Wines. It received critical acclaim. A New World (an American) scientist had prominently raised the terroir banner.
What I have described to so far is the way I discovered the concept. Doing the research for this article, made me curious how and when the word "terroir" came to the surface in foreign wine literature. Emmanuelle Vaudour, in her article, "The Quality of Grapes and Wine in Relation to Geography: Notions of Terroir at Various Scales", Journal of Wine Research, 2OO2, Vol. 13, No.2, pointed out a French dictionary reference dating back to 1863 which had as one of its definitions of terroir, "a small area of land being considered for its qualities or agricultural properties. For example, the poet Gautier (in Les grotesques, 1844) praised a rocky and infertile hilly terroir for the production of excellent rose wine." What is curious, however, is that even in France, use of the term in wine and scientific literature did not apparently occur until the late 198Os. Before that time, the term must have been used informally by those intimately connected to the production of wine and other produce. During the 198Os, Professor Gerard Seguin from the University of Bordeaux seems to have had a role in bringing the term into the academic and scientific arena. His article, " 'Terroirs' and Pedology of Wine Growing" appeared in 1986 in the Swiss publication, Experientia. In 1989, a French researcher who focuses on the Loire Valley, R. Morlat used the word in his PhD thesis for the University of Bordeaux. In 199O, another French researcher, P. Laville, presented a study of the terroirs of 3 communes in the Gard region of France. He collaborated with several other authors in 1992 in research that defined the terroirs of communes in the Southern Cotes du Rhone. In 1993, he wrote an article describing the relationship between "terroir" and the French appellation system. In 1991, well-known viticulture researcher based in Bordeaux, Alain Carbonneau, presented terroir as an important concept interfacing grape variety and viticulture. In 1994, an Italian researcher, M. Falcetti, published an article written in French for the Bulletin de l'O.I.V., entitled, "Le terroir: qu'est-ce qu'un terroir? Pourquoi l'etudier? Pourquoi l'enseigner?" (Terroir: What is a terroir? Why study it? Why teach it?). In 1996, M. Pinchon, in an INRA publication, stated his belief that terroir was being abused for marketing, sentimental and political purposes. In the same year, C. Van Leeuwen 1996, published an "Occasional Paper" for the Ecole Nationale d'Ingenieurs des Travaux Agricoles. Bordeaux: Faculte d'Oenologie, Bordeaux University. Its title is "La Notion de terroir viticole dans le Bordelais" (The Viticultural Notion of Terroir in the Bordeaux appellation). He presented an expansive view of what terroir is: "terroir viticole is a complex notion which integrates several factors of the natural environment (soil, climate, topography), biological (variety, rootstock), and human (of wine, wine-making, and history)". J. Mesnier gave another definition in 1997 for the Proceedings of the First International Colloquium. The references to the word terroir in literature have grown exponentially, I dare say, since. Within twenty years, it has become one of the most used (and exploited) words in winespeak.
Recently three new books landed on my desk: Great Wine Terroirs by Jacques Fanet (a Frenchman); The Winemaker's Dance: Exploring Terroir in Napa Valley by Jonathan Swinchatt and David G. Howell (two Americans): and Soils for Fine Wines by Robert E. White (an Australian). The arrival of this threesome signals that terroir has achieved global critical mass. Fannet and White are soil scientists. Swinchatt and Howell are geologists. Apparently, within the scientific community, terroir is no longer mumbo-jumbo. It's a fashionable, even lucrative, topic.