Terroir: A Mental Construct?

Both at the Caveman Blog and over at Basic Juice there are short discussions of the "Vin Nature" movement…which as I understand is a movement among winemakers and viticulturists and wine lovers that extols the virtues of wines that accurately reflect their terroir.

Those discussions are a nice lead in to some more thinking I’ve been doing on the notion of "Terroir"

What I’ve been pondering in particular is this:

While "terroir" is almost always referred to as a product of nature, something that exists without the hand of man involved, I wonder if we don’t have that wrong. I wonder if the effect of a region or vineyard’s terroir upon a wine is actually the creation or mental construct of man?

If the terroir of say a 25 acre Anderson Valley vineyard were to "be allowed" to show through, what aromas, flavors and structure could the vintner expect in wine made from that vineyard? Presumably over a number of vintages those products of terroir would emerge as a consistent mark of the terroir. Perhaps it would be a naturally high acid content in the wine, or a set of spice aromas, or a flinty quality that is consistent over vintages or high tannin levels.

But how much of those terroir-driven elements are actually the result of the viticulturist’s or winemaker’s hand, even when applied minimally. I think it might be so much as to make the notion of terroir something that can only be derived and appreciated as a mental construct.

For example, the planting of the vineyard calls for rootstock to be planted. What if that rootstock promotes very vigorous growth? This will surely affect the character of the wine in a substantial way. What if the viticulturist chooses to drop fruit so that only 1.5 tons per acre is the yield. This too will have a drastic affect on the final wine. And even in the minimalist’s winery there are decisions that need to be taken that can severely affect the outcome of the wine’s character: whole cluster pressing, cold or hot fermentation, stirring or not stirring the lees, oak aging vs no oak usage. Every step along the way, it seems, does something to alter what nature would "want" the wine to become.

In fact the very act of choosing to pick the grapes at all disturbs the delivery of the true terroir into the wine. The grapes picked at 23.5 brix (sugar content level) will produce a stunningly different wine than grapes picked later at 26.5 brix. The two wines will be completely different.

So when wine lovers and winemakers declare what a region’s terroir gives to a wine, aren’t they really describing what the wine’s maker and grapegrower have determined the terroir should be? And if a vineyard is the source for two different wines made by two different winemakers aren’t we talking about two different ideas of what the terroir of the vineyard means?

If this is true, then we can throw out the notion that terroir is a viable as well as maintaining the stamp of terroir in a wine as a worthy pursuit.

The retort to this position is to ask, "how is it then that Chablis, or Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet or Comte de Vogue usually deliver similar character year after year?"

Couldn’t the answer be, because that character is what the winemakers and viticulturist believe the wine should taste like…rather than this is what the vineyard delivers?

Posted In: Terroir


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