Monday, December 21, 2009

Digging the Dirt on Terroir

In a recent post about Biodynamics, I wrote that organic grape growers focus on improving soil health, which makes their grapes more reflective of terroir. Well, there’s more to the story.

First, what is terroir? There’s no official definition, but this French term often is translated as “sense of place” and refers to the holistic influence of:
  • geology (soil, rocks, minerals)
  • topography (altitude, slope, exposure)
  • hydrology (water supply & drainage)
  • climate (sunlight, temperature, rainfall, sunlight)
How these natural factors interact can contribute significantly to the wine’s aromas, tastes, and textures, depending on the approach of the winemaker. Some winemakers follow the philosophy of having the influence of terroir expressed as much as possible in the wine. Other winemakers decide to wipe out much of the subtleties of terroir, often to match the wine to popular taste.

In response to the post, Liam commented, “Some people think soil has nothing to do with it,” and shared a link to a Decanter article (US geologists challenge 'gout de terroir'). The article briefly summarized a half-day session entitled Terroir -- The Relationship of Geology, Soils, Hydrology, and Climate to Wine at the 2009 Annual Meeting of the Geological Society of America. The session featured 12 presentations, concluding with “Winetasting of Terroir Wines”. (Good on these researchers for their dedication to more fieldwork!)

After reviewing the presentation summaries, it seems to me that the researchers agree that terroir exists and influences a wine, but “how” this happens is very complex and, they admit, not yet well-enough understood. The researcher who got the most attention from Decanter, Alex Maltman from Wales, debunks the notion that the taste of minerality in wine relates directly to the minerals in the soil being absorbed through the vines root structure. He does not argue that wine drinkers don’t perceive “minerality” in wine, only that we don't taste minerals from the soil itself.

Chablis is an oft-cited example of a wine whose mineral character matches the soil in which it grows. Chablis vines grow in a mixture of limestone and clay on top of the Kimmeridgean geological formation composed of fossilized oyster shells. This geology has long been reputed to be the cause of Chablis’ traditional minerality and steely, flinty character. The geologists’ work indicates that the source of Chablis’ character is far more complex than the geology alone.

Of course, this is consistent with the source of almost all other aromas and flavours in wine. (We may perceive citrus aromas and flavours in Riesling, but that’s not because the winegrower is spraying lemon juice in the vineyard!) Wines (through terroir, viticulture, and vinification) can express an incredible array of aromatic molecules. Researchers are just at the beginning in understanding how terroir makes its contribution. There are even researchers in France (!) who are working on making a synthetic wine, bypassing the grape entirely.

Where does that leave us with the organic and Biodynamic growers who place such importance on improving the quality of soil in the vineyard? It is important but, no doubt, I am guilty of an oversimplification in stating previously that, “Grapes get a lot of their taste from the type of soil that the vine grows in.” The wine’s character depends on much more than just the soil in which the grapes grow. The very complex interaction among geology, topography, hydrology and climate, along with viticulture techniques and vinification methods, all contribute to the wine’s characteristics. Which of these is the pre-eminent factor, or if there is even a factor that is consistently pre-eminent, remains for the researchers to work out.

If you’re interested in learning more about terroir, I highly recommend Jamie Goode’s excellent articles:
Subscribing to this blog through RSS or email is easy! Just click on the subscribe link to the left ←

No comments:

Post a Comment