Terroir

Terroir

[ter-wahr; Fr. ter-war]
Terroir (/t̪εʁwaʁ/ in French) (terruño, pago) was originally a French term in wine, coffee and tea used to denote the special characteristics that geography bestowed upon them. It can be very loosely translated as "a sense of place" which is embodied in certain qualities, and the sum of the effects that the local environment has had on the manufacture of the product. Terroir is often italicized in English writing to show that it is a French loanword. The concept of terroir is at the base of the French wine Appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) system that has been model for appellation and wine laws across the globe. At its core is the assumption that the land from which the grapes are grown imparts a unique quality that is specific to that region. The amount of influence and the scope that falls under the description of terroir has been a controversial topic in the wine industry.

Origins

The concept of terroir developed through centuries of French winemaking based on observation of what made wines from different regions, vineyards or even different sections of the same vineyard so different from each other. The French began to crystallize the concept of terroir as a way of describing the unique aspects of a place that influences and shapes the wine made from it. Long before the French, the winemaking regions of the ancient world already developed a concept of different regions having the potential to create very different and distinct wines, even from the same grapes. The Ancient Greeks would stamp amphorae with the seal of the region they came from and soon different regions established reputations based on the quality of their wines. For most of its history, Burgundy was cultivated by the literate and disciplined members of the Benedictine and Cistercian orders. With vast land holdings, the monks were able to conduct large scale observation of the influences that various parcels of land had on the wine it produced. Some legends have the monks going as far as "tasting" the soil. Over time the monks compiled their observations and began to establish the boundaries of different terroirs-many of which still exist today as the Grand Cru vineyards of Burgundy.

Elements of terroir

While wine experts disagree as to the "exact" definition, a large focus is given to the natural elements that are generally considered beyond the control of humans. Some of the components often described of terroir include:

The interaction of climate and terroir is generally broken down from the macroclimate of a larger area (For example, the Côte de Nuits region of Burgundy), down to the mesoclimate of a smaller subsection of that region (such as the village of Vosne-Romanée) and even to the individual microclimate of a particular vineyard or row or grapevines (like the Grand Cru vineyard of La Grande Rue). The element of soil relates both to the composition and the intrinsic nature of the vineyard soils, such as fertility, drainage and ability to retain heat. Topography refers to the natural landscape features like mountains, valleys and bodies of water, which affect how the climate interacts with the region, and includes elements of aspect and altitude of the vineyard location.

Human controlled elements

The definition of terroir can be expanded to include elements that are controlled or influenced by human decisions. This can include the decision of which grape variety to plant, though whether or not that grape variety will produce quality wine is an innate element of terroir that may be beyond human influence. Some grape varieties thrive better in certain areas than they do in others. The winemaking decision of using wild or ambient yeast in fermentation instead of cultured or laboratory produced yeast can be a reflection of terroir. The use of oak is a controversial element since some will advocate that its use is beneficial in bringing out the natural terroir characteristics while others will argue that its use can mask the influences of the terroir.

Influences of viticulture & winemaking

Many decisions during the growing and winemaking process can either downplay or enhance the expression of terroir in the wine. These include decisions about pruning, irrigation and selecting time of harvest. At the winery the use of oak, cultured or ambient yeast, length of maceration and time in contact with lees, temperature during fermentation as well as processes like micro-oxygenation, chaptalization, clarification with fining agents, and reverse osmosis all have the potential to either downplay or emphasized some aspect derived from the terroir. Winemakers can work between the extremes of producing wine that is terroir-driven and focused on purely expressing the unique aspects of a region terroir or winemaking that is done without any consideration given to terroir. Furthermore, it is possible to take into consideration certain terroir aspects like climate and soil type when making decisions such as which grape variety to plant with the goal of simply trying to make "good wine" rather than necessarily terroir-driven wine.

The importances of this influences depends on the culture of a particular wine region. In France, particularly Burgundy, there is the belief that the role of winemaker is to bring out the expression of a wine's terroir. The French word for winemaker, vigneron is more aptly translated to "wine-grower" rather than winemaker. The belief that the terroir is the dominate influence in the wine is the basis behind French wine label emphasizing the region, vineyard or AOC more prominently on the label rather than the grape varietal and often more prominently than the producer.

Appellation systems

The concept of terroir means that wines from a particular region are unique, incapable of being reproduced outside that area, even if the grape variety and winemaking techniques are painstakingly duplicated. Winemakers in Burgundy do not believe that they are producing Pinot noir that happens to be grown in Burgundy, but that they are producing unique Burgundian wines that happen to be made from Pinot noir. Appellation systems, such as the French AOC systems, have developed around the concepts of "uniques wines from a unique area". These systems have also developed into Protected designation of origin across the European Union so that, for example, winemakers from outside a region like Tuscany can not produced a Sangiovese wine and call it a Chianti. While the wine maybe made from the same clonal variety of Sangiovese, in the same soil composition as what is found in the Chianti region with winemakers imitating the Tuscan method of production, there is a base assumption that the two wines will be intrinsically different due to the unreplicable elements of terroir. The names of these European wine regions are protected so that wines from different regions and different terroir are not being confused with wines from that particular region-i.e. A Spanish or Australian "chianti". In the United States there is some confusion over the use of semi-generic names like Champagne and Port but in recent years there has been more effort by the American wine industry to recognize the unique association of place names with the wines produced from those place, such as the 2005 Napa Declaration on Place agreement. While appellation systems and the protected designations of origin can be a way of protecting "unique terroir", the commercial importance of terroir has been a much debated topic in the wine industry.

Commercial interests

The importance of terroir, particularly to what extent it should influence the marketplace and pricing, is very much open to debate. Wine critics question the value of a Pinot noir wine proceeding from a Burgundy Grand Cru vineyard, relative to a wine produced from the "lesser terroir" of a Premier Cru vineyard, and whether it merits the higher price. These doubts also arise when the quality of winemaking and other human influences are taken into account, which may be of a higher standard with the "lesser" premier cru. From a broader perspective, critics question the difference between New World and Old World wine and whether modern winemaking techniques – like significant oak influences, over-ripened fruit, cultured yeast, micro-oxygenation, color pigment additives, etc – obscure or even eliminate the influence of terroir in making different regions unique and distinct from each other. Critics often point to the "cookie-cutter" effect on mass-produced wines made from popular varietals like Chardonnay, which may have their terroir characteristics hidden through the use of invasive and intensive winemaking. A heavily-oaked, over-ripe Chardonnay from California can taste very similar to the same style of wine from Chile, South Africa, Italy or Australia. The marketability of wines from different regions and producers is impacted by the importance accorded to terroir, both by the wine industry and consumer wine markets, with some producers downplaying terroir and its impact on their wines.

Popular culture

The concept of terroir has been discussed in several films and television shows. Jonathan Nossiter's 2004 documentary Mondovino explores the globalization of the wine business, and features interviews with a number of small producers, mostly French, who expound on the concept of terroir. In the 2006 BBC series Oz and James's Big Wine Adventure, one episode is almost entirely devoted to Oz Clarke teaching James May the concept of terroir. At the end of the episode, James successfully identifies three wines, placing them in the correct order on the basis of the quality of terroir they come from. Les Blank and Gina Leibrecht's 2007 documentary "All In This Tea" explores the importance of terroir and organic growing methods in both the quality and future sustainability of the Chinese tea market. Terroir is also a frequent topic of discussion in the Japanese wine comic Les Gouttes de Dieu. The romantic comedy French Kiss also makes reference to terroir: Kevin Kline's character Luc introduces Kate - played by Meg Ryan - to the flavours and scents that can be found in the wine that mirror those found in the local terrain.

See also

References

Further reading

  • Jacques Fanet "Great Wine Terroirs" University of California Press 2004 ISBN 0520238583
  • Thomas J. Rice, Ph.D. and Tracy G. Cervellone, C.W.E. "Paso Robles: An American Terroir" Published by the authors. 2007. http://www.pasoterroir.com/ ISBN 978-0-9799406-1-3.
  • Brian J. Sommers "The Geography of Wine: How Landscapes, Cultures, Terroir, and the Weather Make a Good Drop" Plume Publishing 2008 ISBN 0452288908
  • Olivier Torres "The Wine Wars: The Mondavi Affair, Globalization and Terroir" Palgrave Macmillan Publishing 2006 ISBN 0230002102
  • James E. Wilson "Terroir: The Role of Geology, Climate, and Culture in the Making of French Wines" University of California Press 1999 ISBN 0520219368

External links

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