“Knowing in part may make a fine tale,
but wisdom comes from seeing the whole.”—Asian Proverb
And so it is with the concept of ‘terroir’, that hazy, intellectually-appealing notion that a plot of soil plays the determining factor in a wine’s character. The French are the world’s most obsessed people regarding the issue of terroir. And why not? Many of that country’s most renowned vineyards are part of an elabourate hierarchy of quality based on their soil and exposition. And the French would have everyone believe that no one on planet Earth can equal the quality of their Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet, Syrah, etc. because their privileged terroir is unequaled. One of France’s most celebrated wine regions, Burgundy, is often cited as the best place to search for the fullest expression of terroir. Followers of terroir (the terroirists) argue that a particular piece of ground and its contribution to what is grown there give its product a character that is distinctive and apart from that same product grown on different soils and slopes. Burgundy, with its classifications of grand cru and premier cru vineyards, village vineyards and generic viticultural areas, is the terroirists ‘raison d’etre’.
Lamentably, terroir has become such a politically-correct buzzword that in some circles it is an egregious error not to utter some profound comments about finding ‘a sense of somewhereness’ when tasting a Vosne-Romanée-Les Malconsorts or a Latricières-Chambertin. Leading ‘terroirists’ such as wine producer Lalou Bize-Leroy, Burgundy wine broker Becky Wasserman, and author Matt Kramer make a persuasive and often eloquent case about the necessity of finding, as Kramer puts it, “the true voice of the land” in order for a wine to be legitimised.
Yet like so many things about wine, especially tasting it, there is no scientific basis for anything Bize, Wasserman, or Kramer propose. What they argue is what most Burgundians and owners of France’s finest vineyards give lip service to—that for a wine to be authentic and noble it must speak of its terroir.
Terrior Only One Factor of Wine Character
On the other side of this issue are the ‘realists’, or should I call them modernists. They suggest that terroir is merely one of many factors that influence the style of a wine. The realists argue that a multitude of factors determine a wine’s style, quality, and character. Soil, exposition, and microclimate (terroir) most certainly impart an influence, but so do the following:
- Rootstock: Is it designed to produce prolific or small crop levels?
- Yeasts: Does the winemaker use the vineyard’s wild yeasts or are commercial yeasts employed? Every yeast, wild or commercial, will give a wine a different set of aromatics, flavor, and texture.
- Yields and Vine Age: High yields from perennial overcroppers result in diluted wine. Low yields, usually less than two tons per acre or 35-40 hectoliters per hectare, result in wines with much more concentration and personality. Additionally, young vines have a tendency to overproduce, whereas old vines produce small berries and less wine. Crop thinning is often employed with younger vineyards to increase the level of concentration.
- Harvest Philosophy: Is the fruit picked underripe to preserve more acidity, or fully ripe to emphasise the lushness and opulence of a given varietal?
- Vinification Techniques and Equipment: There are an amazing number of techniques that can change the wine’s aromas and flavors. Moreover, equipment choice (different presses, destemmers, etc.) can have a profound influence on the final wine.
- Élévage (or the wine’s upbringing): Is the wine brought up in oak barrels, concrete vats, stainless steel, or large oak vats (which the French call foudres)? What is the percentage of new oak? All of these elements exert a strong influence on the wine’s character. Additionally, transferring wine (racking) from one container to another has an immense impact on a wine’s bouquet and flavor. Is the wine allowed to remain in long contact with its lees (believed to give the wine more aromatic complexity and fullness)? Or is it racked frequently for fear of picking up an undesirable lees smell?
- Fining and Filtration: Even the most concentrated and profound wines that terroirists consider quintessential examples of the soil can be eviscerated and stripped of their personality and richness by excessive fining and filtering. Does the winemaker treat the wine with kid gloves, or is the winemaker a manufacturer/processor bent on sculpturing the wine?
- Bottling Date: Does the winemaker bottle early to preserve as much fruit as possible, or does he bottle later to give the wine a more mellow, aged character? Undoubtedly, the philosophy of when to bottle can radically alter the character of a wine.
- Cellar Temperature and Sanitary Conditions: Some wine cellars are cold and others are warm. Different wines emerge from cold cellars (development is slower and the wines are less prone to oxidation) than from warm cellars (the maturation of aromas and flavours is more rapid and the wines are quicker to oxidise). Additionally, are the wine cellars clean or dirty?
These are just a handful of factors that can have extraordinary impact on the style, quality, and personality of a wine. As the modernists claim, the choices that man himself makes, even when they are unquestionably in pursuit of the highest quality, can contribute far more to a wine’s character than the vineyard’s terroir. If one listens to Robert Kacher, a realist, or to Matt Kramer, a terroirist, it is easy to conclude they inhabit different worlds. But the irony is that in most cases, they tend to agree as to the Burgundy producers making the finest wines.
If you are wondering where I stand on terroir, I do believe it is an important component in the production of fine wine. However, I would argue that the most persuasive examples of terroir do not arise from Burgundy, but rather, from Alsace. If one is going to argue terroir, the wine has to be made from exceptionally low yields, fermented with only the wild yeasts that inhabit the vineyard, brought up in a neutral medium, such as old barrels, cement tanks, or stainless steel, given minimal cellar treatment, and bottled with little or no fining or filtration.
For example, if I were to take up the cause of the terroirists, I would use one of Alsace’s greatest domaines, that of Leonard and Olivier Humbrecht, to make a modest case for terroir. The Humbrechts do everything to emphasise the differences in their vineyard holdings. Yet in a blind tasting, why is it so easy to identify the wines of Zind-Humbrecht? Certainly their Hengst-Riesling tastes different than their Riesling from Clos St.-Urbain. The question is, is one tasting the terroir, or the winemaker’s signature? Zind-Humbrecht’s wines, when matched against other Alsatian wines, are more powerful, richer, and intense. Zind-Humbrecht’s yields are lower and they do not filter the wine at bottling. Yet this is a case where the wines not only possess an identifiable winemaker’s signature, but also a distinctive vineyard character.
Lalou Bize-Leroy of the Domaine Leroy is often cited as the pre-eminent terroirist. She is a persuasive woman and talks a mighty game when it comes to how her vineyard parcels impart specific characteristics to her wines. But when Bize’s wines are evaluated in blind tastings, the obvious conclusion is that she fashions more concentrated and ageworthy red burgundies than her peers. Once a taster is familiar with the style of her wines (there are subtle differences) Leroy’s wines can be easily identified in a blind tasting because of their power, purity, richness, and exceptional intensity rather than by any particular terroir characteristic. The same can be said for many of Burgundy’s finest producers. Anyone who is familiar with the style of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti can usually pick a DRC wine out of a blind tasting because of the singular style of its winemaking. Winemaker Jacques Seysses, a producer who received a five-star rating in my book on Burgundy, and someone I admire tremendously, runs up the terroir flag as fast as any Frenchman, saying, “man can destroy, not create.” Seysses, who utilises 100% new oak for all of his grand crus, produces wines of extraordinary finesse and elegance. However, when tasted, his wines are dominated by his own winemaking autograph and can be picked out, not because they emanate from vineyards such as Clos de la Roche, Clos St.-Denis, or Bonnes Mares, but because of his distinctive style.
Terroir, as used by many of its proponents, is often a convenient excuse for upholding the status quo. If one accepts the fact that terroir is everything, and is essential to legitimise a wine, how should consumers evaluate the wines from Burgundy’s most famous grand cru vineyard, Chambertin? This thirty-two acre vineyard boasts twenty-three different proprietors. But only a handful of them appear committed to producing an extraordinary wine. Everyone agrees this is a hallowed piece of ground, but I can think of only a few producers – Domaine Leroy, Domaine Ponsot, Domaine Rousseau, Domaine des Chézeaux (Ponsot makes the wine for Chézeaux) – that produce wines that merit the stratospheric reputation of this vineyard. Yet the Chambertins of three of these producers, Leroy, Ponsot, and Rousseau, are completely different in style. The Ponsot wine is the most elegant, supple, and round, Leroy’s is the most tannic, backward, concentrated, and meaty, and Rousseau’s is the darkest-colored, most dominated by new oak, and most modern in style, taste, and texture. Among the other eighteen or twenty producers (and I am not even thinking about the various negociant offerings) what Burgundy wine enthusiasts are likely to encounter on retailers’ shelves ranges from mediocre to appallingly thin and insipid. What wine, may I ask, speaks for the soil of Chambertin? Is it the wine of Leroy, the wine of Ponsot, the wine of Rousseau?
Arguments such as this can be made with virtually any significant Burgundy vineyard. Consider Corton-Charlemagne and the products of four of its most celebrated producers. The firm of Faiveley owns the most prized parcel atop this famous hill, and they make a compellingly elegant Corton-Charlemagne. Stylistically, it is the antithesis of the super-concentrated, lavishly oaky, broadly flavored, alcoholic Corton-Charlemagne made by Louis Latour. Again, Domaine Leroy makes a backward, hard, tough Corton-Charlemagne that resembles a tannic red more than a white wine. Domaine Coche-Dury makes a wine with extraordinary mineral components, as well as remarkable richness, unctuosity, and opulence where the oak takes a back seat to the wine’s fruit and texture. Which of these Corton-Charlemagnes has that notion of “somewhereness” that is raised by the terroirists to validate the quality of a vineyard?
Are terroirists kindergarten intellectuals who should be doing more tasting and less talking? Of course not. But they can be accused of naively swallowing the tallest tale in Burgundy. On the other hand, the realists should recognise that no matter how intense and concentrated a wine can be from a modest vineyard in Givry, it will never have the sheer complexity and class of a Vosne-Romanée grand cru from a conscientious producer.
In conclusion, think of terroir as you do salt, pepper, and garlic. In many dishes they can represent an invaluable component, imparting wonderful aromas and flavours. But if consumed alone, they are usually difficult to swallow. Moreover, all the hyperventilation over terroir obscures the most important issue of all – identifying and discovering those producers who make wines worth drinking and savouring!