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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Fallacy of Terroir

The fallacy of terroir is not that it doesn't exist, it is that people keep saying there is no English-language equivalent of the concept. Many people attribute, soil, climate and topography as the common denominator of terroir. According to the infallible Wikipedia, "at its core is the assumption that the land from which the grapes are grown imparts a unique quality that is specific to that growing site." Thus, terroir is often described as the set of special characteristics of a certain place. Depending on scale, that could be a region, a village, a vineyard or even a specific block within a vineyard. This is exemplified by the fact that syrah wines differ from Hermitage, Barossa and Paso Robles despite being made from the same grape cultivar. Perhaps the concept of terroir is best epitomized in Burgundy where famed climats like Romanée, Romanée-Conti and Richebourg in Vosne-Romanée are only meters apart and yield distinct wines all made from pinot noir.

Yes, the soils, climate (not so much in Vosne-Romanée) and topography vary in each of these places. But one thing that is too often left out of the terroir discourse is the anthropic influence. After all, grape vines don't decide where they grow, harvest themselves or stop fermentation before the product is vinegar. Some people, including myself, add the human element to the concept of terroir. Whether or not you include people as part of the terroir of a place, there is in fact an English word that covers all the definitions of the concept: geography. In English, the characteristics of a wine can be said to come from the geography of a place. Geography is more than just maps (actually, the study of maps is called cartography). Geography encompasses soil, climate, topography, geology, history and cultural practices of a place.


In 1964, a famous geographer named William Pattison described four broad traditions in which geography, as an academic field, is based. He presented a spatial tradition, regional studies tradition, human-environment tradition and an earth science tradition. Wine, like geography, concurrently pursues all four of these realms. A study of wine, in the geographical tradition described by Pattison and affirmed by many others more recently, can cut across all four fields because as one follows the life of a bottle of wine from sun to soil to grape to winery to bottle to consumer, every individual bottle of wine is really just geography in a bottle.

In the spatial tradition, the distribution of wine regions can be described, contrasted and compared. Heck, that is the basic concept of terroir. Different vineyards impart different characteristics to different wines. Why are wine regions predominantly found between the temperate latitudes of 30° and 50° in each hemisphere? Well, that is spatial geography.

Of course the answer has to do with the climates and geology of those regions. The specific location on vineyards and why certain vineyards produce more acclaimed wine than others is a result of the geologic, edaphic (soil) and topographic characteristics of those sites. All the the basic principles of terroir are part of the earth science tradition of geography. I like to think that the basic tenets of terroir are the same as those that soil scientist Hans Jenny (pronounced yenny) used to describe independent factors that determine the process of pedogenesis (soil formation). Jenny coined the idea of Cl.O.R.P.T. in 1941 to define the influence of regional climate (Cl), biological organisms (O), relief or topography (R), parent material or underlying geology material (P) and time (T) on current soil properties. All of those factors combined resulted in different soils depending on how the factors varied. Differences and similarities in wine is analogous to soil.

But as I said previously, wine is more than just a combination of those basic environmental factors. The historical and cultural practices of regions have greatly influenced the modern terroir of many places. In July 1395, Philip the Bold, duke of Burgundy, banned the gamay cultivar from Burgundy. This left pinot noir to run unopposed for undisputed king of the region. For more on that interesting story, read Ben O'Donnell's piece in Wine Spectator. A little episode called Prohibition forever changed the wine industry in the United States of America. If you think that terrible experiment didn't affect the terroir of this country, just look at which wine regions were most popular and what cultivars dominated the vineyards in California in the 19th century. America wasn't known for its Napa cabernet!

Finally, perhaps the most important geographic factor in the wine industry is the human-environment tradition. Choices relating to rootstock selection, canopy management, planting density, clonal propagation, irrigation regimes, and vineyard preparation are all essential parts of modern wine growing. If you can show me a vineyard that has not been impacted by any of those factors, I'll eat my shorts. All of those human interactions can be said to accentuate the sense of place of a wine. Or they can be used to internationalize the style of a wine and negate its terroir. That outcome depends on the philosophy of the winemaker, the grower and the marketing team.

Not only is terroir a product of all four of these geographic traditions, every place on Earth has terroir. However, not all terroir is created equal. Some places remain unplanted because the terroir terrible for grape vines. Some terroir remains unplanted because its greatness has just not been discovered. And some terroir remains unplanted because the climate has yet to change enough to make it economically feasible. More so, some great terroir many cease to exist because of a changing climate. Not only does terroir exist everywhere, its expression changes everywhere. Changes may be brought about by climate change, natural disasters, political decrees or simple cultural adaptations.

Geography may not be as catchy a term as terroir, but please stop spreading the fallacy that there is no English translation for terroir. It's geography...

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