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4. Terroir

By Mark Andrew

One of the things that separates the wine enthusiast from the casual drinker is the importance of place, or more specifically the concept of ‘terroir’ – a French word that has no direct translation into English, but has been described as the ‘location, location, location’ of wine.

When I was first getting into wine, I was fascinated by the idea that if presented with two different bottles that looked the same, cost the same and came from the same grape variety, I would usually prefer one of them to the other. The question of why this might be turned me from someone that enjoyed drinking wine into someone that started thinking about wine. The answer turned out to be terroir.

What is terroir and why does it matter?

Terroir is the combination of factors that, when brought together, make one vineyard (and hopefully the resulting wine) different to another. Many different things can have an effect on terroir – climate, soil type, vineyard altitude and indigenous flora and fauna to name but a few. Essentially we are talking about the specific characteristics of the land and microclimate that mark a given site or region as unique.

But how much can this affect what we taste in the bottle? Well, quite a significant amount. Remember that the wine that we drink is a direct product of the fruit that is harvested. If all that fruit comes from a specific vineyard that is steep, close to a body of water and composed of gravelly soils that have excellent drainage, then the resulting wine will be very different to that made of fruit from an inland vineyard with clay-rich soil on a flatter aspect. Is this not just the difference between a good vineyard and a bad vineyard? Well, no – in this example the first vineyard sounds like it would be perfect for Cabernet Sauvignon, whereas the second may be more suitable for Merlot. And matching the grape variety to the terroir when planting the vines will give you even better fruit come harvest time.

France - defining terroir

Terroir is a national obsession in France, where they created an entire bureaucracy based on geography, called Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC). The AOC system began back in the 1930s when the Baron de Ley decided he would propose regulations to govern the production methods and geographic boundaries of his beloved Châteuaneuf-du-Pape. The Baron was furious at the growing volume of wine from outside the area that was being fraudulently bottled as Châteauneuf, particularly as the large stones (called ‘galets’) throughout the vineyards created a unique terroir. These large pebbles soaked up the heat of the sun during the day and then radiated warmth to the low-trained vines during the night, meaning that the fruit in Châteauneuf would invariably ripen far better than in other areas, giving wines of greater body and richness.

Today the AOC system has been expanded beyond wine to include spirits, cheese, chickens and even lentils.

When good terroir is not enough

It is important to remember that the 300 or so wine appellations are not necessarily a guarantee of quality, only a guarantee of authenticity, and herein lies the problem. Whether or not the galets of Châteauneuf or the Kimmeridge clay of Chablis infuse character into their respective wines, this alone will never ensure a quality bottle of wine. Only a combination of great terroir, enlightened winemaking and favourable vintage conditions will do that. There are even those that dispute the entire notion of terroir and would have you believe that it is the human influence that dictates the intrinsic quality of a wine, but where’s the romance in that?

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