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Terroir, Then and Now

Recently, along with Randall Grahm, Neal Rosenthal and Alice Feiring, I participated in a seminar at the Santa Fe Wine and Chile Festival on the subject of wine quality entitled, “The Winemaker, the Owner, the Merchant and the Author”.  Greg O’Byrne, maestro of the festival, chose the participants to include three different aspects of the professional wine fraternity and a critic.  The goal was to explore whether we would have different views of the relative importance of wine-making and specificity of terroir in the quality of the wines we were making and/or marketing.  It turned out that we really did not.  Where we differed was in our definition of terroir. Alice, the author, felt that "power vinification" was eliminating terroir. Randall declared himself an agnostic on whether or not there was such a thing as terroir in New World vineyards and Neal and I agreed that the essentials of terroir, both in the New and Old World -- from single vineyard properties on appropriate terrain and not over vinified -- did exist.  Our audience also seemed to have very differing views. So, for me the question became, “how do we define terroir these days, what is it, and how did we arrive here?”

In the beginning, Egyptian, Greek and Roman wines were always identified by place of origin.  In Egypt, in the annex of Tutankhamen's tomb, 36 wine jars were found and each bore a docket in hieratic giving the date, place, and vintage of the wine1.  The Greek trade in wine was extensive. An early system of appellation designation was implemented to assure the origins of esteemed products. The most reputable wines of ancient Greece were Chian, Coan, Corcyraean, Cretan, Euboean, Lesbian, Leucadian, Mendaean, Peparethan, Rhodian and Thasian.  The Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote extensively about the "first growths" of Rome -- most notably Falernian, Alban and Caecuban. Other first growth vineyards include Rhaeticum and Hadrianum located along the Po river, in what are now the modern day regions of Lombardy and Venice, respectively.  In ancient times, wines came from somewhere with specific geology, soils and climate: the basic elements of terroir (and therefore taste). The grape varieties grown in those origins were steadfastly traditional and the consumer was not concerned about and most probably did not know the varieties of grapes in the wine.

The boundaries of fine wine growing regions in France have existed for at least a millennium and over time have codified connections with specific grape varieties.  Cistercian monks focused on Pinot Noir in their Burgundian homeland, and by doing so were instrumental in creating a distinction between their fine wine and the more common wine (probably field blends) of Mediterranean France.  It was their expertise that induced them to establish abbeys and vineyards in Vosne, Vougeot and Gevrey.  They identified the crûs but it was the Burgundian state in a 1395 decree by Duc Philippe le Hardi that banished the grape Gamay.  This made red Burgundy a Pinot Noir monovarietal appellation (although some white varieties were still allowed).  Thus the essentials of Burgundy crû terroir were established by cooperation between church and state 600 years ago.  Wines from crûs took on value because of their geographical identity.  Other regions within France emulated the Burgundian system and began identifying regions of particular quality.  Over time, fraudulent identification and/or blending became profitable, and began to threaten the integrity of the highest quality areas. 

Pressure by proprietors in fine wine producing areas to establish controls started growing but it was not until 1935, in the heart of the crisis of the Great Depression, that Châteauneuf-du-Pape, under the leadership of the Baron le Roi, established and posted its regulations, leading to strict appellation controllée laws and the creation of the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO) in 1935/19362. High quality small plots in fine French vineyards became recognized as distinct from neighboring plots, and lovers of Burgundy will argue over fine distinctions in terroir.  So what is terroir in vineyards where no long tradition exists?

Terroir, the French term that is used in descriptions of the taste (and origin) of a wine, is unfortunately a word that is untranslatable into English. An interesting parallel is that “winemaker,” an English term frequently used in describing the origin of a wine, is untranslatable into French.  This linguistic disconnect reflects cultural cultural differences the New World's focus on the winemaker as primary creator of distinctiveness and Old World's focus on place as the traditional determinant of character.

The American wine journalist Matt Kramer’s modern take is that that people consider geographical identity to be the terroir and that it then becomes the “somewhereness” in the taste of a wine.

Terroir imparts its special characteristics to the taste of wines that are produced in its limits.  It is generally considered to be defined by the rocks and the soils in which the grapes are cultivated.  But, according to the renowned wine journalist and author, Hugh Johnson, in his foreword to James Wilson’s excellent book called Terroir, published in 1998 by The University of California Press, says

Terroir, of course, means much more than what goes on beneath the surface.  Properly understood, it means the whole ecology of a vineyard: every aspect of its surroundings from bedrock to late frosts and autumn mists, not excluding the way a vineyard is tended, nor even the soul of the vigneron.”

But terroir has not always been seen as part of the “vigneron’s soul.”  Before the nineteen seventies, prior to the great expansion of wine drinking in the United States, a “goût de terroir” in a wine was considered a fault.  Frank Schoonmaker, the American wine pioneer, marketer, importer, and author described it in his Encyclopedia of Wine, published by Hastings House in 1964, as:

“Soil or earth, used in a very special sense in French in connection with wine, as gout de terroir. Certain wines produced on heavy soils have a characteristic, unmistakable, almost indescribable, earthy flavor, somewhat unpleasant, common, persistent.  This is a gout de terroir, and the German equivalent is Bodenton or Bodengeschmack. Superior wines rarely if ever have much of this, which if once recognized, will not easily be forgotten.”

Ironically, earlier, in 1939, Schoonmaker and a few struggling California wineries including Martin Ray, Concannon, Wente, Almaden and Louis Martini, not at all worried about terroir or geographical origin, introduced varietal wine labeling, as already practiced since 1933 by Beaulieu Vineyard in St. Helena to identify a fine wine (and lift it and set it apart from the then abundant cheap field blends called Burgundy, Chablis, Claret, etc.).  At that point the “somethingness,” of a wine's composition began to replace the “somewhereness” of a wine's origin.  This shift deemphasized geographic identity in favor of a more interchangeable grape varietal (although the wine's appellation could still be noted on the label).

So now terroir in its current use has taken on a new importance.  The expanding employment of vineyard designations on New World wine labels is a sign of our current efforts to give specific “somewhereness” to both varietally labeled wines and blends.  We are using terroir in a positive sense as a tool to emphasize a wine's taste characteristics determined by soils and climate as opposed to those specific to a given grape varietal or those which come from cellar manipulations. Cellar manipulations, and the sameness that these can produce in wines from different areas (and even different grapes), are coming more and more under fire from a growing number of consumers and press as a misstep in the search for more "natural" wines.

Robert Haas, October 2008

1Wine Making in Egypt by Menna El-Dorry

2I might add that our AVA (American Viticultural Area) regulations are a very pale and often meaningless imitation of the system, made even more meaningless by the TTB’s (the section of the Treasury Department, which oversees wine label approvals and AVA regulation) continued recognition of brands, even those misleadingly or falsely labeled, over geographical origin.  See our blog post The TTB's new AVA rules: a well-meaning step in the wrong direction from December 2007.