Keeping the Faith of Terroir


I have the faith. I believe in terroir.

What prompted this public assertion? A couple of weeks ago I was reading a posting by Alder Yarrow from Vinography commenting on an article about terrior that had been published in T Style magazine (New York Times). The premise: does terroir exist? And can it be proven, or do we just have to accept it does not till the scientists say it does?

I have tasted enough dirt to know that the soil on one side of a field is not the same as on the opposite side. It feels different, often does not even smell the same. Plants that grow in different parts of a field or vineyard don’t look the same or grow to a similar size.

If you don’t believe me, just watch horses in a meadow – they will always pick one area for grazing first – only when that is used up will they move to another. They know the difference – even if they can’t define it as terroir.

Travel down a country road or hike along a trail and you will see terrior: cottonwood and willow by marshy areas, mountain pine and hemlock at higher altitudes replacing the cedar trees of the Pacific Northwest. Watch a farmer baling hay – if you smell the grass as it is being cut, one end will be different than the other. Try picking some sweet corn fresh off the plant. Some will simply taste better – same seed, same field, same weather, different flavour.  This is terrior.

I have tasted wines made from a single crop and then fermented in identical barrels using the same yeasts. The only difference is that one barrel uses grapes from one row and a second from another row. They taste different. Terroir. A field worker can tell you the difference between vines growing only a few feet apart. Burgundy has been doing this for hundreds of years, so who am I to argue?
Terrior is everywhere. Some wine growing regions simply haven’t been in existence long enough to discover their unique terrior, the essential “someplace” that they are.  It will come with time. Like me, Alder is a firm believer in terroir although he suggests he does not know where the meeting hall for the Church of Terrior is. I believe this particular church has no meeting hall, just many generations of vignerons working the vineyard and wine lovers looking for the unique “someplace” found in their glass.

I will maintain my faith in terrior because I have seen it, felt it, tasted it. For me, it exists every time I open a bottle.

Susan’s note:

Although we’ve talked about terroir before, I couldn’t help checking into this particular discussion a little further.

The original NY Times article by Harold McGee and Daniel Patterson notes: “if you ask a hundred people about the meaning of terroir, they’ll give you a hundred definitions, which can be as literal as tasting limestone or as metaphorical as a feeling.” After reading only a little further, I was left with the uncomfortable impression they feel this is negative, a quality that somehow belittles wines in general.

Think about it. If you were asked to describe your favourite vacation spot, would you be likely to include metaphor and a touch of whimsy? Of course. I defy anyone to say they wouldn’t.

When I describe my recent Caribbean holiday with my sister, I don’t discuss the average temperature in January versus May nor the percentage of salt in the water nor the statistical probability of encountering a hurricane on a given day. I talk of the feel of the ocean breeze ruffling my hair, our delight at discovering the Southern Cross twinkling in the night sky above our sail boat, the camaraderie Anita and I shared with our captain David (an old friend) and Claudia, his new lady love. This too is terroir.

Yes, I am also, and always will be, a believer.

PS: Here are a couple of other terroir sites worth checking out:

http://thepour.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/05/10/terroir/ (yet another take on the whole issue of terroir by Eric Asimov of NY Times)
http://www.terroir-france.com/theclub/meaning.htm (interesting info on French wines in general as well)

Photo above was taken on the Island of St John in the US Virgin Islands.

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Reader Comments

Very good point re descriptions of things (like vacation spots and the beautiful” that are difficult to describe in “positivism” terms.

The difficulty is in defining the line wherein “Burgundy” exists or does not exist, let alone all the factors which contribute to making a specific wine Burgundian. I like the South African system the best, whereby you name the vineyard and then look at a possible collection of vineyards which might be considered as “a ward”. The larger the physical area, the less likely it is that “terroir” (however defined) is to be present as a shared experience for a given number of people. But a given year, in a given vineyard (or portion of a vineyard) is at least capable of description.