Can you taste the soil: literally feel the cations in their particular ratios dancing on your tongue? Or perhaps that soft sea breeze that lulls an ever so gentle slumber of eucalyptus over the grape cuticles at night? If you enjoy wine to the point of scrutiny then it’s likely that these questions have been put to you in a more than ironic tone, whilst you were swirling and sniffing your glass when you thought no-one was looking. Of course you laugh, you look sideways, make a joke about smelling the colour of the winemaker’s socks on the day of harvest in the wine (also ironically), and then apologise internally to the wine and the winemaker for your profanity. However, if bitter, unrecognised victory is your thing – and it’s gonna have to be – you’re in luck: all these things you absolutely 100% can taste, however subtle or unwittingly … they are terroir!
Terroir is a great subject to talk about because it’s so opinionated, vague and broad – there can be no universal agreement. In the broadest sense, it pertains to all the factors involved in the ‘natural’ creation of grapes – from soil, sun and sky to the roots absorbing chemical chelates from the remains of that peculiar species of Coleoptera that died in the soil. In wine, it is the expression of these diverse factors that is so coveted.
The wine community is a special group of people who have an ability to bring morality and opinion into every movement of the grape, as if each viticultural and oenological decision were being added to balancing scales in purgatory. With regards to terroir, I think, the fulcrum that people squabble over is honesty … “How honest is this wine?”. In this context (and thankfully, not elsewhere) everyone has a different definition of honesty. The honesty varies in regard to expression. Sorry for the buzzwords, expression is just a fancy way of saying what the wine tastes, feels, smells, looks (and sounds??) like – essentially, the drinking experience.
So far, so good, but now we find ourselves on bumpy ground. The current trend is to say that lower sugar levels retain a purity of fruit, and don’t mask the ‘terroir’ flavours with hefty ‘over-ripe’ fruit flavours that the berry develops as ripening continues. The belief is that more elegant characteristics show through the wine when big fruit is not present – things like minerality, one of the more obscure characteristics to observe in wine. All this is good and well, but it’s quite snobby to say it’s the only way to express terroir. Though over-ripe flavours are quite pungent and can overwhelm the softer flavours, you’re throwing science out of the window if you claim they aren’t a manifestation of the terroir; as much as the soft sea breeze is terroir and those snails and bird nests that fell into the harvester as well as all those times a vineyard worker couldn’t make it to the bathroom to relieve themselves are terroir too!
When ‘terroir’ was coined as a term, it’s unlikely that the poor French, medieval, illiterate farmer knew the weight it might carry one day. But if anything can be taken away, it is to refrain from the idea that terroir can only be expressed by one recipe: if it’s on the farm and in the wine, it’s terroir, as far as I’m concerned. Let no one tell you that there’s a quantified ranking system to assign what the ‘best’ elements of terroir are. The choice is up to you to decide which method you think makes the best wine. Comparing those methods is a story for another day.