Terroir is a Myth

terroirmythsThe idea that “Terroir” is the source of fine wine flavor is a myth.

This is according to Professor Mark Matthews at the University of California, Davis in his new and controversial book: Terroir and Other Myths of Winemaking.”

As the title of this new book implies, the myth of terroir is only part of Matthews’ investigation. This post wants to explore only that part of Matthews’ new work that addresses terroir.

In “Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing”, Matthews offers an extensive survey of the history of the use of the term “terroir” as it relates to winegrape growing. The “Myth” referred to in the title isn’t a dismissal of the idea that environment impacts grape vine growth and the wine made from the berries produced on those vines. Rather, he’s simply asking for more precision and accuracy when it comes to how we use and understand this powerful word. He is also suggesting that the emphasis placed on terroir when explaining wine character is in fact over emphasized.

It’s a view that is hard to argue with. In fact, I came away from reading Matthews’ essay on terroir more thoroughly convinced than ever that the idea of “terroir” is likely the most abused and often most useless word in the world of wine.

Perhaps the most compelling claim Matthews makes in his discussion of terroir is that excessive reliance on the concept of terroir in understanding the character of wine diminishes the role of winemaking and variety. Matthews writes, “The traditional view (Old World) is that it is the place, not the variety, which determines the wine; however, this view ignores the biological constraint the variety puts on the grape and wine.”

He is correct. If you want to understand the overwhelming importance of variety on a wine’s character, then simply compare a Merlot produced from a Napa Valley vineyard and a Merlot produced from a vineyard in Bordeaux. Those two wines will taste far more alike than will a Pinot Noir and a Merlot grown side-by-side in the same vineyard in either location. They will taste far less similar, if there is any similarity at all.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating ideas that comes out of Matthews extensive research into the use of the word “Terroir” going back centuries is

that in it original usage, the word was used pejoratively to describe a particular tastes in a wine. In fact, “terroir” was used to describe the quality of ground“manure” in a wine’s aroma and flavor. It seems pretty clear that originally the term terroir was used to describe the aromas and flavors that resulted from dirty winemaking.

Matthews also reminds us that the common view that soil is responsible for the taste of wine is a view not supported by our knowledge of soil’s impact on wine flavor. This view is related to the notion that a wine gathers its flavor from the composition of the soil; that a chalky soil results in a chalky flavor in the wine, for example. The taste of wine is not derived from soil. Matthews notes that few if no molecules related to flavor are brought up through the roots to the berry, nor through the leaves to the berry.

Finally, Matthews reminds us that where soil does impact berry composition and wine flavor is in the soil’s ability to hold water or, put another way, through the soil’s drainage ability. A soil’s texture and water holding capacity impacts the vine, shoot growth and the berries in ways that are themselves impacted by rainfall and irrigation.

“Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing” is a book that is well worth reading, particularly by those who work in the wine industry either in the vineyard, in the cellar or in marketing. The romantic idea of terroir will always tug on both the consumer and those who sell wine to the consumers. When you stand in the middle of a vineyard composed of rolling hills, shifting shadows, colorful soil and notable temperature changes it is very easy to link the character of wines produced from the property primarily or even exclusively with the landscape, or terroir. I can’t imagine that this deeply researched and well written book will change this phenomenon. However, it should provoke in many a much more careful use of the term “terroir”



46 Responses

  1. David Vergari - April 4, 2016

    Pity the poor sommeliers.

    • David Vergari - April 4, 2016

      Should I change the spelling of “sommelier”. Nah. Let’s have a little fun.

  2. Jeff Kralik - April 4, 2016

    First, I agree that the term “terroir” is grossly over-used, particularly in this country. On other facets of your piece, however, I must disagree to a certain extent.

    I have not read the book, so all I have to go on is what you say here, but one of the biggest problems with the discussion of “terroir” is the fact that most Americans can’t grasp the concept. You seem to suggest that terroir is primarily soil. While soil is certainly part of the concept, it is just that, part. In French, terroir also includes climate, local traditions, winemaking conventions, the people working the land. In Europe, many of those facets remain relatively constant while in California and other places, most of them are in some state of flux.

    Your example of “compare a Merlot produced from a Napa Valley vineyard and a Merlot produced from a vineyard in Bordeaux. Those two wines will taste far more alike than will a Pinot Noir and a Merlot grown side-by-side in the same vineyard in either location” is specious at best. With the notable exception of perhaps the Languedoc, I challenge you to find anywhere in France where Merlot and Pinot are “grown side by side.”

    Instead, taste a Merlot and say a Cabernet Sauvignon from Bordeaux and from Napa. My guess is that you would find those grown in the same piece of land to taste more like each other than to taste like the same variety grown across the ocean.

    • Tom Wark - April 4, 2016

      Hi Jeff.

      I don’t mean to say that terroir is primarily soil. And the author of this book goes to great pains to speak to the issue that terroir must be more than simply soil.

      That said, I’d take your challenge concerning Merlot and Cabernet. Though these varieties are far more akin to one another than Cab and Pinot, my money is that the Cabs from the two regions would have far more similarities than would the two varieties grown in the same vineyard.

      • martin reyes - April 6, 2016

        I have to disagree with Tom (even though I shouldn’t. Kathy is friends with my wife). In my limited experience with the occasional blind tasting, taking four wines – a cab from Napa, a merlot from Napa, a cab-majority from left bank, and a merlot-majority from right bank – the origin would be far easier for me to determine than which grape was which. Granted, I could probably guess decently on grape varieties, but for me the lowest hanging fruit is “which pair is from bordeaux, and which is napa?” That is probably 3 times easier, given my own experience. Let me say one more thing – essentially country of origin has always been the easiest thing for me in any blind. ZA tastes like ZA, OZ tastes like OZ, Italy tastes like Italy, etc.. If we think of terroir as the accent of a wine’s origin, like the accent of people’s origin, I don’t see how that can be considered a myth.

    • Jerry Murray - April 4, 2016

      You provide a great example of what the problem is. You claim that some people in this case, most Americans, “can’t grasp the concept”. Do all French? How about the Spanish or a New Zealander? You ascribe a magical quality to the idea that an environment influences a fruit and the resulting products. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with the magic, I have a problem with a gatekeeper deciding who gets it and who doesn’t.
      Why I have a problem with that you also elude to. You go on to define terroir as if there is a set list of criteria of what terroir is. Is there a rule book somewhere I am not familiar with?
      All of this leads to the core of the problem. When we use the word terroir we are using an emotionally charged word whose definition is dependent upon the individual. At the end of the day the discussion degrades because we all are speaking different languages.
      I long ago terminated use of the word (until I began working for a French owned company) precisely because of this. While I have not read the book, it sounds like that what the author is asserting; we aren’t all having the same conversation.

  3. Steve - April 4, 2016

    It does seem that every industry-political industry or wine industry or travel industry, whatever- has an insider establishment that makes a living on imbuing things that are only understood by those knowing the secret handshake. And, for a little stipend these establishment figures will impart the mysteries of their industry to the unwashed. There is always an establishment element in everything that needs to perpetuate elements that often elevates the mundane to a cult. Once the average person peels back the onion the mysteries become slight on hand tricks to be enjoyed and looked upon as a mystical trick, only known by a few, that reorients the laws of the universe.
    But, the nitrogen fertilizer I put on my tomato’s do make my tomato’s taste like nitrogen or is it my imagination as a casual wine drinker, limited to just 1 bottle per day. Course I am gullible and will mindlessly be lead to the feet Bacchus.

  4. Charlie Olken - April 4, 2016

    Here is another side of the terroir discussion. And for the record, I am a variety first believer.

    That said, taste a Pinot Noir grown in Freestone in western Sonoma County and now taste a Pinot Noir grown along Westside Road just a hop, skip and jump away and you will find identifiably different character. Still Pinot Noir and recognizable as such, but different. And to take this point one step, further, add in a Pinot Noir from the upper hillsides of the Santa Lucia Highlands and one from the western reaches of the Sta. Rita Hills. Different again.

    So, place does matter, which is to say that terroir, in the current common usage, and not the arcane, now unrecognizable excremental usage, does make a difference. It is simply not the first and most important difference.

    • Steve - April 4, 2016

      Charlie, I understand your point and it is taken with appreciation. But, once the grape is picked and is at the winery all bets are off. Yeast used in fermentation, the blends, the barrels, malolactic fermentation impact, how long in a barrel, mix of new and old barrels. Everything changes. Taste a Meomi Pinot and then try another Pinot from the same region or AVA and even that has a big difference–guess it is style. Even alcohol. Guess this is the same reason people race horses-my horse if faster today-maybe.

    • Tom Wark - April 4, 2016


      “Excremental Usage”! That’s a hall of fame reference.

      What’s interesting is you still hear not a small number of people reference the ability to taste the ground or soil…and they really mean it. I cringe every time I see or hear “gout de terroir” because it almost always is the result of them tasting a wine that is somewhat dirty from a dirty cellar.

      And yes, while there are differences from region to region where Pinot is concerned, it’s rare that the differences are so great that you’d think they are a different variety. And if the differences are so great, it’s almost always a case of winemaking choices and picking date choices.

    • martin reyes - April 6, 2016

      Cannot agree more with Charlie. In fact, I find the attack on the misuse of the word terroir more tiring than the misuse itself.

      If this book is going to prop up incorrect definitions of terroir, then he’s won – Terroir as “tasting the soil in the wine” is scientifically a myth. But what isn’t is the following:

      Microbiota of a region is quite specific – from yeast to bacteria to rhyzobia in the soil. all different in different regions.

      Weather – clearly impacts a site uniquely, right?

      On the same page about nutrient load, water-holding capacity, shade, aspect, and human-impact decisions like canopy management etc.. all affect the yield, quality, and style of the grapes at harvest.

      I think the book (hopefully) agrees with these ideas – and if it does, then it makes sense that the notion of how terroir is properly used – the sense and flavor of a wine being impacted by its place of origin – is hardly a myth at all.

      I do find it amusing to think of the historical origin of manure’s impact on wine. 🙂

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  6. Carlos - April 4, 2016

    Thank you Jeff, for bringing some sanity towards this ‘controversial’ work. I did not read the book/pamphlet yet either – maybe the excerpt published here doesn’t do it justice, but judging just what is posted here…oh geez.

  7. Douglas Trapasso - April 4, 2016

    “Terroir” is a marketing construct, pure and simple. “Terroir” or AVAs or AOPs, or whatever acronym we’re using this week, is simply a way to segment the market to encourage those with the $ to do so, to trade up, and to make that an enduring habit. Once this observation hits critical mass with the people who actually buy wine on a regular basis (my thinking is the eighty percent of adults who for the most part ignore wine are already there), the moment the house of cards of wine pricing will collapse.

    • Tom Wark - April 4, 2016


      I don’t think “terroir” is necessarily just a marketing construct. No one denies that the environment in which a plant grows impacts the plant. However, the author asserts that much of what is said about or ascribed to “terroir” is terribly undefined and unproven..

      But, to your point, one thing the author does go into is that the French never really talked much about terroir until after the phylloxera blight when so much counterfeit wine was on the market and they needed a way to counter it. The French also began to use the term farm more frequently after the Paris Tasting of 1976 to distinguish their wine from the challengers.

  8. Mark Buckley - April 5, 2016

    Great article Tom. The winery I work for (market for) definitely uses the term “terroir” too frequently, and assigns it the roll of “A sense of place” but leaning heavily towards the soil. As for my take, I know of the French origins as a “Dirty, Bretty type wine”, but I think the current definition is varied, but in my circle more about the sense of place. All this talk about 2 pinots a skip and a jump away from each other tasting different is silly. They probably have 2 different clones used, older vines, aspect facing which way? Different canopy management. There are so many variables in viticulture and winemaking that make one row over tasting different a reality. What it comes down to is consistency pulling what was grown in the plot of land year after year the best. Use the varietal that is best suited for that acre of land, and do it well for a number of years and you can appreciate the “Terroir”. If you want the “Soil Terroir” add some soil into your must and see how that changes things…. Been done for years, just know that even that is not really Terroir, but playing mad scientist. “Rutherford Dust” is simple Rutherford dirt thrown into the must…. Anybody who has worked seriously in the Napa Valley for a while knows this…. but hey, Terroir is whatever you want it to be, and as a marketer you can use it judiciously or overuse it. I believe it is overused but it also does have a place in the “American” lexicon.

  9. Stephen Reiss - April 5, 2016

    Two of the tenets put forth in the book, as reported here, I completely agree with. Cultivars are responsible for the flavor of the wine much more than place, and that the term terroir has been so over used as to become an almost meaningless marketing ploy.

    At the height of my blind tasting days (for competitions and exams) I was well known for being able to accurately distinguish individual vineyards in Burgundy from one another, despite producers. This bit of anecdotal evidence suggests, at least to me, that there is something that place consistently adds to the taste and aroma of the grapes, especially Pinot Noir.

    That the soil content itself is not reflected in the chemical composition of the grape, in as much as chalky soil does not make the wine taste chalky, I can’t agree with more (which is why I have such issues with the term minerality, but that is a different rant). What does seem to be increasingly clear is that soil composition, besides affording draining and nutrients, does affect the microbiological colonies that in turn may be responsible for the demonstrable phenomenon that is associated with terroir.

  10. Randy Caparoso - April 5, 2016

    To say “terroir is a myth” is to understate the subtle impact a place — regions, subregions, vineyards, vineyard blocks, etc. — has on many of our best wines. Let’s not overthink this. We all know that there is a difference between, say, Chardonnay grown in Chablis, and Chardonnay grown in Puligny, Meursalt, Marlbrough, Willamette Valley, or Carneros. Graphic difference. The differences between Laftite and Margaux, on the other hand, might be subtle — too subtle for most wine lovers to tell in sensory analysis — but who is going to deny that there are differences based upon terroir related factors?

    Point being, whether subtle or graphic, terroir plays a part in what ultimately sets most of our best and most favorite wines apart from other wines. If it didn’t, wine would not be as utterly fascinating as it is to many of us.

    Ergo, to say “terroir is a myth” is, in fact, wishful thinking on the part of those who would rather perceive wine as more of a manufactured product, and less as a product strongly influenced by Nature. Terroirists need not apologize for others’ lack of grasp of subtleties in finer wines. But we do feel sorry for you.

    • Jack - April 5, 2016

      Randy: first off, I can tell you have not read the book because your tired arguments are picked apart in it. Yes, of course there are differences, from place or other factors, and Dr. Matthews acknowledges this. But what you call “terroir related factors” (Which are what exactly? Vagueness is a terroirist’s best weapon.) can probably be summoned up as being due to environment x grapevine x winemaking interactions. And regarding your fear of “those who would rather perceive wine as more of a manufactured product, and less as a product strongly influenced by Nature,” don’t worry because wine is already both. It will always be natural for harvest comes around but once a year, and so many things are weather-dependent… but instead of thinking wine cannot be manufactured, if you can just take a tour of the big “wine factories” where the whole winemaking process seems like an assembly line, it’s not a perception but a reality. No shame in satisfying the market, but this is the bulk wine that connoisseurs like you need not worry about.

      One of the main points I got from this book was to above all keep an open mind, and not believe what such and such authority said so without asking questions. So it’s funny how terroirists like yourself try to end the conversation without offering any new answers… “Terroirists need not apologize for others’ lack of grasp of subtleties in finer wines. But we do feel sorry for you.” As if you are all knowing and above us mortals because you can taste “it”, therefore you know “it” comes directly from that special soil. Please, this is wine snobbery at its worst!! Soils are overstated because they are the one piece of the environment puzzle not easily replicated elsewhere, but they are just one piece of the whole big puzzle! For now, though, it seems like the berry itself is the biggest player, which if you think about it isn’t such a surprise. So place is important, no denying it, but not as much as the grape berry (of whatever grape variety in question) that gave rise to all those flavors and aroma precursors. Read the book, study a little soil chemistry, plant biology, berry physiology, and everything else invoked or not in terroir. Then maybe when you’re ready let’s talk again.

      • Randy Caparoso - April 6, 2016

        Jack, from the condescending rhetoric in your response to me, I can tell that you know less about me than what I know about the science of viticulture and winemaking. So let me help you: I live in Lodi and work with the Lodi Winegrape Commission. Yes, here in Lodi we know commercial wine production. In fact, most people think that’s all we know, but I can’t say I blame them, since more wine grapes going into the production of most of the wine consumed in the U.S. today is grown here in Lodi. Your description of my terroir lovin’ “wine snobbery” is certainly the first time I have heard that said about someone associated with the Lodi wine industry!

        Point #2: My response to the Mr. Wark’s blogpost was to Mr. Wark’s blogpost. Obviously, not directly to the contents in the book. I can’t disagree with what’s in a book I haven’t read, but I can disagree with the blogpost and subsequent comments such as yours.

        Point #3: Before you go off half-cocked on us so-called terroirists, you might check your own prejudices at the door. My mind is as “open” as most anyone’s. That is to say, I don’t dismiss the science and craftsmanship that goes into wine production. I make my living working with people in the industry. But at the same time, I don’t dismiss basic concepts such as terroir — which, incidentally, is classified as a “myth” on the cover of the book in question.

        Here in Lodi we have hardcore, multi-generation grape growers who supply the big production companies; but it’s funny, it’s the oldtimers who know the most about the intrinsic terroir related factors existing in the grapes, which directly impact quality and characteristics of wines. When you live with the land, you tend to accept its contributions to the equation as a given.

        I will say this, though: terroir is as much a myth as the science and craft of wine production. Which is to say, it isn’t. It’s one factor among many in both hand crafted wine and big production wine. WhatI don’t quite get is why people like you feel so threatened by so-called terroirists. It is very possible, even preferable, to embrace terroir, after all, while embracing all the knowledge and technology going into contemporary style winegrowing and production. Not coincidentally, it’s people who do who tend to take that multifaceted approach who produce our most celebrated wines today!

        • Jack - April 6, 2016

          You work with the Lodi Winegrape Commission? What do you know, I have family there. Wait, is that you dad? Papaaa! No, but seriously Randy, if you tell people who you disagree with that you feel sorry for them, a condescending response is the least you can expect. But if my comments came across too harsh, that wasn’t the intention. However, if you want to pull out the “I’m industry so I know more than you” card, guess what so am I. Still have Jory soil dirt under my fingernails from planting young vines today, but let’s not go there. Even if you have all the experience and education in the world the fact remains: if you think you know everything about vines and their wines, you really know nothing. There is so much more to know that we can consider ourselves lifelong students. So stay humble and stop accepting the status quo as absolute truth!

          “People like me” are the up and coming generation in winemaking, and nobody feels threatened by the terroir concept. Some believe it some don’t, but if anything, it’s the other way around and terroirists feel under siege. We are just asking questions and looking to make better and better wines. Perpetual improvement is key since the idea of quality and market preferences are ever changing, right? What I have against whatever it is you think of terroir is that it limits us; to put boundaries around a place and proclaim the best wines will always come from there because this has always been so seems crazy outdated. Climate change alone might force old regions to adapt their methods if they want to stay on top, and new regions are already in the game like UK, BC, etc., so how does your terroir concept fit with that? Tradition certainly should be respected, as long as it does not hinder learning and innovation. If you truly think “a basic concept like terroir” (Again, please define what you think of as terroir, seems like this is what I call environment) has contributed as much to our craft as science (really?!), then guess there isn’t much point in trying to carry on this conversation. If I wasn’t clear before: of course the land is important, but this is part of the environment. Yet the soils are not some magic ingredient that impart ethereal characters to wines, which separates the $50 wine from the $500 wine. That ingredient is called marketing BS. Please just read the book, I don’t want to spoil it too much for you. Cheers to Lodi, some great wines coming out of there (No thanks to terroir romantics)!!

          • Steve - April 6, 2016

            Jack, Where I grew up there was an understanding-A man that worked with his hands in his trade and had intellect and experience, he was not someone to try and BS. Well said all around. Intellect without experience gives us politicians. Enjoy your musings, There is a guy I met in Sonoma who said he could tell a terroir by tasting the dirt. I said OK, let me meet you tomorrow and test the concept. His schedule became full instantly.

          • Randy Caparoso - April 7, 2016

            So you actually think of terroir as “status quo” thinking? That previous generations of wine producers somehow survived with their heads in the ground, sadly unenlightened by latest technology or the wisdom or inquistiveness of the latest generation? I’m starting to understand why you suggested that we terroirists need to keep more of an “open mind.”

            Here’s the thing, Jack: others on this thread have pointed out what’s always been obvious to the best winemakers and brightest viticulturists of this past century: that impact of terroir on sensory qualities of our finest and most interesting wines is plain as day. It’s not a matter of open-mindedness, it’s a matter of just opening one’s eyes!

            Long ago (in the early ’90s) I was admonished by Andre Tchelistcheff for even asking a question concerning how modern day trellissing and clonal selection was making it possible to produce classic wine in more places than previously thought possible. He said, yes, wine is better than ever, but to never forget that Mother Nature always has the last word. She is the one who permits you to produce a great wine in occasional vintages, and more often in vineyards with more favorable natural conditions. For as much as an exacting and phenomenal scientist as Tchelistcheff was, he was also an avowed terroirist. One for the ages.

            Perhaps I’m a sentimentalist, but I’ve relearned that lesson a thousand times over ever since: that to acquiesce to terroir is not to submit without questioning. On the contrary, the great ones like Tchelistcheff devote their entire lives to thoroughly parsing the chemistry, with their fingers in dirt and eyes glued to microscopes, in order to unlock what the best wine terroirs have to offer. Our best winemakers and growers, simply, know what they’re doing with a little more exactitude.

            Point being, to get the most out of your material you have to embrace elements of terroir first, not dismiss it out of hand or, for Pete’s sake, toss it aside as some quaint old “myth.” Otherwise, where’s the joy of distingushing a Wehlener Sonnenuhr from a Steinberger, a Cornas from an Hermitage, or a Ridge Monte Bello from an Araujo Eisele?

            • Jack - April 7, 2016

              Steve: You couldn’t pay me to taste dirt! That’s a funny story my friend.

              Randy: In this last reply if you substitute “environment” each time you used “terroir”, it would be hard to not agree with each point. So for the last time: if you cannot define terroir, it’s difficult to discuss much more since it seems like we’re almost on the same path, just speaking different language! Obviously, differences in the wines exist, and obviously “nature” is the biggest factor (Did it seem like I doubted this?)… but to chalk it all up to this notion of undefinable terroir helps with nothing. Tchelistcheff was a great one, still is a benchmark for us, but it’s hard to argue about what he said, she said just to prove a point, especially when said person is no longer with us to defend their views or have our perspective on things as they are known (or better yet, unknown) today. I feel like I’m repeating myself now, maybe I’ll just stop and let the wines do the talking since you don’t give me much to go on without explaining your concept of terroir and how that influences things, or how you think it does. You gotta love the vagueness surrounding terroirists!

              • Randy Caparoso - April 7, 2016

                Jack, yes, we’re going around in circles, and fundamentally we perceive wine and its growing and production in the same way, but from slightly different perspectives.

                You also seem to think that I’m being evasive by “not definining” terroir, in order to make some a point about how that’s “typical” of terroirists, being vague about the term. I think you are making a deflection, but let’s just say we can all agree that terroir is, as you note, another word approximating “environment,” but obviously unique to the world of wine because it presupposes human participation as well as sensory impact on end product). It was never my intention to stop and bore anyone with anything they don’t already know, or which we can all assume.

                Finally (I hope): Yes, I quote Tchelistcheff, even though he’s not around to “defend” himself. The conversation with Tchelistcheff that I shared may have been personal (although I also wrote a subsequent newspaper column alluding to it), but I used it because it came directly in response to the question of how much of a positive impact increased technology and improved viticulture is having on modern day wine production. Apropos to our dialogue.

                But the fact remains, Tchelistcheff can still be read in print freely speaking about things like Mother Nature, terroir, “specialness” of places, “European” sensibility, etc., if you care to look it up. So it’s not like his views were a great secret. Ask anyone who is still around who worked closely with him, like El Dorado’s Marco Cappelli and Greg La Follette in the Sonoma Coast. Guys like that walked away with different conceptions of winemaking and winegrowing, but I’m 100% sure they would tell you that Mr. Tchelistcheff was a demanding scientist who was also passionate about that basic concept of “sense of place”… or as Tchelistcheff was (somewhat peculiarly) fond of saying, the “ecological regimes” that needed to be unlocked.

                Oh, heck, let me grab a direct passage from Benson’s Great Winemakers of California in which Mr. Tchelistcheff is quoted to say:

                “Ecology is very up-to-date in the California wine industry today, as it was forty years ago, regarding two basic factors: micro-climate and grape variety. I grant these are two factors of great importance, but I’ve always fought for my own philosophical principles in winemaking. I believe there are third and fourth factors which correlate to the general ecology. the third factor is soil – physical and chemical structure, profile of exposure, depth, humidity and richness of the soil. The fourth factor is the human being as ecological manager. We divide the ecology into the ecology which is given us by Mother Nature or the Great Lord, and we can’t change that ecology; and then managerial ecology, which is full of the possibilities of man. Man uses the raw material given by the Great Lord – soil, varieties and climate – and manges them in the best way, according to his own dream, image or ideals.”

                Reading that (one of many interviews in which he said similar things in his unique, poetic, Russian-American fashion), I am reminded why Tchelistcheff blistered me for the presumptuousness of my own question about scientific advances allowing us to increase the number of memorable wines. Obviously, his basic point is that winegrowers and winemakers can only do so much. Nature (or terroir, ecology, environment… whatever terms you wish to use) always intrudes; setting objectives and limitations, while opening gates and only enhancing the beauty of the wines achieved through the work put in.

                Terroir, that is to say, may be a quaint, mythical notion if you are not concerned with expressing elements of Nature. But that won’t keep both the philosophical and scientific grasp of it from greatly amplifying the qualities of the wines most wine lovers consider to be the most beautiful.

                • Jack - April 7, 2016

                  Randy: Nice of you to bust out that quote, I enjoyed it so I’ll follow your lead! To make my beef with terroir (as the term some people throw in with environment, focusing mainly on soil, spun as an exclusive privilege with some restrictive laws that lead to higher prices, marketing image, so on) crystal clear I will leave you with some final thoughts quoted from this book I’m trying to steer you to. And I have no connection to the publisher, that would be hilarious… but I’m open to commission offers indeed!

                  You put words in my mouth by saying that we can all agree terroir is another word for environment. Maybe if you describe environment factors and name it all terroir, perhaps it sounds convincing. In the fashion it’s used as described above, these terms are far from synonyms! Here is a snippet on this confusion.
                  Dr. Matthews: “Once again, “terroir” is superfluous to “environment.”… A genuine inquiry about the nature of the winegrape can omit terroir and still consider vineyard factors affecting grapevines. Give it a try.”

                  You mentioned sensory impact to the end product. This is what I was hoping you could expand on, or try to, because this area needs to be more fully investigated before the claims of terroir can ever be validated. Focusing on that one part of terroir, the soils, let’s ask ourselves: how do soils interact with plant roots? And how does what is in the soil make it to the grape berries, then all the way along to the wines you taste years later? Time for more quotes, the first one with your Tchelistcheff quote in mind.
                  Dr. Matthews: “The minerals derived from rocks may represent a relatively small part of the soil’s impact on plants, except where the mineralogy makes farming difficult… On the other hand, the soil’s physical attributes, particle size distribution, and the organization of soil particles – regardless of the specific mineral basis – are almost always important to root growth and water supply.”

                  “Nutrients are taken up as dissolved ions…from the soil solution, rather than from the soil particles directly (or from rocks). But the mineral nutrients have no established contribution to flavor. For any part of the plant to taste of the soil, the reconstitution of the soil within the plant would seem to be required.”

                  “If the flavors came directly from the soil, the leaf should have flavors that are similar to those of the berry, but more concentrated, because so much more soil solution is transported to the leaves than to the berries. But it doesn’t work that way; leaves taste like leaves.”

                  “It is possible that some flavor molecules might arrive in berries from the soil – assuming for the moment that there are flavors in the soil. [Cell] Membranes are not absolute barriers… Getting a little bit of some molecule into the root from the soil or another plant may be expected. However, for this to be a molecule that is a flavor, accumulates in the berry sufficiently to be tasted, and remains stable through the fermentation into wines (at high enough concentrations to be detectable by humans) is a stretch, given our current understanding of soil-plant relations.”

                  Last one, then I rest my case. Promise!
                  Dr. Matthews: “The immutable aspect of the environment can be used to define geographical space, but in the terroir explanation it is expected to contribute a distinctive or unique flavor… Every place on Earth can be considered unique. For that matter, every grapevine, every cluster, and every berry is unique. Yet each cannot be counted on to make a wine with a unique flavor.”

                  We can all appreciate wine without the need to bow down to this terroir business. If you and others enjoy your wines more because of this belief, great and more power to you! But just because some of us stay clear from it, this does not mean as you say, that we “are not concerned with expressing elements of Nature”. (Whaaaat?! Not even sure how to respond to that) Lastly, if I had crossed paths with the great Tchelistcheff or other industry giant, I would respectfully suggest to him the same thing I am pleading with you: Sir/Ma’am, you may want to read this book.

                  • Randy Caparoso - April 8, 2016

                    Jack, I fear that you may have misconstrued what I’ve been talking about; and I’ll take some of the blame because I assumed your conception of terroir was the same as the vast majority of people’s who work in the wine industry. You probably wasted at least half-hour of your time explicating about how mineral uptake does not influence flavor in wine? When we talk about terroir, we’re not talking about that.

                    When I say most wine professionals of reasonable intelligence and experience agree on a definition of terroir, I also meant that most of these people realize that there is an impact of soil, climate, etc. common to a given place that effects characteristics or qualities of wines from that given place. Period. A Chablis is lean, tart and minerally because of terroir in Chablis, just as an Arroyo Seco Chardonnay is lush, tropical, floral, full yet crisp because of terroir in Arroyo Seco. No one is implying that a Chablis tastes minerally because it derives minerals directly from the soil, and no one is implying that Arroyo Seco Chardonnay is tropical because there is papaya and mango growing under the soil. That’s just silly, and if you think even avowed “terroirists” believe that, then you’re just a silly man.

                    We all know that soil has a huge effect on resulting wines because it can impact canopy growth, cluster and berry size, acidity, phenolics, and the full range of what can make a wine taste the way it tastes. So does aspect, elevation, temperature, wind, latitude, and on and on and on, not to mention each and every iota of vineyard management.

                    So maybe you’re a little unclear on what terroir means to most of us who consider terroir to be a key factor. As I wrote in my very first response to Mr. Wark’s post: try not to overthink this. It’s really as simple as the most commonly used, broad definition of the term: “sense of place.”

                    But with respect, I would suggest that you not assume that those of us in the wine industry who embrace terroir are born under a rock, or are stilll living in an era when the world is still flat. I, myself, have published magazine columns in the past addressing the very things you brought out in your passages quoted from Dr. Matthews (it’s far from new). His analysis is perfectly reasonable; even if, in the end, he goes on to overstate things by declaring “terroir is a myth.” How can anything be mythical when it’s sitting right next to us, smiling and impacting everything we do?

                    • Jerry Murray - April 8, 2016

                      The problem is that many do live under that rock! I hear it all the time! Someone tastes a dirty wine and talks about terroir. Someone tastes a wine from a specific vineyard for the first time and talk about terroir. Someone tastes an under ripe, green, herbaceous wine and talks about terroir.
                      For every level headed article you write about “sense of place” some jackass is writing an article about tasting dirt. Master Somms insist that the “blood” note is the result of iron in the soil. Which is another problem; terroir is almost completely attributed to soil. In some cases (a climactic band ideal for a given varietal) that can be the case but in other cases soil is a rather moderate contributor. California’s Anderson Valley is a good example. I belive that the influence of the sun, when the grape sees it and doesn’t and the resulting temperature dynamics create a huge diversity in a small area. How many Somms, writers and even winemakers are open to the idea that something other than soil can be the predominate factor in “place”?
                      Terroir, and I hate using the word, is a story the wine tells. What chapter is the longest varies from wine to wine.
                      Until winemakers, Somms, writers stop all this bullshit about the taste of dirt terroir will remain a myth.

                    • Jack - April 8, 2016

                      Randy, you finally spoke to me about the vines and some interaction with their environment, hallelujah! So contrary to what I assumed from your previous vague posts, maybe you’re ok after all. The personal attacks and anecdotes putting yourself on a pedestal, though, were really unnecessary to this discussion. So I think it’s time to take the higher road and walk away now…

                      Before going I just want you to ask yourself, if you actually read into what I’ve been saying all along: Did I ever deny you that “sense of place”, or that differences come about in wines? Or did I deny you the class hierarchy related to this fuzzy terroir term based on soil/property privileges, assumptions from long ago, marketing, etc.?

                      And according to you, the definition of terroir has a broad consensus across the board. Does it really? So why did it take so long to haggle a simple definition from you? Whether or not YOUR definition is intermingled with how we define environment is another story. Funny! It’s a term with a chameleon nature, hinting at its shaky premises, which makes it hard to argue in favor or against. But I tried, right?

                      Cheers to the lively debate, but next time try not to get so riled up, it’s not very classy. Oh and have fun paying exorbitant prices for your precious, unquestionable terroir!! All this mudslinging has made me thirsty, time to pull out something nice!

  11. Megan M. - April 5, 2016

    I definitely think it’s important to exercise some discretion when using any term; no one thing will ever be the ultimate determining factor of a wine’s outcome — isn’t that why we all love wine the way we do? It’s about the beauty of the art of grape growing and wine making and the (not always scientifically explainable) aspects that both nature and man contribute. Of course if you plant two different varietals on the same plot they aren’t going to taste anything alike; I don’t think anyone expects terroir to magically turn Pinot Noir into Merlot just because they’re grown next to each other. That’s just my semi-amateur opinion, but I’d like to think there’s something to it 🙂

  12. Blake Gray - April 5, 2016

    “Terroir” is a device to keep classes separated and stratified in one of the most class-conscious countries in the world, France. Real estate birthright as destiny.

    That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to it: climate and soil matter. Of course they do. But it was only a generation ago that we were being told nobody outside of Burgundy could ever make good Pinot Noir.

  13. Sean Nelson - April 5, 2016

    “The traditional view (Old World) is that it is the place, not the variety, which determines the wine; however, this view ignores the biological constraint the variety puts on the grape and wine.”

    Does anyone actually believe that variety is secondary to location? I’ve literally never heard of this.

    As for the differences that terroir (not soil, terroir) makes, just visit Burgundy. Taste through the wines of one producer. A small one, preferably the hands-off type. You’ll notice that they all taste like Pinot Noir, but they taste different too. You can’t chalk that all up to winemaking.

  14. Tom Elliot - April 5, 2016

    The broad view concept of terroir includes everything that affects the growing conditions of the vine. Climate and soils are obvious but humans greatly affect the growing conditions of the vine too and so are also part of a vineyard’s terroir. Humans choose what to plant and where. They choose rootstock, scion and vine spacing; trellis method choices or not trellising at all; irrigating or not; controlling yields; hedging and leaf plucking and when and how much; farming with synthetics or without; tilling or not; timing of pruning and how to prune, and much, much more…

  15. Mike Dunne - April 6, 2016

    Provocative review of one aspect of a book I look forward to reading, and stimulating follow-up comments, showing that Internet debate doesn’t necessarily have to be self-serving and repetitious. Thanks.

  16. Tom Elliot - April 6, 2016

    Since so many are pushing “terroir” wines to check out, here’s mine… German Riesling made the same exact way from grapes of the same ripeness, in the same vintage, by the same producer from two, or three, or four different vineyards. Guess what? They are all noticeably different wines from each other. Sometimes dramatically different. With no malolactic and no contact with oak, and therefore no winemaking manipulation, what could have caused this phenomenon?

    • Randy Caparoso - April 7, 2016

      Tom, your point is so simple that I fear that many of today’s wine lovers, and even wine professionals, take it as *too* simple to be true. What a pity. Still, I share your “sentiment,” while mentally basking in many fond memories of days traveling through Germany, reveling in the magical transparency of Riesling. Then again, maybe “magical” is not such a good word. Hate to give the “terroir-is-a-myth” movement more evidence of our apparent drlusion!1

  17. Terroir is Not a Myth | Edible Arts - April 7, 2016

    […] had the chance to read Mark A. Mathews’ book Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing. But if Tom Wark’s summary of the argument is accurate I’m […]

  18. David Creighton - April 7, 2016

    It just isn’t true that the old world view is that it is place and not variety that determines the wine. Especially the more northerly regions have spent centuries figuring out which varieties work most happily in their place. so place and variety are inextricably linked – the place in a sense determining the variety.

  19. Jack - April 8, 2016

    Jerry: Great insightful comments there, I think you’re on to something. Very well said indeed! Although if terroir gets any more BS shoved under its umbrella, maybe I would rather live under a rock and be oblivious to that shit storm!

  20. John - April 10, 2016

    If nothing else, this will serve as a basis for some passionate arguments in tasting rooms for years!

  21. Thirsty Keith - April 16, 2016

    This is sensationalism at its finest. This ridiculous point of the myth of terroir. Please. This is another step in the global destruction of wine. Putting out articles and books on this topic are all leading to the constant homogenization of wine. In another decade or two all wine from anywhere in the world will taste the same. It is all about selling wine. The business has taken taken over and the passion has left the building. If Mr. Mathews was correct which he is not, then all wine would taste the same. Of course you can taste the characteristics that soils add to the fruit. Mineral notes in Chablis, Craziness in Cayuse, black pepper in RRV Zinfandels, dusty tannins in Napa cabs, etc.

  22. Bob Henry - May 11, 2016


    From UC Davis
    (November 25, 2013):

    “Sequencing Study Lifts Veil on Wine’s MICROBIAL TERROIR”

    Link: http://news.ucdavis.edu/search/printable_news.lasso?id=10762&table=news

    It’s widely accepted that TERROIR — the unique blend of a vineyard’s soils, water and climate — sculpts the flavor and quality of wine. Now a new study led by UC Davis researchers offers evidence that grapes and the wines they produce are also the product of an unseen but fairly predictable MICROBIAL TERROIR, itself shaped by the climate and geography of the region, vineyard and even individual vine.

    Results from DNA sequencing revealed that there are patterns in the fungal and bacterial communities that inhabit the surface of wine grapes, and these patterns are influenced by vineyard environmental conditions. The findings appear online this week in the Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    “The study results represent a real paradigm shift in our understanding of grape and wine production, as well as other food and agricultural systems in which microbial communities impact the qualities of the fresh or processed products,” said Professor David Mills, a microbiologist in the Department of Viticulture and Enology and Department of Food Science and Technology.

    He noted that further studies are needed to determine whether these variations in the microbial communities that inhabit the surface of the grapes eventually produce detectable differences in the flavor, aroma and other chemically linked sensory properties of wines.

    The study co-authors suggest that by gaining a better understanding of MICROBIAL TERROIR, growers and vintners may be able to better plan how to manage their vineyards and customize wine production to achieve optimal wine quality.

    [Section subheadline:] Sequencing Grape Microbes

    To examine the MICROBIAL TERROIR, the researchers collected 273 samples of grape “must” — the pulpy mixture of juice, skins and seeds from freshly crushed, de-stemmed wine grapes.

    The must samples were collected right after crushing and mixing from wineries throughout California’s wine-grape growing regions during two separate vintages. Each sample, containing grapes from a specific vineyard block, was immediately frozen for analysis.

    The researchers used a DNA sequencing technique called short-amplicon sequencing to characterize the fungal and bacterial communities growing on the surface of the grapes and subsequently appearing in the grape must samples.

    They found that the structure of the microbial communities varied widely across different grape growing regions. The data also indicated that there were significant regional patterns of both fungal and bacterial communities represented in Chardonnay must samples. However, the Cabernet Sauvignon samples exhibited strong regional patterns for fungal communities but only weak patterns for bacterial communities.

    Further tests showed that the bacterial and fungal patterns followed a geographical axis running north-south and roughly parallel to the California coastline, suggesting that microbial patterns are influenced by environmental factors.

    Taken together, these and other results from the study reveal patterns of regional distributions of the microbial communities across large geographical scales, the study co-authors reported.

    They noted that it appears that growing regions can be distinguished based on the abundance of several key groups of fungi and bacteria, and that these regional features have obvious consequences for both grapevine management and wine quality.

    Collaborating with Mills were graduate student Nicholas Bokulich of the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology; John Thorngate of Constellation Brands Inc.; and Paul Richardson, CEO of MicroTrek Inc., a company founded to provide microbial mapping services to help vintners understand this phenomenon.

    Constellation Brands Inc. provided in-kind support for the study through sample and metadata collection.

    Funding for the study was provided, in part, by the American Wine Society Educational Foundation Endowment Fund, the American Society of Brewing Chemists Foundation and the Wine Spectator.

  23. Bob Henry - May 11, 2016

    Aside to Stephen Reiss, Ph.D., C.W.E.:

    “At the height of my blind tasting days (for competitions and exams) I was well known for being able to accurately distinguish individual vineyards in Burgundy from one another, despite producers. This bit of anecdotal evidence suggests, at least to me, that there is something that place consistently adds to the taste and aroma of the grapes, especially Pinot Noir.”

    Could it be that you were tasting the differences between clones of Pinot Noir — and not the Burgundy vineyards — “place” — itself?

    One cannot assume that those individual vineyards were all planted to a homogeneous clone of Pinot Noir.

    ~~ Bob

  24. laurentlathieyre2882 - April 19, 2022

    After 8 years in the US, I still don’t give a shit about what grapes wine is made of. #TerroirOnly
    Yes, you guessed it, I’m an arrogant French. 😀

  25. David L Creighton - April 19, 2022

    the concept of terroir isn’t just the things that have been mentioned. important to how the grape tastes is hillside vs. flat land, the way the vineyard faces, its aspect – how steep it is, how dense the planting, the daytime highs and nightime lows, the numerous ways the vines can be cared for – pruned, shoot positinioning, leaf removal, vine height, humidity and many others. and it isn’t limited to grapes – terroir affects other agricultural products as well. jersey tomatoes are famous as are georgia peaches. an article years ago by a fellow named Behr gave other examples including brocoli. the entire PDO system in europe is built on terroir – for cheese, butter and so much more. line up cabernets from diverse spots like SA, chile, france, CA, Long Island or anywhere else and see terroir in action. a reasonably astute taster could identify each.

  26. Steve Lay - April 19, 2022

    Well, “Terroir Is A Myth” ought to thin the terroir consulting herd a bit. Or at least get a UC Davis professor/researcher a challenge to tenure. There is an old saying about droppings in one’s nest. But, still a great list of responses from great people.

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