The French word for land is terroir, derived from medieval Latin terratorium. When referring to terroir in wine it appears to have different meanings depending upon whom one asks. When I first heard the term in the late 1970s, it had to do almost entirely with Old World wines, those mostly from Europe. New World winemakers from the U.S. Australia, New Zealand or South Africa often scoffed at the very idea.
Tim Patterson, the late wine writer and home winemaker and John Buechsenstein, professional wine maker and wine educator, shared a fascination with the topic. They decided (over glasses of wine, of course) to explore the concept of terroir together. They developed “Ten Theses on Terroir” and set about compiling and organizing published works that might support their theses. They organized the book by topic including the concept of terroir, the role of soil, climate, viticulture, grape physiology, winemaking, sensory evidence, marketing of terroir and climate change.
Patterson died in 2014, but before his death he convinced Aaron Belkin, the cousin of his wife, Nancy G. Freeman, to take on the task of seeing the project through to the end. Belkin enlisted Patrick Comiskey, the Los Angeles-based writer and author well known and appreciated by anyone who reads about wine. Just getting the copyright permissions alone must have been a monumental task.
In each chapter, the thoughts of several different authors are presented. For example, in chapter one, Matt Kramer gives us the elegant term “somewhereness” from Making Sense of Burgundy. Henri Jayer, Marc Kreydenweiss, Stephan Derenoncourt, and Didier Dagueneau offer the French point of view. Gerald Asher in his many years at Gourmet Magazine eloquently taught us about wine through his travels. Finally, W. Blake Gray pooh-poohs the concept of terroir, saying that, “Winemaking is king.”
Chapter 2 looks at the history and definitions of terroir citing several dictionaries and works by Patrick McGovern, Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia and author of several books on the history of fermented beverages.
In his book, Inventing Wine, my WRO colleague, Paul Lukacs, cites the Cistercian monks in Burgundy to be the first recognize that their vines produced wines with an identity specific to a particular place and did so from vintage to vintage.
This chapter also looks at how terroir is codified in the French Appellation d’Origine Controllée laws. And then, there is Ron Washam, a.k.a. The Hosemaster of Wine, whose satire is funny as long as it’s not aimed at you. His definition is “Terroir is a French word, used by connoisseurs, that has no meaning and is interchangeable with the words “I have no idea what I am talking about.”
Chapter 3 delves into what some people view as the prime ingredient of terroir, the soil. Others may find their eyes glazing over at the very idea of trying to understand this complex subject. As with other factors affecting the quality and characteristics of wine, the role of soil is complicated and can be controversial. James Wilson describes Chablis as the “big island” of the Kimmeridgian soil layer of the Paris Basin. Jonathan Swinchatt and David Howell in The Winemaker’s Dance discuss the importance of bedrock in the Napa Valley. Kevin Pogue, a geology professor at Whitman College in Walla Walla, describes a study that investigated the influence of basalt on the terroir of the Columbia Valley AVA and noted, among other findings, that they found no evidence “of the oft-cited ability of surface stones to store heat and release it after sunset, at least not to the above ground part of the grapevines.”
Chapter 4 is about climate, its limits and variations and offers among other studies Winkler, Cook, Kliewer and Lider’s categorization of degree days into five regions. Richard Smart and Mike Robinson’s Sunlight into Wine changed my understanding of microclimate when I read it. I was taught that microclimate was the area where the vines are grown, but the authors’ regional definition is macroclimate with mesoclimate the climate of a specific vineyard and microclimate within and surrounding a plant canopy.
Chapter 5 discusses the possible contribution of grapevines to viticulture with a detailed description of grapevine structure and function by Edward Hellman, formerly of Oregon State University and now offering his expertise at Texas A&M/Texas Tech. Other topics addressed are balanced vines, deficit irrigation, and organic and sustainable viticultural practices. Patrick McGovern is back with his proposal that alcohol’s attractiveness to humans for providing tasty calories, health benefits and social lubrication were a driving force adoption of agriculture and his “Noah hypothesis,” that winegrape cultivation began at a single source, precipitated by a single event.”
Chapter 6, about winemaking, introduces the role that humans play in terroir, one that is often overlooked or totally left out as an element of terroir. Did those grapevines plant themselves in orderly rows? Did Chardonnay decide where it would grow? Kyle Schlachter pointed out in “The Fallacy of Terroir” that vineyard practices, choices made by humans, “can be said to accentuate the sense of place of a wine. Or, they can be used to internationalize the style of a wine and negate its terroir.”
Patterson and Buechsenstein assert that “there is no such thing as natural wine in the world of commercially available wines…so often nature alone is credited and nurture is excluded. But when sound wine is the desired outcome, some conservation some level of husbandry, is required.”
Portions of David Bird’s excellent text, Understanding Wine Technology points out that wine was likely a fortunate discovery by ancient man and not always reliably produced. It was Louis Pasteur in the 19th century who finally figured out what happens in the fermentation process and only in the “…last three decades of the 20th century that scientific principals have been rigorously applied to winemaking.”
Winemakers from California, France and Germany describe their approach to their winemaking role. Also, the role of microbes and yeasts is examined, and Jamie Goode describes the purpose and importance of the much maligned and misunderstood sulfur dioxide.
Chapter 7 is an interesting exploration of the ability to smell or taste terroir. It includes a lively discussion of the term “minerality,” its sudden popularity as a descriptor of aroma or flavor, whether it even exists and the confusion between geological and nutritional minerals. Alex Maltman in “Minerality in Wine: A Geological Perspective” explains in scientific terms, mostly above my head, why it’s not minerals that are the origin of the aromas. Minerals “with very few exceptions -- in both geological and nutrient senses – lack flavor.”
I thought a lot about this chapter. Most descriptors in my tasting notes are metaphors such as “like the smell of rain on dusty stone,” and I often have seen a look of understanding from those with whom I have shared my notes. I certainly use metaphors for fruit aroma and flavor descriptors, and occasionally I have been asked if those fruits were actually in the wine. Of course, they’re not, although I was taught many years ago that gas chromatograph/mass spectrometry analysis showed that wines do contain some of the same chemical compounds as fruits. The minty, eucalyptus or garrigue aromas found in some wines have been shown in studies to have come from the oils of the nearby plants. In fact, I never understood the garrigue descriptor until I was walking in a vineyard in Roussillon in southwestern France and could smell all the rosemary, thyme, oregano, fennel and other herbs that were growing wild in the area. Of course, metaphors are only useful to those understand them.
Several authors report on the efforts to develop “natural terroir units.” Described by Carey, Archer and Saayman as “a unit of the earth’s surface that is characterized by relatively homogeneous patterns of topography, climate, geology, and soil. It has an agronomic potential that is reflected in the characteristics of its products, resulting finally in the concept of terroir.” In other words, an appellation that is determined by the defined characteristics, not by political boundaries.
Chapter 9 wrestles with the future of terroir from finding new exciting terroirs such as Priorat reported by Stephen Brook, to international style wines, effects of climate change and those regions that benefit from that change. The final note in this chapter is from Wine, Terroir and Climate Change in which John Gladstones disagrees, saying that many claims “have depended too much on computer models unable to encompass the complexity of real climates.”
Surprisingly, Wine and Place is not a big book physically. In hardback it’s just over an inch thick, seven inches wide and ten and one-quarter inches high. But, it is big with well-researched ideas and carefully considered explanations, covering acres of territory and offering academic to poetic, to perhaps heretical thoughts on the topics. It is an invaluable resource presenting information brought together to consider and challenge. The authors encourage readers to go to the source of any of the excerpted material. They have provided notes at the end of chapters and a full bibliography in the back of the book. This book is a must for anyone who has a wine library, who wants to have a better understanding of terroir or just loves wine.
* * *
Wine and Place: A Terroir Reader by Tim Patterson and John Buechsenstein, published by University of California Press, 2018