In our recent Winemaker Roundtable, more than one participant named “specific place character,” or “terroir,” as the most important requirement in the wines they most enjoy drinking. What do they mean by terroir? Terroir (tair-wahr) is a French concept incorporating everything that contributes to the distinctive character of a particular vineyard site: its soil and subsoil; its drainage, slope and elevation; and its microclimate, which in turn includes temperature and precipitation, exposure to the sun, wind and fog, and the like. I’d argue that even the particular strains of wild yeasts that come in on the grape skins and live in the cellars can have a strong effect on the wines themselves. The concept of terroir is essential to understanding a variety like pinot noir, for example, because this grape is hypersensitive to its environment, reflecting the slightest nuances of soil and climate in its aromas, tastes, textures, structure and aging curve.
Whereas the great majority of wines made from cabernet sauvignon, for example, demonstrate that variety’s characteristic deep color, blackcurrant flavor, and firmly tannic backbone, with regional variations on this theme, the pinot noir is chameleon-like, and, not surprisingly, a less adaptable international traveler. If the climate is too cool, the wines tend to be weedy and pale; if too warm, they can turn out roasted, even pruney, or overly tannic. Too-rich soils can produce excessive crop loads or ponderous wines devoid of nuance. And even when all other grape-growing and winemaking variables are identical—a state of affairs that’s rare in the world of wine—vineyards literally 100 yards apart can yield completely different styles of wine.
The concept of terroir is especially relevant where wines are made from a single variety grown in a highly specific vineyard site, or in a region where vintages vary substantially in quality and style depending on the climate—in other words, in wine-producing areas at the northernmost latitude of where the variety can achieve a slow and steady ripeness (or southernmost, in the case of countries in the Southern Hemisphere.) Some other examples of mono-cépage (single-variety) wines that show uncanny transparency to soil include riesling in Germany and the great nebbiolo wines Barolo and Barbaresco in Italy’s Piedmont region. Terroir is less of a factor in very warm regions, where sheer ripeness can overwhelm subtle nuances of site, and in regions in which wines are blends of two or more grape varieties.
Terroir may figuratively be a taste of the soil, but that doesn’t meant a wine should literally taste like dirt. Not too many years ago, many wine tasters and even some wine critics often explained away serious wine flaws as expressing the terroir of a wine. To cite just one example: the leathery, barnyard smell that characterized so many examples of Cornas, and in fact was largely responsible for its reputation as a rustic country wine well into the 1980s, was most often due to the spoilage yeast brettanomyces, or to flawed, old barrels, not to the soil. There may well be a wildness to the syrah in this northern Rhône Valley village, but there’s a difference between feral and fecal.
Many serious tasters would argue today that the first responsibility of a wine is to be cleanly made, and most commercial wineries know from experience that wine drinkers will not accept dirty wines. Happily, wines today are cleaner than ever before, but this does not translate into a loss of character from the good old days. Most experienced wine lovers are far more interested in the differences between the wines they drink than in what they all have in common. You may prefer one terroir over another; in fact, you almost certainly will. But virtually all winemaking flaws, whether brettanomyces, TCA (2,4,6-trichloranisole, the moldy-smelling compound associated with corked wines but sometimes also afflicting wood surfaces in a winery), dirty barrel notes, or oxidative aromas in young releases, only mask the distinctive character of the site.