Margaret Rand is
wine journalist and
author. Here, she asks, 'Every wine grower talks about terroir. But how many actually take
First, a definition: terroir is the specific
combination of soil, exposure to the
sun and climate that makes each
vineyard different to its neighbour.
The smaller the area under discussion,
the more it means. To talk about the
terroir of Bordeaux means very little;
but to talk about the terroir of
Pomerol's 14-hectare Vieux Château
Certan, or the terroir of one of its
23 tiny and precise parcels, means a
When I was narrowing the wines of
the world down to just 101 for my new
book, 101 Wines to Try Before You Die
(Octopus), terroir expression was my
main criterion, although sometimes
I used different words for it: wildness,
vitality, energy, individuality, a sense
Homing in on a sense of
But what is it, this sense of place?
It can't be analysed, and it can barely
be described. The answer that most
people in wine might give is that they
know terroir expression when they see
it. When you taste a Chave Hermitage,
it tastes of something far beyond
grapes. Pauillac, says Christian Seely,
who runs second growth Bordeaux
property Château Pichon-Longueville,
is the only place in the world where
cabernet sauvignon doesn't taste of
itself. Look at the differences between
any two Burgundies from the same
grower – De Montille, perhaps, or
Domaine Dujac – in the same vintage.
Look at rieslings from adjoining
vineyards in Austria's Wachau. It's true
that there can be as many differences
between growers in the same vineyard
as between vineyards, but really great
terroirs like Alsace's Rangen de Thann
(where Zind-Humbrecht is the greatest
grower) or Schoenenbourg (where
Hugel grows its Schoelhammer)
put their fingerprint on every wine.
The reason that terroir fascinates us
is because we feel, irrationally, that
wine is more than just a matter of
grape variety and ripeness.
Even the most scientific winemakers
feel this irrationality. Alberto Antonini,
a star global winemaking consultant,
said to me a few years ago of a new
project in Uruguay, that its 'mixture of
forest, palus, rocks and small vineyards
generates complexity in the wines.
I don't know how, but I think it does'.
Somehow wine seems to be capable
of expressing a whole landscape.
But even the most stringent laboratory
can't tell us how.
Some terroirs have more to express
than others, it's true. Some sopranos
get to sing Tosca; others stay in the
chorus. Great vineyards are at least
soloists, and some are prima donnas –
often in more ways than one.
Enemies of terroir
A sense of terroir is a fragile thing,
however. Says Antonini, 'there are five
enemies of terroir wine: overripeness,
viticulturalists killing the soil, and a
winemaker making wine that is about
him or her.' It could not be put more
neatly. The less you do, the more you
get, in terms of terroir expression.
If you do those things you will not
produce a terroir wine. And if you
do those things you don't intend to
produce a terroir wine – whatever
your press releases might claim.
But of course as a grower you can't
do nothing. A vineyard is an unnatural
thing – vines do not grow naturally
in neat classrooms, pinned to wires,
pruned to make them grow in certain
ways. Everything a grower does, from
putting in drainage and planting
windbreaks, to deciding the orientation
of the rows, to choosing cover crops, is
an intervention designed to adjust what
the terroir might give. And that's
before you leaf-pluck, green-harvest,
and decide the moment to pick.
Antonini has another insight: 'Burgundy
is the place that really understands
terroir. Bordeaux wants to be perfect,
but Burgundy wants to be unique.'
You can see the same difference in
Champagne: the grandes marques want
to be perfect; the top individual
growers want to be unique. To be
perfect means being glossy, glamorous,
made-up, perhaps Botoxed, perhaps
with a nose job. To be unique means
going out without make-up – but to be
beautiful as well as unique you have to
have extremely good bone structure in
the first place.
Back to the soil
Soil matters probably more than
climate. Not because the vine sucks up
the minerals in the soil and transmits
them to the wine – that is total
nonsense, though it still gets repeated.
Vines obtain nutrients via bacteria and
microfungi in the soil – and it might be
that each vineyard's population of these
is different, just as each vineyard's
population of wild yeasts is different
– unless everything is slaughtered
by chemicals. This is what Antonini
means by 'viticulturalists killing soil':
industrially farmed vineyards, doused
in chemicals, obediently yielding
reliably commercial crops of analytically
correct wines, may have little or
no microbiological life. They tend
not to make anything that tastes alive,
vital. Safe, yes; energetic and alive,
not so much.
..and what else?
What else makes a difference?
Allowing those wild yeasts to ferment
the juice, rather than killing them
with sulphur and adding a laboratory
yeast chosen for its ability to enhance
particular flavours or aromas.
Winemakers who prefer to ferment
with wild yeasts have always asserted
that it gives a greater sense of place.
It certainly gives wines that taste
different: less obviously fruity, more
vinous. Closel's Savennières 'La
Jalousie', for example, or Schloss
Gobelsburg's top grüners.
Irrigation, too. Great terroir is wasted
unless roots go deep into it; and why
would they bother to do that, if there's
water available near the surface?
This is an uncomfortable question for
many growers in desert areas of the
new world. Nature seldom ticks all
the boxes for great terroirs.
And oak. The understanding of
oak has expanded in recent years:
good coopers will tailor their barrels
to your wine, rather than vice versa;
and flavours like coffee, chocolate
and coconut that come from the
barrel and only from the barrel are
out of fashion.
So it's a simple recipe, for making
terroir wines? You abandon chemicals,
stop irrigation, use natural yeasts and
keep your fingers crossed?
A question of compromise
Unfortunately, all winegrowing
involves compromise: on the one
side there is nature, on the other,
economics. That might, in a wet year,
mean that even biodynamic growers
have to resort to spraying chemicals.
In the wet, mildew-ridden summer
of 2016, dozens of organic and
biodynamic growers in Burgundy did
just that. The alternative would have
been no crop at all.
All winegrowing, all winemaking, is a
compromise. The greatest terroirs can
mean the most work: they're seldom
the easiest. And the greatest growers
are those with the humility and the
determination to let the terroir sing.