I know that terroir has perhaps been misused on occasion, scapegoated, cannibalised, but we are all on the same page that it is real, right? I recently read an article in response to a book challenging the ’myth’ of terroir. The writer in this article was, in all fairness to him, also having gripe with the book’s claims against the Shamanism of Terroir.
Now, I know that wine culture wrote the guidebooks on running away with romanticism, so there’s plenty to fight about: natural fermentations, old vines, biodynamics, new or old wood, etcetera,etcetera. The list goes on and on, catalyses its own perpetuation, loops the loops and rewrites itself everyday, but I don’t think terroir deserves to be on that list. It just has a bad name, or it just lacks definition.
I’ve said it before, terroir is just the environment the vine grows in. For me, that’s enough to convince me. Only the psychotic would tell you a burrito isn’t composed of a tortilla wrap, meat, rice, black beans and whatever other delicious things you want to put in there. He might say it’s actually made of other things like apples, paper clips and the gaps in the pavement. Soil, water, sunlight and a vine. At a basic level, that’s all you need and you should get some grapes. Every vineyard in the world has these four parameters to different degrees: add a lot more sunshine and grapes have higher sugar levels relative to phenolics; add a lot of rain and clay and you have vigour. No two sites have the same ratio or quantity of each of these ingredients. Thus, they are unique.
Of course, when people really talk about terroir, they want the gory details. They want to know that alluvial deposits 20 million years ago have put stones and silt high in Calcium Carbonate in certain sublayer of the soil, this Calcium content gives the wine the slightest of chalky undertones on the palate. It is harder to prove the manifestations of these minor geological details, as the effects are far more subtle than higher sugar levels or juicy berries. However, reasoning should lead you to similar conclusions: just as the trace vitamins in our diet greatly affect our health, so do trace elements in the soil effect a vine.
Terroir doesn’t need to be a story. As usual the beauty comes from stepping back and appreciating the glory of random scientific make-up; the true uniqueness of a site comes from these empirical differences of analysis – 2mm less rainfall in this particular ravine, 5% more clay content in the soil and so on. Every site has the potential (more or less) to be the same, the starting components are equivalent: it is on Earth, made up of decomposed rock, gets sun and rain. Much like the pieces of chess begin in the same place, and yet no chess games ever take place in the same manner, no two sites, and thus no two wines can be the same.