Terroir As Context
Terroir is context. Context is everything. Everything is connected. I’ve arrived at this mantra after years of exploring the world through my sense of taste.
A quick online search will reveal the contentious nature of this term. Some of the resulting headlines: Terroir, What Is It And Why Is It Controversial?; What Exactly Is “Terroir” And Why Does It Matter?; A Wine’s Terroir? What Exactly Do You Mean?; Is Terroir Real?
Do I believe terroir is real? Yes, definitely. What do I mean when I talk about terroir? I believe in an expansionist approach to the term but as it is most often encountered and applied to the world of wine, it is there that I’ll begin.
Terroir is a French term that has no direct translation into English. The root of the word is terre which can be translated as earth or soil. Terroir has been described by the wine writer Matt Kramer as “somewhereness”. I’d translate terroir as sense of place. In the case of wine, this place is generally referred to as the vineyard — the place where wine grapes grow. When considering this sense of place, the focus can be wide or narrow. You can consider the macroclimate of the region as a whole, the mesoclimate of the entire vineyard, the microclimate of a single vine, and everything in between.
This is where the process of learning about wine begins. The product we call wine is the end result of a whole host of natural, chemical, and biological processes. It is also a product of the human race, subject to laws, traditions, and vagaries of fashion and taste. All this is to say that wine is a complex subject to study. As we aim to understand wine, its history, and its production we must begin by simplifying and oversimplifying. But make no mistake that the complexity is always there and this is a desirable state of affairs. The miracle of wine is that the flavors that it contains are bits of information from the earth itself. These flavors do not spontaneously generate, nor can they be reproduced in a lab. A wine that has complexity, depth, balance, and harmony can only originate in a vineyard where those same elements are present. The vines and the soils must be healthy, and that health can only arise from biodiversity. This link then between the land where grapevines are grown and the wine that comes from that unique place is one possible meaning of the term terroir.
To quote Paul Lukacs from his excellent book Inventing Wine: Terroir is itself a modern term. Derived from the Latin terratorium, it entered the French lexicon during the Renaissance, but at that point it simply meant “territory.” During the nineteenth century it acquired a second meaning as an area of land valued specifically for agricultural properties, but still rarely was employed in connection with wine. Only in the 1900s did it come to be used specifically to designate a vineyard’s natural environment, including geology, soil type, topography, climate and more. Then it also began to signify a particular feature of wines made with the grapes grown in that environment.
When discussing the history of the term “terroir”, most experts immediately point to the Cistercian monks who tended vines over centuries in Burgundy, France. These monks worked the same vineyards for years, and in fact generations. As they became intimately familiar with the characteristics of the land they were tending, they came to appreciate how different plots of land showed different flavors in the resultant wine. Because it was around this time that the term terroir came into its current usage, there is often a sense that the French somehow own or even invented the concept. This can be shown to be clearly not the case as the Egyptian, Greeks, and Romans all labeled wines with their area of production as a signifier of quality.
It is here that most modern definitions of terroir come to an end — looking no further than the physical traits of the vineyard or larger region. As I previously mentioned, I believe in an expansionist use of the term. I would argue that there are multiple stages of terroir to consider:
- Terroir of growth
- Terroir of production
- Terroir of the cellar
- Terroir of the tasting
- Terroir of the taster
As I stated in my earlier mantra, I translate terroir as context. All of these contexts inform and explain what our brains finally register as taste. What we have discussed thus far, the sense of place related to all aspects and climates of vineyard sites I would classify as terroir of growth. The second terroir, of production, is often also considered by wine writers. I feel not enough attention, however, is paid to the last three.
Explaining the terroir of production can be a most contentious endeavor. We will save an in-depth discussion of the methods and philosophies behind production for another time. For now, it suffices to say that all wine production by its very nature is interventionist — meaning that while grapes left on the vine will naturally ferment under the right circumstances, the product we know as wine could not exist without the action of human hands. (For brevity’s sake, I use the American term winemaker below to refer to someone who produces wine from wine grapes — setting aside for now the discussion of why I feel the European terms vigneron, vinaio, etc. are more appropriate for someone who performs that task.)
While the terroir of production must necessarily begin where the terroir of growth leaves off, this is a malleable and changeable delineation. Factors such as when to harvest the grapes and how to harvest them (by hand or by machine) are sometimes at the winemaker’s discretion. Often, local, regional, and/or national laws set strict guidelines for both the growing and the harvesting practices of wine grapes. Many of these guidelines still leave some, if not a lot, of choices up to the winemaker. She might harvest a day or two earlier than her neighbor who owns grapes in the same vineyard. Her facility in which to process her grapes may be on site or she may have to transport the grapes some distance to her winery. She may not even own such a facility but may have to rent out time and space at one close by. Once in the winery, she has many further choices to make. She can make use of modern innovations like conveyor belts and pneumatic presses or she can choose to stomp grapes with her bare feet and sort the grapes by hand. She can ferment her wine in wood barrels or stainless steel tanks. She can age her wine for the bare minimum required under the law or for years (or even decades) beyond that. She can bottle her wine using natural or synthetic corks, or a glass closure, or screw cap. She can even eschew bottles entirely and package the wine in cans or bag-in-box.
We’ll explore the journey of wine from ground to grape and from grape to glass at a later date. All these choices matter because they have an effect on the flavors of the finished wine. Do I have a predilection towards wine produced in certain fashion? Yes, and I’ll advocate for those soon enough. For now, know that I came to love and respect those wines by how they tasted — and how they tasted alone. The learning of why they tasted the way they did came later.
TERROIR OF THE CELLAR
Now we have a finished product, a bottle of wine. Assuming our winemaker made some conventional choices, we have a wine that is stored in a bottle made either of clear or opaque glass. That bottle is stoppered with a cork driven into the neck of the bottle. Where that bottle resides upon birth, how it gets to the end consumer, and how it is stored and treated once it arrives there, this is the terroir of the cellar. Much has been written about the cellaring and storage of wine, and certainly many writers stress the importance of this, but most attention is paid to the terroirs of growth and production. I can’t stress this enough: where and how a wine is stored over the course of its life has a MAJOR impact on the final flavor.
Let me get New Age-y for a minute. Wine is alive.
Yes. ALIVE. Is it such a stretch of the imagination? The earth the grapes grow in is filled with life, from earthworms and other insects, to bacteria that inhabit the soil. The vine itself has life. It grows, reproduces, and like us might be lucky to live to one hundred years of age but likely withers and dies well before that. The life that is in the soil and in the vine and in the sun is concentrated in the grape. If you pick a flower, does it die right away? Or will it perk up if you put in a vase with some water? What about the potato you forgot in the cupboard for two weeks that has sprouted all over? Grapes don’t die when they are picked. The process of fermentation is initiated by yeast cells acting on the sugar in the grapes. While we don’t normally think of it as such, yeast is most definitely alive. So, I ask again, is it such a stretch to believe that wine is alive?
Returning to our bottle of wine, let’s consider its lifespan. Certainly time ages wine as it ages us. When I say wine ages, I mean the flavors evolve over time. I don’t mean the flavors change entirely — a wine that has a strong character won’t suddenly become bland or flabby (or vice versa.) What I mean is that like us (hopefully) a wine comes into its own with time — it attains a fuller expression of its flavor over its lifetime. Not all wines age the same — white wines tend to become richer and fuller with time while red wines tend to become lighter and more elegant. Wines made from different grapes and different processes also have different lifespans. Covering all the differences is beyond the scope of our current discussion.
It behooves me here to better explain what I mean by the lifespan of a wine: that of a wine’s flavor potential expressed over time. The first two terroirs, of growth and of production are responsible for the sum total of flavor potential of any bottle. If we continue to think of wine as alive, for now, let’s think of it as a newborn child. All the potential flavors the wine could ever exhibit are present from birth. They are the wine’s DNA. Just as children grow and develop, so too do the flavors in wine.
How long is the lifespan of the average wine in actual years? That’s not an easy question to answer. Much wine comes to the market less than a year from its vintage date and is consumed within the following year. Other wines are aged for years before their release and may have a lifespan of 30–40 years or more. I would argue that many wines have a much longer lifespan than conventional wisdom ascribes to them. The importance of terroir of the cellar lies in its ability to either prolong or severely shorten the lifespan of a wine.
Once in the bottle, the enemies of wine are light, heat, and motion. Without delving too deep into hard science for now, our wine baby is undergoing constant chemical change. This is a desirable state of affairs as these processes contribute to the diversity and depth of flavors that end up in our glass. As we learned in basic high school chemistry, light and heat can both be catalysts. They can speed up the aging process. I would also argue that motion has the same effect. What does this mean for our wine baby? Like a real baby, our wine is a thing of fragile beauty that is also more resilient than one might think. A small child might tumble down a flight of stairs and bounce up as if nothing had happened. The same child might be felled by a germ or some other outside agent. In real world terms: the colder, the darker, and the more still the cellar, the better for preserving the flavor potential of wine.
Imagine the following experiment: two bottles of the same wine begin their life at the same winery in Germany. One is laid to rest in the cellar at the estate. The cellar is deep underground where the temperature is maintained at 48 degrees Fahrenheit year round. It is damp, and lit by the occasional candle flickering on the wall. The bottle is laid down with its brothers and sisters of the same vintage. There it sits for the next 30 years without ever being moved or touched. The other bottle is loaded on a truck and then a cargo ship bound for America. Once the bottle arrives stateside, another truck takes that bottle and the case containing it to a warehouse in New Jersey. The case is then purchased by a restaurant in New York. The wine cellar of the restaurant is a showpiece, a large glass cube surrounded by fluorescent lighting. The bottle is placed into the wine rack by the sommelier. The cellar is set at an industry standard 56 degrees Fahrenheit. Over the next thirty years a progression of sommeliers move the bottle every month during the inventory process. Several times, the entire cellar is reorganized and the bottle is moved yet again. At the end of those thirty years, the first bottle is lifted from its slumber and placed in the overnight bag of the winemaker. She flies to Manhattan and arrives at the restaurant for dinner featuring her wines. Upon seeing the wine she has specially brought for the occasion, the sommelier realizes he has its twin in the restaurant’s cellar. Both bottles are brought to the table, opened, and poured at the same time. The two wines, that were born in the same place, now taste radically different. The wine that has been carried from Germany, that sat undisturbed for 30 years, tastes far superior to the wine that has been housed at the restaurant. It’s flavors are deep, nuanced, complex, and yet harmonious. Compared to the other wine, it somehow tastes more youthful as well, with years left of life ahead of it — whereas the wine that has been moved and shuffled constantly, subjected to harsh light and warmer temperatures seems flat, tired, and dull. Over the years, I have been present at just such experiments and can vouch for the veracity of the results. The where and how wine is stored-the terroir of the cellar-has the greatest effect on its flavor potential once it is bottled.
TERROIR OF THE TASTING
We now have a bottle of wine in our hands. We’ll assume that it has been carefully and lovingly stored. Where that bottle is opened, the setting, the occasion, the people present, some would argue even the phase of the moon, constitute the terroir of the tasting. This physical act of taking wine into our mouths and into our bodies does not happen in a vacuum. The how and the why of what surrounds this act can matter immensely.
For many of us, wine is often encountered and consumed in a restaurant setting. Many restaurants have a dedicated wine professional (or even a team of them) called a sommelier. [A common misconception is that sommelier is a fancy title or denotes someone who has had some kind of official schooling. While there are certain bodies such as the Court of Master Sommeliers that do offer certifications for passing exams and confer titles such as Master Sommelier, any one who works with wine in a restaurant can call themselves a sommelier. I myself have no formal training.] The job of such an individual is to help make a recommendation of a bottle or bottles to accompany the meal and to properly serve the wine. This individual can contribute much to the terroir of the tasting by serving the wine in a timely fashion, perhaps offering up more information about the wine’s terroir of growth and terroir of production. The sommelier can also affect the way the wine tastes by being neglectful or inattentive, say overpouring a white wine or champagne, so that it becomes too warm in the glass. Many aspects of a restaurant setting are also designed to enhance the enjoyment of the drink (and food) on offer there — lighting, music, decor. All these factors have an effect on the mood and mentality of the taster. The same bottle of wine, drunk at home, alone on a rainy night, over a longer period of time will exhibit flavors that may have not been noticed in the restaurant setting. The same bottle of wine, brought to a picnic in the park and served a little too warm in plastic cups will again taste different. That’s not to say that any one of these settings is more desirable than the others — but the effect of the terroir of tasting on the way we experience the flavor of the wine is inescapable.
Here’s another experiment. Four friends are gathered together at home. The hosts have prepared a fancy dinner with an appetizer, a main course, and a cheese plate to finish. One bottle of wine is opened while the food is cooking. The friends sit down to dinner and over the course of the meal drink four bottles — assuming they all drank at an equal rate, this means that each person has consumed an entire bottle of wine. Now, many of us would not see the need to do anything differently in this scenario. But what if I explain how the flavors of wine can change over time as the wine is exposed to oxygen? Suppose that each person opened their own bottle of the same wine before dinner and drank from only that bottle of wine over the course of the meal. They would experience a much broader range of flavors than having four glasses each from freshly opened bottles. For practical reasons, most of us would not choose to open four bottles of wine at once, but it is worth trying when you have a group of friends together and are eager to explore the flavor potential of wine.
For beverage professionals, another form of tasting is quite common. A wine buyer for a restaurant or retail shop is always on the hunt for new and delicious wine to add to their list or to their shelves. The only way to determine if a wine is satisfactory for purchase is to taste it. Most shops and restaurants work with many companies from whom they buy wine. Usually these companies have hundreds, if not thousands, of wines on offer at any time. The total of the offerings is usually referred to as the company’s “book” or “portfolio”. Most companies have salespeople commonly referred to as wine representatives or “wine reps”. These reps will likely be assigned to the same store or restaurant and will develop a personal relationship with the buyer or buyers there. They make appointments with the buyers and arrive laden with sample bottles. At most tasting appointments, a wine rep will have brought 3–5 wines, but a dozen bottles or more is not unheard of.
In all our previous examples, we can assume that the wine is being consumed, meaning it is taken into the mouth and swallowed. Beverage professionals are almost always tasting wines while on the clock — meaning the tasting appointments likely take place during the day at the wine shop, or before dinner service at the restaurant. If the buyers were to swallow every taste of wine (often somewhere between one and two ounces) they would become completely inebriated before the end of the work day. This necessitates that after taking the wine into their mouth, the buyers must spit the wine out. Usually a dedicated wine spittoon or some other receptacle is used. [When I first was exposed to this side of the wine business, I was thoroughly grossed out. It truly is a necessity though. In the future we’ll discuss some major wine importers and the large portfolio tastings they hold. On those days, a wine buyer or other professional can sample hundreds of wines over the span of three or four hours. Without spitting, the results for the buyer would be disastrous.] Without delving too deep into the physical mechanics of the human mouth here, suffice it to say that it is impossible to get the full flavor experience of a wine without swallowing. Obviously, the most successful beverage professionals can ascertain enough of a wine’s qualities through this process to make their decision whether to buy it or not. Their terroir of tasting in this instance is much different than if they were to sit down at home and drink the same bottle to completion along with food.
Imagine the same bottle of wine being opened and served at a wedding celebration or at a funeral wake. The differences matter.
TERROIR OF THE TASTER
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said “no man can step into the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” For our purposes we can also infer that no man can taste the same wine twice, for it’s not the same wine and he’s not the same man. The terroir of the taster — the qualities that the person who is tasting the wine possesses — while they may be ever-shifting, can be quantified and identified. Let’s break them down into physical traits and collected experiences.
The physical act of tasting is a complex one. For purposes of this discussion, we’ll start by focusing on the taste buds. These papillae on the tongue convey taste information to the brain. This information is also correlated with scent information from the nose to complete an overall taste picture. Every person has a different amount of taste buds and most people fall into one of three groups commonly referred to as non-tasters, average tasters, and supertasters.
Non-tasters have fewer taste buds, have higher tolerance of spice and may be less perceptive of bitterness. Average tasters account for around 50% of the population and may perceive bitterness and spice to what we would consider normal degrees (not factoring in cultural differences in cuisines.) Supertasters experience many flavors as more intense and may avoid certain flavors in food and drink — such as bitterness in vegetables or the bitterness of a heavily-hopped IPA. You may already recognize yourself as a potential member of one of these groups. A quick online search will also yield links to tests you can perform yourself to determine which type of taster you are. Don’t be disappointed if you happen to find yourself in the non-taster group. The title does not mean that you lack the ability to discern the quality and flavors of wine and other beverages, rather that you may experience certain tastes differently than the average person. Whatever group you belong to, you can improve your skills of flavor discernment and appreciation through constant tasting and attention. Those collected taste experiences form what we commonly call a person’s “palate”.
Aside from these physical traits of genetic origin, other physical factors can play a large role in the terroir of the taster. Some of these may seem overly obvious or else be easy to overlook, but their effect on tasting ability can be great. Imagine you are a wine buyer who has attended one of the large tastings we referred to earlier. You’ve just spent the last two hours tasting through dozens of red wines and your teeth are stained a purplish-red. When you get back to the wine shop or restaurant, you brush your teeth with the toothbrush you keep on hand for such occasions. Then you remember you have another tasting appointment with a rep who is due soon. The first few tastes of wine you take will be seriously compromised by the minty toothpaste you used. One of my early wine mentors would only ever drink iced coffee in the morning as he was worried about burning his tongue. Such a mishap could cost him a full day or more of accurate tasting ability. Imagine trying to taste wine with a terrible head cold. Or a broken nose. Most of us are not beverage professionals who depend on their senses of taste and smell to make their living, but it still behooves us all to consider if our current capacity for tasting is diminished before deciding what to drink next. If you’ve burnt your tongue on your bowl of soup at lunch, maybe hold off on opening that special bottle of wine with dinner and grab one of your go-to everyday bottles instead.
The last aspect of the terroir of the taster is that of the palate. Palate is a word, like terroir, that has an agreed upon general meaning but also has a great deal of contention attached to it. For our purposes, we’ll define a palate as the sum total of a person’s taste and flavor experiences. Experience is what I am looking to promote most. It is impossible to discuss the tasting, collection, and consumption of wine without discussing value judgments. Whether a beverage professional or an amateur enthusiast, none of us have infinite time or other resources (money, space, etc.) to devote to wine. Thereby, we must select wines that bring us the most pleasure. This is not to say that certain wines are inherently better tasting or more preferable. We’ll soon delve much deeper into which wines I enjoy most. And I’ll explain the ways in which the flavors inherent in those wines bring me joy. But this isn’t a bully pulpit. My goal is not to promote my choices above all others but rather to foster understanding. My hope is that you will take the opportunity to drink broadly and explore the world of wine (and other beverages) for yourself. You’ll often hear a wine professional refer to another professional as having a “good palate”. While they may be praising that individuals ability to discern information about wine based on how it tastes, the subtext more often reads “I’m approving of that person’s taste in wine because it mirrors my own”. Just as biodiversity is a desirable state of affairs in and around a vineyard, so too is a diversity of opinions beneficial to the world of wine. The more informed those opinions the better. The more you understand why you might like the taste of a wine, the better equipped you are to find other wines that bring you pleasure.
So taste everything you can. Question everything you can. And when you taste, keep all the terroirs in mind. For terroir is context; context is everything; and everything is connected.