The History of Dirt

VinedirtGenerally, Americans begin a discussion of "terroir" by asking "what is it?" Perhaps this is a result of our relative youthfulness as vintners compared to he Old World vintners, who, after first stating that theirs is the best terroir in the world, tend to go speak of the soil and its history.

That is, European, and particularly French vintners, understand terroir to be those elements that make up the physicality, soils and subsoils of the vineyard, along with the plot’s history. A perfect example of this understanding of terroir is on display in a notice put out by the Narbonne Town Council. They are auctioning off the wines produced from a vineyard owned by the city since 2003. The proceeds from the the auction of wine will go toward the construction of a water tower in Burkino Faso.

They breakdown their description of the wine they’ll auction into the following categories:

Terroir, Climate, vine variety, winemaking, maturing.

Were this a description of a wine by Californians it is unlikely that terroir and climate would be separated into different categories. We would be more likely to lump those two elements of the vineyard together. Here is how the Narbonne City Council describes their vineyard’s "terroir":

"Beside Mediterranean shores, the 7.5 hectares of vines belonging to
Narbonne Town Council are to be found in the Quatourze vineyard, lying
south-east of the renowned Narbo-Martius.
This 6-km-wide plateau, famous from ancient times, is a unique terroir
made up of pebbles predominantly forming a terrace dating from the
Pleistocene epoch of the Quaternary era, at the foot of which amphorae
and galleys still bear witness to the commercial history of the wines
from this Roman city. The wine’s name, “Narbo 118”, evokes the
construction of the town in 118 B.C.
This terroir, under the prevailing north-westerly Cers wind, is steeped
in Mediterranean influence, intensified by the heat radiating from the

While not a complete picture of the soils, the main features of their dirt is described. And along side the mention of pebbles and such, we have a notation of the history of the region, of it’s place in the Roman era as an important source of wine.

The nod to history in this description give us no understanding of the capability of the soils today. It does not tell us anything about the physical nature of the soils, their ability to drain well, their composition. However, they do give us context. They give us a sense that this ground supported a trade in wine, if not vineyards, for centuries.

The French and Europeans include this non-scientific, non-objective information in their definition of terroir because they can. Wine has been a critical part of the French/Gallic economy and history for centuries.

In this sense, terroir for the French becomes a combination of the grounds capability and its aura. It’s dirt placed in a historical context. I like this. This kind of presentation of terroir is what makes wine interesting, what makes winemaking and vineyard cultivation mysterious to some and romantic to many.

It will be a long time before the Californian or Oregon or New York vintner can add the history of  the ground to their definition of Terroir. In the meantime, we’ll find a number of ways to stuff romance and mystery into our winemaking pursuits. But the European vintner does have a head start here.

Posted In: Terroir


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