So often when I talk and taste nice juice with wine pros in France, I ask many questons about the quality and flavour of a wine and I get the standard answer – “Aaah David, it’s the terroir that makes the difference!” Well yes it I agree it is, but also I totally disagree. Terroir is a potential difference maker but it is not the universal secret solution for every difference to every wine.
Let’s start at the beginning. Firstly the French word terroir is pretty much one of a kind. It has no direct translation into English. In definition terroir is a unique agricultural / viticultural location combining geology, geography and (micro)climate. It is therefore the package that includes a piece of land (terre in French) with its soils, location, orientation and the local climate. Every terroir is unique! Including your garden vegetable patch, which has small subtle differences to your neighbour’s.
But terroir doesn’t determine everything! You can have the best patch of dirt in the world but if you have the worst vigneron and wine making skills, you will not make great wine. Terroir is often used almost as an excuse to explain why certain vineyards and micro regions consistently produce better wines than another. The lush vineyards of Saint Emilion Bordeaux and the scraggy steep rocky terraced slopes of the Rhone Valley both make stunning wines but have very very different terroirs. So where is the link? It’s the people and their skills. Great vineyard terroir PLUS great winery skills and technique make Saint Emilion so special. So when a winemaker tells you that her / his wine is an “expression of its unique terroir”, well of course it always is! By definition a wine will always reflect the land and location from which it is made. But only through her / his skill can it become a good or bad expression!
We all wish that we could have a slice of Saint Emilion terroir under our feet. We don’t. But by applying equally good and highly skilled technical viticultural skills in the vineyard followed by specialised vinification, you can come fairly close to making exceptional wine. And only by working carefully with the natural benefits of a terroir can you bring out that unique wine taste. As so often is the case, people make the difference! Even with wine.
So the answer to my first question therefore should have read “Aaah David, it’s the terroir and the skills of our people that make the difference”. In old English, or maybe even French, only 2+2 = 5!