A Unified Theory of Terroir

There exists a general, though tenuous, consensus among serious wine drinkers on the “Theory of Terroir”: Those natural elements of a vineyard site or region that combine to deliver a consistent character to a wine made from the vineyard’s grapes.   While the French might put more emphasis on soil’s contribution to the character of the wine and Californians often point to climate, the question is rarely “who controls terroir”? The general consensus is “Mother Nature” controls terroir and her handy work can be detected in well-made wines.

But I’m going to argue that terroir is only slightly the work of Mother Nature. Rather, what we understand as being terroir’s contribution to the character of a wine is in fact an ever-changing combination of nature’s static conditions and a consistent degree of human intervention over time.

First, I think it’s apropos, given what will be an unorthodox definition of terroir, to admit that the search for nature’s consistent contribution to a wine is both a natural endeavor of feeling, thinking people as well as a natural reaction to the vast and complex world of winemaking. The appellation system itself is a response to the inarguable fact that some regions are better suited for growing wine grapes. We know this in large part not because we experience high quality wines from particular regions that are far superior to other regions’ wines, but because we’ve noticed that very bad wine is consistently produced from even more regions. We’ve discovered over the centuries that if pleasure and hedonism is the goal then there are in fact places that are better suited for the cultivation of wine grapes.

Yet, those regions that are capable of producing pleasing wine are not difficult to seek out. We are looking for warm, though not hot regions with relatively well-drained soils and just enough rain to keep the grapes alive. Nearly all of California, for example, offers these conditions.

Then there are other, more well defined regions residing inside this initial criteria, which appear unusually well suited for wine grape cultivation. That is to say, the wines from these rarer regions tend to give more pleasure. Is this terroir talking in the smaller regions?

I don’t’ think so.

Even these rarer, smaller regions tend to be very large swaths of land, thousands of acres often, which contain areas with various soils and different climates. It is rather ridiculous, for example, to suggest that the “Carneros” or “Russian River Valley” regions of California are consistent enough in their natural attributes to deliver a regional signature to the wines that are made from their grapes. Instead, if you are going to give yourself over to the romance of terroir, you really must look at very small plots of land with consistent soil, climate and other natural conditions. To truly find terroir, one must look at the level of the vineyard…or at least the “appellation” that is largely consistent in its natural characteristics.

Yes, I’m dismissing most appellations in the world as carriers of distinctive and reproducible characteristics that can be found in their wines. This would upset those whose marketing efforts are wrapped up in the theory of appellational distinction. But that’s another topic.

So here we are. Standing in the middle of a 1,500-acre appellation somewhere that has all the general conditions that allows on to grow fine wine grapes. All 1,500 acres see the same amount of rain annually. Its soils are fairly consistent in their composition. The solar radiation hits each acre with about the same intensity year in and year out.  We are ready to discover terroir.

However, first we must have some idea of what we expect the terroir will lend to the wine. This is one area that is rarely discussed in detail. Sometimes terroir is credited for a wine’s leanness, sometimes for its aromas, sometimes for elements of its flavor, and sometimes for the wine’s structure. We know that the most likely way the natural elements of our 1,500-acre vineyard will affect the final wine has to do with the degree to which the grapes will ripen. If our grapes rarely reach 24 brix and usually come in around 23 brix, we can count on a wine that is more austere, less fruitful, lighter, lower in alcohol.  Such circumstances will affect the aroma and flavors as well as the structure. If the grapes are capable of hitting 27 brix and usually come in at 26 brix, we can expect a different character all together.

But what happens if the owner of this vineyard can adjust the over or under ripeness of his grapes by utilizing different clones of the same variety? This is certainly the case with the introduction of the Pinot Noir Dijon clones into California’s vineyards. Furthermore, new viticultural techniques that are fairly modern can also affect the degree to which grapes ripen. All of a sudden, the grapegrower can decide for himself if the grapes will generally peak at 23 or 27 brix. Furthermore, a grower can choose to PICK whenever they choose, further altering dramatically the character of the wine.

Then there is the fact that different clones will produce wildly different flavors and aromas within the same variety. Growers know to expect much different flavors if they are growing the Wadenswil clone of Pinot or if they have planted Clone 777.

So, let’s suppose a grower in our new region plants a vineyard to a particular Pinot Noir clone that tends to gain peak ripeness at 24.5 brix in this region and that almost always delivers more red fruit flavors than it does black fruit flavors. Let’s suppose he makes wine and after 5 vintages his wine is recognized as outstanding. More growers arrive, take cuttings from our hero’s vineyard and plant their own vineyard. More growers do the same. A community of quality wines is developing.

Now we are 30 years out. The region is acclaimed for the quality of its Pinot Noir. It is acclaimed in fact for having some very specific characteristics: Substantial structure rapped around bright red berry flavors.

Is this terror we taste and have tasted for 30 years?

Or, do we taste tradition, with hints of nature’s contribution?

I would argue we taste tradition combined with hints of Mother Nature’s kiss. And that kiss may only be a peck on the cheek.

How else can you account for the fact that, for instance, both Pinot Noir and Cabernet has changed so considerably in their typical styles in the North Coast of California over the past ten to 15 years? The natural elements have not changed in our vineyards. We still have fog, relatively warm growing seasons and rain is moderate. Yet, our wines are different than they were in the 1970s and 1980s. We are growing different clones and we are tending the vineyards differently.

This leads the terroirista to ask, which is the real McCoy? Which style of wine is more reflective of what the natural elements want to give? Were the older, less ripe wines somehow obscuring that “sense of place” that great wine should have? Or is it the riper wines that obliterate the taste of terroir?

The answer, I think, is that in the vast majority of places the natural elements reflected in wine will always play second fiddle to man’s stylistic pursuits, both in the vineyard and in the cellar. Furthermore, it seems likely that the characteristics of some wines that many call “terroir” are in fact the result of consistent vineyard practices over time, combined with static natural conditions of climate and soil. A wine’s seeming “Taste of Terroir” can easily be manipulated by new clones and new growing methods that will have a far larger impact on the final character of the wine than the static climate and soil.

The concentration on terroir in every famed wine region stems from the desire to sell the product outside the region and offer something unique. This is where the added value comes from. Does it matter to the producers if the source of that uniqueness is a result of a specific soil and climate or if it results largely from man’s decision-making in the vineyard? As long as everyone is using the same general techniques and you have a region devoted to planting a small group of clones of particular varietals then the answer is “No”. Yet, when there is a break away from those winegrowing traditions that results in a dramatically different set of wines you have a “terroirism crisis” that calls into question the one thing that makes any region’s wines more valuable: distinctiveness.

A desire for regional distinctiveness is paramount in the wine industry. There is a reason why, by law, you can only plant certain grape varieties in Bordeaux and call it “Bordeaux”.  Yet, it’s quite likely you could make very nice Syrah or Pinot Noir or Chardonnay in parts of Bordeaux. You could also make very nice Riesling in Burgundy. But Tradition/Terroir rules in these places in order that distinctiveness can be claimed in the region’s wine marketing efforts.

There is another issue that this discussion has yet to hit on that also speaks to tradition masquerading as terroir: winemaking methods. The true terroir disciples will argue that only the most minimalist, most not interventionalist approach to winemaking must be used in order to let that “taste of place” shine through in the wines.

There is no question that if there is something of significance that the vineyard’s natural elements can give to a wine then non-intervention in the cellar is critical to achieving this. But even the non-interventionalist winemaker must do things that take decisions, beginning with how hard to squeeze the grapes and that ultimately affect the final character of the wine.

So then, what exactly is terroir? The “Unified Theory of Terroir” I’m offering looks like this:

N + Hx(10) = T

N (nature)   +(combined with)    H(human intervention)   x(of various degrees)   (10)carried out over a period of at least ten vintages     = T(Gives you “terroir” or “regional style”)

Or, more simply put: The character of a wine will always be far more impacted by man’s intervention than by mother nature’s input.

This is probably a depressing idea for those who value the land’s signature in a wine over all else. Yet, there is no getting around the fact that if you plant two different clones of, say, Pinot Noir in the same vineyard, make two wines from the two clones, you will likely get two very different wine, the difference of which can be accounted for by the different clones. Or, plant the same clone, pick one at 1.5 degrees brix lower than the other and, again, you will get two different wines that are differentiated significantly by ripeness at harvest. Yet, in both these scenarios there is yet nothing done that would traditionally be understood to be “masking the terroir”, a indictment often thrown out at some winemakers who produce wines out of the ordinary for a region.

The dominant characteristics of wines made from grapes grown in a region well suited for wine grape growing will be a result of the winemakers and grapegrowers decisions, not terroir’s impact.

Yet, this does not necessarily mean that some aromas or flavors or the structure of wines cannot be traced to something unique about the vineyard. However, the impact of the natural elements of the vineyard is almost always subdued to the point of being secondary or lesser elements in the wine at best.

What are the implications of Tom’s Unified Theory of Terroir? There are many. Some winemaking regions, such in the Old World, you can still rely on the consistency on traditional winemaking and grapegrowing techniques to deliver wines you are familiar with. Call if “Terroir” or call it “Tradition”. Yet, don’t be surprised if you see style in particular regions changing from what they were. Regulations in place in many parts of the Old World will assure that certain wines remain fairly consistent in character.

In the new world tradition and winemaking has not been codified. California, Australia, Chile, New Zealand and Argentina are truly the Wild West of Winemaking where constraints on style placed by tradition and regulations simply don’t exist. You’ll read a lot about terroir. But, according to Tom’s Unified Theory of Terroir, what is being called “terroir” is just as likely to be the “style” that winemakers and vineyardists have chosen to pursue.

It is difficult to say if in California particular styles of Pinot or Cabernet or Syrah will emerge in particular areas to the point that they are mistaken for “terroir”. Certainly the Dijon clones of Pinot Noir seem to be taking over the industry and spreading rapidly throughout the acknowledged wine Pinot regions. This might lead to a “Californian” style of Pinot Noir. But it won’t be terroir.

Finally, it’s my belief that a search for “house styles” associated with particular wineries or groups of wineries will prove a more fruitful pastime for wine lovers looking for something truly unique in wine. The imagination of man is endless and with wine this means the various ways grapes can be transformed into wine are myriad.

And of course one must still keep an eye out for wines that seem to put nature’s contribution first. These are rare. And when they are found, it’s no guarantee they will be all that great. They may appeal, the may not. However, the pull on wine lovers’ hearts and minds that is that “sense of place” will assure we continue to seek them out.


Posted In: Terroir


7 Responses

  1. Murray - February 1, 2006

    You have presented a well thought out and interesting argument here. I cannot say I have been watching the wine industry for long enough to form my own informed opinion on the subject of terrior, however the concept of tradition playing a far more important role sounds rather feasible.
    There have been quite a few commentators in australia recently saying that the red wines coming from specific regions have become very much alike over the past few vintages. In contrast to being seen as a sense of tradition as in france, this trend is seen as simply a lack of variety or creativity amongst the winemakers of the region. It should be pointed out that these comments have not only been directed at the mass produced wines, but toward the smaller boutique wineries as well.

  2. tom - February 1, 2006

    One of the important things to keep in mind when considering how winemakers approach their craft is the fact that the entire world now is the market and also that communications is instant and global. That is to say, they know what is working where and why it is working.

  3. Fredric Koeppel - February 2, 2006

    Tom, you have given me, a confirmed “terroirista,” a great deal to think about. I agree that terroir, conceived as the overall effect of climate, soil, subsoil, drainage, angle of sunlight and exposure, etc, really works only in the smallest vineyards where wines have been made in similar fashion for decades, if not centuries. In other words, Burgundy, Bordeaux, parts of Italy and Germany. And i agree that talking about the “Russian River style” is ludicrous. Perhaps the “New World” — the US, Australia, South America– just has to think of wine and terroir differently. Anyway, your thoughts are provocative, and i hope they are widely read.

  4. St.Vini - February 2, 2006

    Great post. Tom, I think you and I have previously discussed problems with the concept of ‘terroir’ when two wineries produce two very different wines from the same vineyard. I think your theory encompasses that nicely.
    Fredric, under your revised understanding of terroir, would influence by a new consultant (say, oh I don’t know – Michele Roland) and thus the creation of a new wine style from what was previously consistent vintages produce a new definition of terroir for the producer or would it be eliminated?

  5. Fredric Koeppel - February 2, 2006

    Vini, i think that aspect is increasingly important as the globalization of wine production and ideas about marketing wine continue to have influence. Think of the times that we try cabernet-based wines from, say, Tuscany, St. Emilion and the Oakville District and find that they smell, taste and feel alarmingly alike. Except for climatic changes, say the cyclic influence of El Nino, terroir itself i think remains the same; the land is the land, the soil is the soil. but it’s ideas about wine that change, ideas about oak, alcohol, the use of clones etc. i would hesitate to admit all of these outside notions as part of a vineyard’s terroir, though such factors in the final outcome of what pours from the bottle may eliminate the whole notion of terroir as having any importance on the world-market. which, i admit, bothers me to some extent.

  6. Larry Perrine - February 28, 2006

    Tom: I like the thrust of your essay on terroir. As a winemaker/grape grower for 25 years on Long Island, New York, I have always felt that man lives as a part of his natural world and is part of the terroir, although you wmay characterize it somewhat differently.
    But when you state “Furthermore, it seems likely that the characteristics of some wines that many call “terroir” are in fact the result of consistent vineyard practices over time, combined with static natural conditions of climate and soil” I think you have left out rainfall, which is hardly static. In rainy climate wine districts (Bordeaux, Burgundy, Germany, Northern Italy, the Eastern US, etc.) we receive 2-5 inches per month of rainfall during the growing season. If California (God forbid) suddenly received rainfall like this, the growers and winemakers would be running around like chickens with their heads cut off, running amuck, damaging ripening grapes, and generally being anything but static. Remember the 1989 growing season when thousands of gallons of Chardonnay wine was bulked off because of a September 1″ rainstorm and a couple of days of fog, which resulted in a massive Botrytis infection. This was pre-Vertical Shoot Positioned trellising and leaf removal around cluster for cluster drying, etc. During theis same season we received 40 inches of rainfall during hte growing season and I still made a Chardonnay that received “90” in the WS.
    I think your primary point of reference is the California industry, which is a dry Mediterranean climate which does present a relatively more “static” natural world. This is one reason that the concept of terroir has such a hard time getting currency in California. They just didn’t see rain so it made site less important than in rainy climates and sunlight and heat the dominant factors.
    Anyway, I agree with much of your presentation and appreciate your energy.
    (this is my first time checking out your work)
    Larry Perrine

  7. Georges Meekers - June 4, 2007

    Dear Tom,
    I appreciate your views and agree that nature and man can both be held responsible for the distinctiveness of great wine.
    However, in my opinion it’s beter to do away with the term terroir which is so misleading, especially since it is so intangible. For terroir to exist we must be able to taste it. But, when we assess a wine it is not terroir itself that we are judging.
    Not ‘somewhereness’ and ‘someoneness’ are there for us to pass judgment on but the wine’s taste itself. Not where from and by whom are the first considerations that come to the mind of the methodical wine taster but how so.
    When assessing a wine’s flavour, terroir is an afterthought and as such an acquired taste for ‘typicalness’ of place and producer.
    My pseudo mathematical formula for ‘typicalness’ is as follows:
    TP1 ≡ │W1 – W x│ / S ~ (N+H) V
    The taste of a particular place (TP1) or TYPICALNESS is defined by the significant difference in taste which becomes apparent when a wine from that place (W1) is tasted comparatively against a number of other wines (Wx) congruent in style (S) as a result of the influences of nature (N) and human intervention (H) over a number of vintages (V).
    The terrain from which all wines showing the same typicalness come is than the ‘domain’: the total land under vine (in hectares) from where the grapes are turned into wines with the same distintive taste of place and producer.
    D1 = Ha (W.TP1)
    Domain is however not necessarily synonymous with ‘appellation’. In fact, most large appellations in the world are not carriers of clearly identifiable distinctive and unique characteristics that can be found in their wines. This doesn’t mean that no typicalness can be found in wines coming form, for example, certain parts of California.
    Georges Meekers

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