Does Terroir Equal Wine Quality or Just Opinion?

Terroir“The way that we decide what constitutes quality and typicity has to be drastically redefined.”

We are talking about wine here. This is the conclusion of  Geneviève Teil, a very smart researcher for INRA, the French national agricultural research institute, who spoke with Decanter Magazine.

Her comments come in the context of the continual questioning of that country’s AOC appellation system, a system upon which America’s own American Viticultural Areas are based. The problem many have with the French AOC system is that committees are formed in order to taste wines that qualify for and desire to place an appellation on their label, such as “Bordeaux”. These committees are charged with determining whether these wines possess “typicity”, or taste like they should, given where they come from.

Step back for a moment and imagine the response to a proposal here in California that wines must be approved by a committee of tasters to be evaluated for the degree to which the wine tastes like they should, given where the grapes were grown. I suspect there wouldn’t even be a debate on this proposal. I suspect we all would merely chuckle at the suggestion and getting back to making just whatever the hell kind of wine we want to make.

But getting back to Ms. Tell. She goes on to say, “The problem is that many modern winemaking techniques have clouded the idea of what is typical. New oak is used to sweeten up the taste and add a touch of vanilla spice, cultivated yeasts encourage certain aromas over other ones…The AOC system has become an economic tool instead of a safeguard of our terroir.”

Here in California and across this country we’ve always know that our own AVA system and other systems like it are mostly economic (marketing) tools. And this won’t change for a very simple reason: There is no objective way to determine specific characteristics that result from specific terroirs, let alone the large swaths of land that are identified as official American Viticultural Areas such as “Russian River Valley”, “Sonoma Coast”, “Dry Creek Valley” or “Bordeaux”.

This reality is a slap in the face to notions of objective standards of regional typicity or “terroir”. But what is perhaps a more interesting issue is Ms. Tell’s contention that “The way that we decide what constitutes quality…has to be drastically redefined.”

Now, this strikes me as doable, but it is not a science project. It is a marketing project. “Quality” always has been and always will be a subjective idea. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t convince a majority of wine drinkers that a true wine of “quality” possesses balance among its primary components (acid, tannin, alcohol and fruit) or perhaps that a quality wine possesses extremes of soft, juicy dark fruit. It’s just a matter of convincing folks of what quality is, not proving it.

Back over in France, you’ve got a group of vintners who have made wines that have been rejected as AOC wines; that is, despite these wines technically qualifying to use the “Bordeaux” appellation on their labels based on how the wine was made and where the grapes came from, but a committee of tasters have determined these wines don’t quite taste enough the way they all believe wines from the particular region ought to taste. Given that a wine holding the “Bordeaux” label is a far more valuable commodity than a wine from Bordeaux due to not getting committee approval must hold the Vins de France appellation, you can understand why producers of these wines are upset.

There is a way to fix the problem presented by the tasting committees: Go to the American System and embrace the economic meaning of an official appellation, rather than some sort of “terroir” meaning. This would represent a drastic change to the French AOC system, but its value is found in that it would become an honest system.

For that matter, the French would do well to throw out ALL rules and regulations concerning the AOC system other than requiring that a wine that has “Bordeaux” or “Burgundy” on the label must be made with grapes from those appellations. Purists will scream that by not regulating HOW wines can be made the historic characteristics of a wine labeled “Burgundy” or “Bordeaux” will be lost to the whims of winemakers who choose to do what they want, thereby degrading the meaning of these and other historic French appellations.

The thing is this however: if wines made from grapes grown in a particular terroir or appellation do possess specific qualities resulting from a specific terroir, those characteristics will show through over a range of wines. Nothing will be lost, except the fiction that a group of tastes are qualified to determine what is or should be typical of a region’s and what is not, and therefore what is quality and what is not.

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21 Responses

  1. Roger King - June 26, 2013

    Tom, your close in part’…if wines made from grapes grown in a particular terroir or appellation do possess specific qualities resulting from a specific terroir, those characteristics will show through over a range of wines. ” is in fact what we have repeatedly found in Best of Appellation reviews be it from Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir, Lake Eire Chardonnay, Long Island Merlot. We have done these and that is how it stakes up

  2. Kim Johannsen - June 26, 2013

    The days of revolution are long past in France, so I doubt you’ll see a complete rejection of typicity in any AOC reform. It might also cause some confusion when a Syrah shows up in your glass that you poured from a bordeaux bottle. This might be in the Syrah grower’s interest, but probably not the consumer’s.

  3. Douglas Trapasso - June 26, 2013

    Call me Ron Paul, Tom. Blow up the entire appellation system tomorrow. Nothing should be forced to taste like anything. Every week in my tasting group I shuffle in my seat, wanting to just explode with this observation. I don’t know what’s “typical” and I doubt any two wine experts could decide on what’s “typical” for a given region, beyond what they have read or heard before as hearsay, and codified as groupthink.

    I saw the movie recently about sommeliers and applaud the folks studying for their Supreme Court of Wine Diploma, along with the director who bravely documented their progress. But without turning this into a review of the movie (see my blog for that), the impression I got while these dudes were tasting these wines that could make or break their careers was “If I were I winemaker, I would make absolutely sure whatever I made fell between all the cracks of your Precious Tasting Grid.”

  4. Thomas Pellechia - June 27, 2013

    Forgetting the issue of AOC/Appellation systems, I take issue with this comment of yours, Tom:

    “Quality always has been and always will be a subjective idea.”

    The idea behind product quality is for the producer to put out a product that meets established standards–i.e., does a car really go from 0 to 60 in a nano-second? If so, it has met that standard of quality; does that winter coat with the newfangled material actually protect from sub-zero temperatures? If so, it has met that standard of quality.

    Quality cannot be measured unless and until standards for it are set–that describes the wine industry better than your idea that quality is simply a subjective nonsense word.

    The standard that was set for the French AOC system, weak as others may think it is, requires that the wines show what the system has determined to be “typicity.” How that is measured is yet another standard that is set.

    Again, the problem is not with the concept of quality. The problem, as you aptly allude to, is with the recalcitrance of the American wine industry to set standards of quality and live by them.

    • Ron Marsilio - June 27, 2013

      I never thought that the AOC system would guarantee quality. Your examples of a car going from 0-60 miles per hour in a nano second can, in fact, demonstrate quaility should the car be able to do that. Wine, on the other hand, can never be that certain. What happens to the quality of the wine should the winery owner not have enough money to source grapes from the best Southeast facing vineyards? Or not have the funds to pay for a top-notch winemaker? He may adhere to all of the standards set forth by the INAO in growing and harvesting his grapes and making his wine, but it still may turn out to be sub-par.

      The purpose of the AOC system, as I see it, is to not have the wines of Bordeaux,, Bugundy or Alsace to start tasting through manipulation like the wines of Southeastern Australia, or Santa Barbara. Typicity in French wines, or Italian wines for that matter, should be the notion that the resulting product cannot taste like it came from just anywhere or everywhere, but somewhere.

  5. Tom Wark - June 27, 2013


    We’ve had this discussion before, I believe, and I recall enjoying it. And I need to concede your point. The sentence you took issue with should have used the phrase “Aesthetic Quality”.

  6. Thomas Pellechia - June 27, 2013


    Yes. we have had this discussion before, and it gets tiring that the American wine industry loves to have the marketing power of its appellation system but refuses to give the system any real “quality” teeth…and the consumerain is fed a confusing and not-so-meaningful message, but this time not from regulators or distributors.

    I always find humorous the way that self-interest is expressed as it always being the other guy’s sinfulness that matters.

    In any case, the phrase “aesthetic quality” is can be an oxymoron. Aesthetic acceptance isn’t necessarily based on quality–heaven knows I was forced as a distributor rep to move truly horrible wines, as in definitely faulty, and people bought them; craved them!

    “Aesthetic” is indeed subjective; “quality” is the result of an established standard having been met.

  7. Thomas Pellechia - June 27, 2013

    sorry about the typos. I thought I fixed them, but the fixes didn’t take or I didn’t do something to make them stick.

  8. Tom Wark - June 27, 2013

    The nature of the standard being met, the warrant for that standard and the understanding of what that standard is supposed to mean probably has a great deal of subjectivity attached to it.

    Example: the standard might be: The fruitier and sweeter, the higher the quality. Perfectly legitimate standard. But its the warrant for this standard and how it was established that is interesting. It may be an objective standard, but no more legitimate as an aesthetic truth statement than any other.

  9. Thomas Pellechia - June 27, 2013

    So what? 0 to 60 in a nano-second is as easily a subjective desire, but if it is the standard set for production, then to meet it becomes a quality objective, and when it is met, it is an objective measure of quality.

    The original intent of the European demarcation system, which dates to Portugal, not France, was to put a damper on corruption. Once a wine or region established itself on top shelf status, cheaper often bastardized wines appeared with the names of those wines or regions on them; Douro wines had reached that pinnacle and were facing the problem. But by the time the Portuguese tried to address their corruption problem, it had already been an ancient problem. After the popularity of Rome’s 121 BC Campanian wine, Falernum, and since there was only so much of it to go around, bastardized versions wound up flooding the market and ruining the reputation of the original wine and location.

    European sandards were set so that when a name appeared on a label, the consumer was guaranteed whatever it was that the name guaranteed: grape variety, region, style, age, whatever. In America today, varietal labeling, with its percentage minimum and its lack of any standard either for grape growing or winemaking, guarantees nothing in particular, no matter where the wine is produced. That’s not to say the system needs to be changed; it is to say that we should recognize that it has little to nothing do with making a statement about “quality” and that is by design.

    The fact that America dominates in pop-culture and promotion is what has reduced the European system to the joke that it has become–not because the demarcation system isn’t necessary or is inherently faulty, but because the Europeans have had to alter it to compete with America and Australia.

  10. Dwight Furrow - June 27, 2013

    I quite agree that the French appellation system stifles innovation. But the American system, at least with regard to large appellations such as Russian River, are as you pointed out meaningless with regard to their ability to reflect terroir. The problem is how to maintain some connection between the wine and a geographical location without something like the French system. And I think something is lost if wine loses that rootedness in geography.

    You may be right that terroir ” will show through over a range of wines” without tasting panels, but it will be devilishly difficult for consumers to know which wines have and which wines do not.

    I don’t think the problem with tasting panels is that typicity is too subjective. The problem is the threat of corruption–who gets on the panel, whose interests do they serve, and do they have real expertise. It seems to me that was the problem in the Italian experience in Tuscany that led to the development of Super Tuscans.

    • Ron Marsilio - June 27, 2013

      I also agree that the AOC catagory of the French appelation system will stifle innovation, but that, by its very distinct role is what it sets out to do. If you want innovation, locate in a VDP area and make your wine and innovate all you want. I think that the VDP in France, the IGT in Italy and the Vinos de la Tierra catatories are very definite answers to what takes place in California, but please leave the AOC, DOCG and DOC in Spain alone. I cannot imagine a world where we are looking at the wines made at Domaine de la Romanee-Conti as consisting of 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Syrah.

  11. Thomas Pellechia - June 27, 2013

    “The problem is the threat of corruption–who gets on the panel, whose interests do they serve, and do they have real expertise. It seems to me that was the problem in the Italian experience in Tuscany that led to the development of Super Tuscans.”

    Not exactly. So-called Super Tuscans came about because some Italian producers no longer wanted to be constrained by what they considered anitiquated and oppressive rules, and since the New World was where growth in wine consumption was the most promising at the time, the producers wanted to compete on New World rather than on European terms, with grape varieties and winemaking techniques that Italian rules did not allow.

    • Ron Marsilio - June 27, 2013

      I disagree with the notion that Italian producers wanted less constraints. I think it was just the opposite. I think they were tired of the unscrupulous producers in the Chianti Region being allowed to bulk up their wines with enormous portions of cheap Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes and thinning out the quality of what Baron Ricasoli imagined when he created Chianti. I think they demanded more control and tighter restrictions to insure more quality.

      The creation of Super Tuscans may have come about in response to the New World, but don’t forget, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot other “non-typical” grapes were grown for many years with DOC approval in Carmignano and other parts of Maremma in Tuscany. The creation of the Super Tuscans was, in a way, an extension of that.

  12. Tom Wark - June 27, 2013

    Ron M. Wrote:

    ” I cannot imagine a world where we are looking at the wines made at Domaine de la Romanee-Conti as consisting of 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Syrah.”

    Yes, you can imagine this. You just don’t think the results of that imagining are good for wine drinkers, and that’s a legitimate point.

    In fact, it is a fascinating exercise to imagine what might result in Bordeaux and Burgundy winemakers were unleashed from the restrictions on what kind of varieties may appear on a bottle that is labeled “Bordeaux or Burgundy”. Undoubtedly some great and interesting wines would be produced and furthermore these great and interesting wines would reflect the terroir of their origin.

    And as it turns out, nothing prevents a Burgundian winemaker/grower from planting Riesling or Syrah in that appellation and making wine from these varieties. They simply could not put the word “Burgundy” on the label. But would it sell after all these years of convincing consumers that the only responsible and quality approach to winemaking in this region is doing so with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay?

    • Ron Marsilio - June 27, 2013

      It would be a fascinating exercise to experience wines from these world-renowned areas that are no longer constrained by the devices of the AOC and see and taste if the result reflects the “place” any longer. The only thing I can say is there is a reason that the greatest wines of Burgundy have been made from Pinot Noir for over a thousand years. There is something to be said for experience and tradition.

  13. Thomas Pellechia - June 27, 2013

    “There is something to be said for experience and tradition.”

    Not only that, but there is also a lot to be said for uniqueness and identity.

  14. William Allen - June 27, 2013

    Do away with the French AOC system? I couldn’t disagree more.

    First, I don’t view AOC rules as guaranteeing quality…’terroir’ can be wiped away with a Parkerish hand of a winemaker instantly.

    But you need only taste your way through, ideally in person, say the Northern Rhone, with Syrah from traditional winemakers, to understand that Cornas, Hermitage, Croze Hermitage, Cote Rotie etc are completely different. I have also tasted non AOC wines from great producers from those regions – they couldn’t get AOC label as elevation was wrong, vines too young etc. And you could tell, it wasn’t the same.

    Visit Chablis and taste pure unmanipulated wines often from rows a stones throw away, and you’ll experience terroir at its finest.

    Edgey winemakers have the option to label their wines “Vin de pays’ and thumb their nose at regulations, and many do. I respect those that do. I also know that when I shell out for a bottle of Cornas, I want it to be that.

    We have plenty of the wild west of wine, and have done a great job with new world palates denigrating some of the most classic wines ever made, some overhauls could be done, *(like I think its great that varieties can now be on the label.) but I hope we never see a complete free for all unleasedh.

  15. Tom Wark - June 27, 2013


    Interesting comments. This one in particular: ” I also know that when I shell out for a bottle of Cornas, I want it to be that.”

    Let me ask you this: When you shell out for a bottle of Anderson Valley Pinot Noir, what do you want it to be?

  16. Dwight Furrow - June 27, 2013


    Regarding the Super Tuscans I agree with you about their origins. My point was that any entrenched group with power (wine producers, tasting panels, etc.) will want to preserve their business model and so getting them to innovate will be difficult. You are right. In Tuscany, producers wanted to continue blending inferior white grapes with their Sangiovese and had no interest in the innovations of the Incisa or Antinori families. A strongly regulated appellation system will tend toward this kind of conservatism. But it also has the benefit of preserving tradition which has value as well. The trick is to find the Goldilocks system.

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