The world of wine is picking sides and the battle lines are being clearly drawn. On one side you have people-pleasing, consistent wine. These can grow anywhere with enough sunshine and water to do the job. They can be crisp savingnons or buttery chardonnays, a big juicy malbec or fragrant pinot noirs. Grape varietal matters, so too does the wine tasting identical whether it was harvested in 2013 or 2002. These wines aren’t necessarily bad, in fact many famous and expensive champagne houses make their non-vintages this way. And there is definitely a place on the market for them, creating flavours and brands consumers know to reach for time again.
But then there’s the other side. The romantic, ever-evolving and impossible to nail down concept of terroir. Put simply are you big brand or do you have terroir? Do you have soul?
Wine over the years has been built on a simple premise: it should taste of where it’s from. The influence of a winery’s environment has been present throughout our history and obsession with wine’s sublime, intricate flavours and heady effects. The very phrase goût de terroir, or taste of the earth, became such a weighty force that wine grown in certain soils can fetch hundreds of pounds more per bottle than wineries only a few hundred meters down the road. Yet today, as we increasingly produce huge quantities of wine which has no sense of place and which is blended from multiple vineyards in giant stainless steel tanks and shipped across the globe – in all of this, is terroir still a relevant concept?
The taste of the earth, in the most obvious cases, can come through in the minerality of wines which echo the very soil they were grown in, adding a delicious savoury, saline, flinty or subtle stoney aftertastes. In others it’s harder to explain the effect in tasting notes, rather the environment shapes the flavours that come forth; the right soil allows grapes drainage and constant access to water without flooding the roots while the climate gives perfect amounts of sunshine and cool temperatures. Change up any of these elements and you’ll find yourself with different grapes on the vines and a different wine in your bottle. Ferment grapes from across entire regions together and you lose all sense of place as subtle flavours are overtaken.
New world wines were the first to take decisive steps away from terroir, although many are now retreating, by picking grapes at the most extreme point of ripeness before they literally go to mush and start falling from the vines. Traditionally in old world wine countries the best vintages were years of plentiful sunshine, therefore giving way to the reasoning that ripe grapes equal great wine. With abundant sunshine in the new world however things were pushed to the extreme and these huge juicy reds smacked of berry fruits and not a lot else. Terroir was being hidden. And it was this style of red, alongside big buttery whites, that the wine drinkers started to expect.
“When I pick up a glass I should be able to say this is a Chablis,” says Dawn Davies, MW (Master of Wine). “But wines are increasingly becoming homogenised and climate change is playing a big role in this as old world vineyards are producing riper grapes while the new world is harvesting earlier. It’s become increasingly difficult to tell a top Australian chardonnay from a Burgundy chardonnay. In the past you could never confuse the two.”
Dawn is, however adamant that there is place for both styles of wines. “If you want to get people into wine it’s usually through varietals. It’s an easier way to discover what flavours you enjoy. And while huge wine brands do buy up grapes from across different regions, it can still taste of a country - just not a specific place. But there is space for both on the market.”
The fact that many of these wineries border each other hasn’t been lost on the industry. Dawn described visiting vineyards in Australia’s Hunter Valley recently where neighbouring winemakers had polar approaches. A small, rugged and earthy winery which was caked in dust produced wines which sat up and screamed of its environment. Across the road a more sleek and modern approach was taken, blending the vineyards to produce a rounder wine which was still excellent just significantly less terroir-led. The same thing is happening in California where Domain de la Côte, a winery that bottles each of its pinot noir vineyards separately to showcase the incredible diversity of its terroir is located moments away from Sea Smoke, a winery that produces incredibly ripe pinots made from a blend of their vineyards. The wines couldn’t be more opposite.
“It’s totally valid for wines to taste of very specific places. In Burgundy alone you can have a totally different wine 200 metres down the road. You can get around this if you want a rounded style of wine, hence blends, and winemakers can use oak and toasting to mask certain terroir flavours. Most winery techniques will soften the influence of the vineyard,” says Dawn.
Something almost everyone agrees on however, whichever side of the line you fall, is that the more time the winemaker focuses on the vineyard and spends time there, the more you’ll see the terroir shine through the wine.
As Andrew Jefford wrote for Decanter “Nowadays, by contrast, the greatest wine producers tell me that there is little more they can do in the cellar, and all the remaining challenges are out in the vineyard. No one contests the fact that great wine means great grapes – but if terroir is different everywhere in the wine world, then vineyard strategies must be, too.”
So to answer our original question; is terroir still a relevant concept? Absolutely, for many wines around the world, their very heart and soul derives from their surroundings. These are the wines which are complex, whose flavours peel back revealing delicate aromas and subtle tastes. But it’s not relevant for the entirety of the wine world. You might not like the idea of big wine brands but they certainly exist and if the product changes too much harvest by harvest consumers will stop buying the wines. It all comes back to economics, and producing small quantities of wine to ensure it speaks of its land is never going to wash with huge drinks companies. We may enter the wine world drinking big brands and focusing on varietals but sooner or later it’s terroir which wins us over. Which is why, even if it doesn’t play a part in your drinking habits right now, terroir is still incredibly important in producing wine.