#TippleTalk – Terroirist

The title of this story isn’t a typo and nor is it intentionally misspelt. The word derives from Terroir, the word that has been at the root of all French wine marketing and consequently adopted worldwide, the one word which can create hierarchy and ranks in any wine region, and that one word which is most hated and misunderstood than any other commonly deployed wine term. Terroir, fact or myth, is a question that is asked time and again and each time the popular vote veers to one end of the spectrum before, like a pendulum, it comes swinging right back.

Terroir – term used to describe the environmental factors that affect a crop’s phenotype, including unique environment contexts, farming practices and a crop’s specific growth habitat.

So let’s get this out of the way first: what exactly is Terroir? Is it an actual entity with a lucid definition or more so an intangible causative concept that can only exist as a paradigm to help explain the effect on the final product viz. wine? Well, it is a bit of both really.

Terroir is the summation of all factors natural and controllable, from climate and geography to the winemaker’s skills, that combine in the creation of a wine. Whether the resulting wine is good or bad, or more aptly, liked or not so much, it’s Terroir-stamp is what defines it.

When the soils of Burgundy were mapped and demarcated as Grand and Premier Cru, the research into the ground and the soil types was indeed, pun intended, in-depth. Not just this, the angle of sunlight as also the amount received, the wind balance, the general topography and other geographical factors, all were taken into account before a soil was merited with one of these high ranks. Then the winemakers were given the grounds to do what they did best. Terroir, in this case, was the land and the climate.

Art depicting monks practicing viticulture

But then in Bordeaux, Napoleon’s decree to decide the best wines didn’t consider anything as elaborate. Instead he went by the average selling price of the previous decade, the logic being if it fetched a higher price it must have been of a higher quality. And with this yardstick he carved up the Chateaux of Bordeaux and this classification chart, which ranked these houses from 1st to 5th growth, still pretty much decides how much a wine sells for every year. Terroir in this case then is the people who made the wine as also who marketed it.

So terroir does exist, even if only in the minds of the old-school die-hard romantics, but like all romances, it needs to be nurtured before it can be understood. Like religion, belief leads to conviction and both can only come from within. That said, it would be impossible to taste Sauvignon-based Loire origin Pouilly-Fumé next to a Burgundian Chardonnay-centric Pouilly-Fuissé and argue that they are identical!

But what about the New World. Does California have any way of exploiting this term? Can Australia tout Barossa to be Terroir for Shiraz just like Coonawarra is for Cabernet? Or how about India; do we get to command a higher price for Hampi Hills or Nandi Valley over Nashik which doesn’t have as great a climate and setting as the former two?

Iconic Rober Mondavi vineyard in Oakville, CA

Maybe not just yet but maybe with time this idea will take root. As the decades roll by even the New World is realising the value of planting certain grapes in certain soils. Winemakers as they come to grips with their piece of land and sunshine are learning how to harness both better thereby making more focused wines.

Many a journalist today mocks Terroir as a concept entirely and will scoff at the very mention of it. The fault lies in believing that it’s a superlative term. Rather, it is a uniqueness that every region enjoys and yet no two regions can ever identically share. This is what makes Terroir a noble idea but one that needs to be exploited right, not just by the marketeers but also by those who do the actual work, the grape-growers and the winemakers.

One thing to watch out for is the marketing-commerce balance when one adopts the Terroir route: preaching the Terroir sermon may drive demand but it can’t grow output as yield is always limited by the very definition of this concept. So the more a winery flashes the Terroir the lesser will be its chances to scale production with the times. This is why the great wines of the world may increase in prices as the demand for them swells but supplies can never match up.

In the end, wine is a natural beverage. So the only way to enhance what we get from nature is not by snatching it but by cajoling it out gently. To extract what nature gives forth willingly and to do this, we must understand the elements that surround us, make up our micro-ecosystem. And once that is conquered sufficiently, the winemaker needs to understand his grapes and learn to use them to the best of their capacities. With each vintage it isn’t the wine that improves but rather the winemaker’s understanding of his own winemaking sensibilities.

So on that note, next time you pick up a glass, do pause a moment to wonder if you buy into this concept or not; whether you are, deep-down, an essential Terroirist.

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