It’s hard to have a conversation about wine these days without hearing the French word terroir. Derived from a Latin root meaning “earth,” terroir describes the relationship between a wine and the specific place that it comes from. For example, many will say the characteristic minerality of wines from Chablis comes from the limestone beds beneath the vineyards (although, when pressed, they generally admit that they’ve never actually tasted limestone). The idea that one can taste the earth in a wine is appealing, a welcome link to nature and place in a delocalized world; it has also become a rallying cry in an increasingly sharp debate over the direction of modern winemaking. The trouble is, it’s not true.
When terroir was first associated with wine, in the 17th-century phrase goût de terroir (literally, “taste of the earth”), it was not intended as a compliment. Its meaning began to change in 1831, when Dr. Morelot, a wealthy landowner in Burgundy, observed in his “Statistique de la Vigne Dans le Département de la Côte-d’Or” that all of the wineries in Burgundy made wine essentially the same way, so the reason some tasted better than others must be due to the terroir — specifically, the substrata underneath the topsoil of a vineyard. Wine, he claimed, derived its flavor from the site’s geology: in essence, from rocks.
In recent years, the concept that one can taste rocks and soil in a wine has become popular with wine writers, importers and sommeliers. “Wines express their source with exquisite definition,” asserts Matt Kramer in his book “Making Sense of Wine.” “They allow us to eavesdrop on the murmurings of the earth.” Of a California vineyard’s highly regarded chardonnays, he writes, there is “a powerful flavor of the soil: the limestone speaks.” The sommelier Paul Grieco, in his wine list at Hearth in New York, writes of rieslings that “the glory of the varietal is in its transparency, its ability to truly reflect the soil in which it is grown.” In his February newsletter, Kermit Lynch, one of the most respected importers of French wine, returns repeatedly to the stony flavors in various white wines from a “terroirist” winemaker in Alsace: “When he speaks of a granitic soil, the wine in your glass tastes of it.”
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. Terroir flavors are generally characterized as earthiness and minerality. On the other hand, wines with flavors of berries or tropical fruits and little or no minerality are therefore assumed not to have as clear a connection to the earth, which means they could have come from anywhere, and are thought to bear the mark of human intervention.
If this seems confusing — especially given that wine is made from fruit — it gets worse when you ask winemakers about how to get the flavors from the rocks into the glass. According to them, a good expression of terroir requires more work in the vineyards, or possibly less; it’s the hotter climate in California that leads to its high-alcohol, fruit-forward, terroir-less style, or possibly not; even the oft-heard contention that a winemaker must “work with what the vines give you” is contradicted by Ales Kristancic of Movia winery, whose family has been making wines from vineyards on the Italy-Slovenia border for hundreds of years. “Plants need to understand what the winemaker wants,” Kristancic says. “Only a winery with great tradition can make great vineyards.”
Since there’s so little consensus among winemakers about how to foster the expression of place — what Matt Kramer calls “somewhereness” — in their wines, what are our wine experts tasting? How can a place or a soil express itself through wine? Does terroir really exist?
Yes, but the effects of a place on a wine are far more complex than simply tasting the earth beneath the vine. Great wines are produced on many different soil types, from limestone to granite to clay, in places where the vines get just enough water and nourishment from the soil to grow without deficiencies and where the climate allows the grapes to ripen slowly but fully. It’s also true that different soils can elicit different flavors from the same grape. Researchers in Spain recently compared wines from the same clone of grenache grafted on the same rootstock, harvested and vinified in exactly the same way, but grown in two vineyards 1,600 feet apart, one with a soil significantly richer in potassium, calcium and nitrogen. The wines from the mineral-rich soil were higher in apparent density, alcohol and ripe-raisiny aromas; wines from the poorer soil were higher in acid, astringency and applelike aromas. The different soils produced different flavors, but they were flavors of fruit and of the yeast fermentation. What about the flavors of soil and granite and limestone that wine experts describe as minerality — a term oddly missing from most formal treatises on wine flavor? Do they really go straight from the earth to the wine to the discerning palate?
Consider the grapevine growing in the earth. It takes in elemental, inert materials from the planet — air and water and minerals — and, using energy captured from sunlight, turns them into a living, growing organism. It doesn’t just accumulate the earth’s materials. It transforms them into the sugars, acids, aromas, tannins, pigments and dozens of other molecules that make grapes and wine delicious.
“Plants don’t really interact with rocks,” explains Mark Matthews, a plant physiologist at the University of California, Davis who studies vines. “They interact with the soil, which is a mixture of broken-down rock and organic matter. And plant roots are selective. They don’t absorb whatever’s there in the soil and send it to the fruit. If they did, fruits would taste like dirt.” He continues, “Any minerals from the solid rock that vine roots do absorb — sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, a handful of others — have to be dissolved first in the soil moisture. Most of them are essential nutrients, and they mainly affect how well the plant as a whole grows.”
Most of the earthy and mineral aromas and flavors that we detect in wine actually come from the interaction of the grape and yeast. Yeasts metabolize the grape sugars into alcohol, along the way freeing up and spinning off the dozens of aromatic chemicals that make wine more than just alcoholic grape juice. It’s because of the yeasts that we can catch whiffs of tropical fruits, grilled meats, toasted bread and other things that have never been anywhere near the grapes or the wine. The list of evocative yeast products includes an organic sulfur molecule that can give sauvignon blancs a “flinty” aroma. And there are minor yeasts that create molecules called volatile phenols, whose earthy, smoky flavors have nothing to do with the soil but are suggestive of it, especially in wines from the southern Rhone.
Grape minerals and mineral flavors are also strongly influenced by the grower and winemaker. When a vineyard is planted, the vine type, spacing and orientation are just a few of many important decisions. Growers control the plant growth in myriad ways, such as pruning, canopy management or, most obviously, irrigating and replenishing the soil with manures or chemical fertilizers. The winemaker then makes hundreds of choices that affect wine flavor, beginning with the ripeness at which the grapes are harvested, and can change the mineral content by using metal equipment, concrete fermentation tanks or clarifying agents made from bentonite clay. Jamie Goode, a British plant biologist turned wine writer, describes in his superbly lucid book “Wine Science” how techniques that minimize the wine’s contact with oxygen can increase the levels of sulfur compounds that may be mistaken for “mineral” character from the soil.
So, if vines absorb only rock that is dissolved in water, if grape and wine minerals are not a reflection of the rocks’ minerals, and if earthy aromas in wine come from microbes and not the earth, do soil minerals have any real role in wine flavor?
Hildegarde Heymann, a sensory scientist at U.C. Davis, is skeptical about the usefulness of the terms ‘terroir” and “minerality” as they’re used today. But she is intrigued by “minerality.” “People who talk about minerality are describing something they perceive that’s hard to grab on to,” she says. “My guess is that it’s a composite perception, something like ‘creaminess’ in dairy foods. ‘Minerality’ might be a way of describing a combination of complexity, balance and a substantial body. We do know that mineral ions can affect wine flavor by affecting acidity, chemical reaction rates and the volatility of aromas. And we’re just now looking at whether they can affect the body of wine, its ‘mouth feel.’ They might.”
It’s possible, then, that soil minerals may affect wine flavor indirectly, by reacting with other grape and yeast substances that produce flavor and tactile sensations, or by altering the production of flavor compounds as the grape matures on the vine.
The place where grapes are grown clearly affects the wine that is made from them, but it’s not a straightforward matter of tasting the earth. If the earth “speaks” through wine, it’s only after its murmurings have been translated into a very different language, the chemistry of the living grape and microbe. We don’t taste a place in a wine. We taste a wine from a place — the special qualities that a place enables grapes and yeasts to express, aided and abetted by the grower and winemaker.
In the years following Dr. Morelot’s missive on terroir, the quality of a wine became synonymous with the quality of the vineyard where it originated. This meant the value of that wine was tied to the land instead of to the winemaker, which allowed it to be handed down from generation to generation. The French went on to codify their vineyards into legal appellations, creating gradations within those appellations that demarcated clear levels of quality (grand cru, first growth and so on), the economic effects of which are felt to this day. Given that it was landowners who benefited most, the commonly held idea of terroir — wine as proxy for a piece of dirt — looks a lot like one of the longest-running, most successful marketing campaigns of the modern era.
Today, it’s easy to ascribe all this terroir talk to commerce, to the European reaction to California’s recent rise in viniculture status. It’s been suggested that terroir is just the Old World saying to the New: It’s the land, stupid — we have it and you don’t. But that doesn’t explain why so many Americans have embraced the concept with near-religious zeal. To paraphrase the great French wine historian Roger Dion, why have so many brilliant and passionate wine professionals been so eager to attribute solely to nature what is actually the result of hard work by talented winemakers?
The answer lies in the complex relationship between tradition, culture and taste. Those wine professionals have all spent vast amounts of time and energy learning what traditional European wines taste like, region by region, winery by winery, vineyard by vineyard. The version of terroir that many of them hold is that those wines taste the way they do because of the enduring natural setting, i.e., the rocks and soil. In fact, these wines taste the way they do because people have chosen to emphasize flavors that please them.
The pioneering French oenologist Émile Peynaud wrote nearly 25 years ago: “I cannot agree with the view that ‘one accepts human intervention (in vinification) as long as it allows the natural characteristics to remain intact,’ since it is precisely human intervention which has created and highlighted these so-called natural characteristics!” Modern European views of terroir recognize that typical local flavors are the creation of generations of growers and winemakers, shaping the vineyard and fine-tuning the fermentation to make what they feel are the best wines possible in their place. Typical flavors are expressions not of nature but of culture.
But culture, unlike nature, isn’t lithic. It evolves in response to shifting tastes and technological advances. Over the past 30 years, the staid world of European winemaking has been roiled by an influx of American consumers, led by their apostle, the writer Robert Parker. In his reviews, Parker has brushed aside the traditional practice of judging wine according to historical context (that is, how it should taste), focusing instead on what’s in the bottle. His preference for hugely concentrated, fruit-forward wines — the antithesis of distinctive, diverse terroir wines — has dramatically changed the economic landscape of the wine industry. Throughout the world, more and more winemakers are making wine in the style that Parker prefers, even in Europe, where this means abandoning distinctive local styles that had evolved over centuries. “Somewhereness” is being replaced by “anywhereness.”
The simplistic idea of terroir as a direct expression of nature has become a rhetorical weapon in the fight against this trend. Kristancic — who interrupted our interview to raise his fists and shout to the heavens, “They’re ruining wine!” — sees an advancing wave of homogenization that will eventually turn wine into a soulless, deracinated commodity. Like many others, he is afraid of losing what is special about the traditional role of wine in human life, its way of connecting people to the land and to one another. Conjuring granite in Alsatian rieslings and limestone in Chablis puts that connection to the land right in the bottle, ours for the tasting.
If rocks were the key to the flavor of “somewhereness,” then it would be simple to counterfeit terroir with a few mineral saltshakers. But the essence of wine is more elusive than that, and far richer. Scientists and historians continue to illuminate what Peynaud described as the “dual communion” represented by wine: “on the one hand with nature and the soil, through the mystery of plant growth and the miracle of fermentation, and on the other with man, who wanted wine and who was able to make it by means of knowledge, hard work, patience, care and love.” “Somewhereness” is given its meaning by “someoneness”: in our time, by the terroirists who are working hard to discover and capture in a bottle the difference that place can make.