Terroir as Tarte L’Oignon

Terroirpic I've mentioned before on this blog that the idea of "Terroir" is somewhat troubling to me for a few different reasons. The first is that if the vast majority of wine drinkers can't taste or describe or identify the difference between a Carneros Pinot Noir and a Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, then what's the point?

Second, in most regions of the world, and certainly in America, the official appellations such as Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, Central Coast, Paso Robles and Napa Valley, are so diverse and large that their utility is not so much one that allows us to identify regions that deliver grapes of different character but deliver different marketing opportunities.

These issues and others are touche on in a brilliant and insightful paper entitled, "Marketing Terroir: A Conceptual Approach." (hat tip to Lew Perdue's Wine Industry Insight) The paper, written by Stephen Charters and published at the Fifth Annual Conference of the Academy of Wine Business Research, explores the way terroir is used in the marketplace, the various meanings the idea is given and some of the implications terroir holds for both drinkers and marketers.

The paper's abstract explains its purpose:

"Terroir as a concept is regularly referred to in relation to the consumption of wine, and may be used
to market wine. However, its use is controversial and shrouded in ambiguity. This conceptual paper
attempts to analyze how terroir is viewed, assessing its environmental, mystical and marketing role,
all centered around the idea of place as identity. The ambiguities of terroir in marketing terms are also
explored as well as the contemporary debates around terroir giving authenticity, and the contrast
between terroir and industrial wines, and the relation of terroir to appellations."

One of the most interesting aspects of Charter's inquiry into Terroir is the extent to which the idea of terroir, whether truly useful to most tasters, does offer consumers a link to something "authentic". It's clear that a growing number of consumers are seeking authenticity in the products they purchase and the notion that a product is more authentic if it represents a singular place is generally accepted. The idea that a wine drinker is tasting the place called Vouvray when they drink a Vouvray is clearly important to the more romantic and dedicated wine drinkers—whether or not they can identify a wine as being from Vouvray when they drink it but are not aware of the origin of the wine.

As a marketer and publicist, I'm well aware of the power of "Terroir" as a placeholder for the idea of "quality", not to mention "authenticity". I've dealt with few winery clients who do not adopt as a fairly important part of their marketing and public relations the idea that since the wine comes from this particular area or vineyard, it possesses specific characteristics that can be identified and united with the wines as long as the wine continue to hail form this location. They do this, and I help them, because it sells wine.

Many Europeans, as Charter points out, have expanded the idea of "terroir" to mean something much more than simply climate, soil and topography that create unique characteristics in a wine. They have given the idea a culture and philosophical meaning. To quote Charters:

"It is not merely that the wine tastes different, but that it is – almost philosophically – a different object, because it represents a specific plot of land. In this way the physical substance of the wine is subordinate to its role as a marker for where it came from. Wine is therefore considered to be an interpretation of that
place so that one can argue that Vouvray is above all a wine from its eponymous village. The fact that
it is made using the grape variety chenin blanc is incidental. In this way the land almost develops its
own personality. Indeed, for some this view of terroir sees it as less a geographical
concept than a historical one – wine producers reinterpreting the past and recreating of the history
of a place."

While I think this definition is a bit of a stretch and clearly "mystical", I do believe that those who hold this view are likely also very good marketers. I've always believed that when wine lovers look at where a wine's grapes were grown, where the wine hails from, they are not necessarily looking to determine what characteristics its aromas and taste should be delivering, but rather are looking to place the wine in context that is familiar. This is particularly true, I believe, for those who have visited places like the Russian River Valley, Napa Valley, Burgundy, Champagne or Alsace. I believe, despite what most say about preferring Alsace Gewurztraminer to Anderson Valley Gewurztraminer, that what they may really be saying is that their Alsace Gewurztraminers remind them of the hills and mountains of that region, the tarte l'oignon they tasted in Colmar or the vineyards and wineries they visited while they were there.

In this respect, "Terroir" or the idea of "Terroir" is certainly best understood as a marketing concept where the idea is far more powerful if you can link the drinker to the place where the wine was produced, rather than to the characteristics a wine from that place are supposed to deliver.

The paper by Charters is dense, but easy to read if you are familiar with wine marketing, the idea of terroir or are a savvy wine lover. I highly recommend it.

4 Responses

  1. Bob R. - July 1, 2010

    As usual, your writing is very thought-provoking. There may be some truth to the idea of terroir as a marketing tool, but I don’t think, for example, that I prefer Vouvray to California Chenin Blanc because of the context in which I’ve had Vouvray in the Loire. In fact, when I think of Vouvray, the first thing that pops into my mind is the dreadful Vouvrays I had in the center of Vouvray 20+ years ago. Yet I greatly prefer Loire Chenin to California’s version.
    And I may give the Charters paper a look, although I suspect it’s as dense as the densest tarte a l’oignon I’ve had in Colmar:-)

  2. Tim - July 3, 2010

    Thought provoking, but I have a problem with the way everyone uses the term ‘terroir’. Terroir isn’t something you get for just showing up: you have to evoke it in your vineyard and your winemaking strategies. You say,
    ‘. . . if the vast majority of wine drinkers can’t taste or describe or identify the difference between a Carneros Pinot Noir and a Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, then what’s the point?’
    I wholly agree, except not with your conclusion. I can’t tell the difference between two irrigated, over-processed, over-ripened, de-alcoholised, over-oaked, downright awful Pinot Noir wines from major growing areas. How could anybody? Wines like that are industrial products, and could come from the Central Valley as much as anywhere. Overuse of irrigation, generic vineyard practices and hyperfocus on technology and biotechnology to manipulate wine erases anything like the terroir they might have been able to express.
    And that’s where the ambiguity of terroir is: the theoretical Pinots I referenced would only be invoking terroir as a marketing strategy–nice work if you can get it. Just ask Fred Franzia about how useful the Sonoma appellation designation can be.
    In real wines, the grower allows the terroir to inform the character of the wine he wants to make and intervenes only to nudge, not to smear the wine into a bland and unrecognisable (oh, but eminently drinkable, and so capable of earning ParkerPoints and thus ensuring huge sales) ball of alcohol, fruit mush, and oak, easily accessible to any palate raised on ketchup and cola.
    Charters notes:
    ‘For many wine consumers outside the traditional European wine producing countries the typicality of a wine in itself does not prove the quality of what one is drinking(Basset/ 2000). Consequently the different perspectives on wine quality are not those of degree, but relate to its very essence. Neither approach is necessarily right or wrong, but there is a total failure to connect between the organoleptic approach and that based on typicité’
    The failure to connect is not due to any ambiguity on the part of terroir, it’s due to the ambiguity of the organoleptic approach, as it is currently practised by the industrial wineries masquerading as boutique or estate wineries. Terroir will mean something to non-European drinkers the day non-European winemakers put down the chemistry set and the de-alcoholiser and make better wine.

  3. tom merle - July 3, 2010

    Your comments underscore the multidimensionality of wine making in different parts of the Old and New World. Differences by region may occur because of the styles of the winemakers not just the territory (why not use English).
    I also liked your inclusion of personal traveling experiences playing a role. The issue comes down to: which grapes do best or well in which areas. Marine influenced areas like Carneros are suitable for the Burgundian grapes, but excellent Merlot can also be produced in the same appellation.
    As the world that we knew comes to an end, consumers will be looking for QPR wines that come from grapes grown in lower cost vineyards (ie. inland). So now the criterion of territory becomes: is the vino that emerges from less acclaimed vineyards good enough even if it’s varietal distinctiveness is diminished.

  4. maternity nursing clothing - July 5, 2010

    Interesting post! I’ve always believed that when wine lovers look at where a wine’s grapes were grown, where the wine hails from, they are not necessarily looking to determine what characteristics its aromas and taste should be delivering, but rather are looking to place the wine in context that is familiar.

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