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There is no exact translation of terroir in English. It is a French term which describes the many influences which impact on the flavours within a wine. These are specific to where the vines grow, especially soil, climate, micro- and meso-climate, whether there is a slope and the aspect of any slope. Cynics question the importance of terroir. Lest those who question the concept feel blinded by vinous science, let us look at examples which are not related to wine at all. The Scottish raspberry, the Ayrshire and Jersey potato, and Kent’s asparagus all go some way to pleading the case. One of the most stark demonstrations to defend its importance can be found comparative tastings of wines. Take, for example Puligny-Montrachet and Meursault. These are adjoining villages, with the vineyards of one running into those of the other. Puligny provides some of the leanest, most pure, steely, elegant Chardonnays while Meursault tends much more towards opulent, rich and creamy wines despite being from the same region, the same slope and the same grape. The difference, particularly when from the same producer, has to be put down to terroir.
HOW CAN THE EFFECTS OF TERROIR BE EXPLAINED?
It would be wrong to associate the term terroir purely with soil – it encompasses so much more. There is, of course, the vineyard site – the vine, soil, subsoil, draining ability, meso-climate, aspect, topography and climate – to be taken into account. Then there is possible influence from nearby mountains, lakes, rivers, oceans and woods. Walls and the colour of those walls may also have an effect, as does the colour of the soil. Not often mentioned but equally valid is the quality of light. The luminosity of a site and the time of day when it is in the sun, clearly have an impact. Bonneau du Martray’s Corton-Charlemagne owes much of its uniquely haunting complexity to the aspect of its slope – producing a wine borne of light rather than full-on sun. There are a great many influences and these are only part of the physical dimension of the word terroir. The notion also hints at the spiritual and at a sense of history.
One can understand a work of art or a piece of music at a certain level without any problem, without knowing about the background of the artist's life or about contemporary world events. However, often knowing such detail intensifies the emotional impact. Thus the viticulturalist / winemaker who is fully tuned into their terroir in all dimensions, will have a greater understanding of their vineyard than that which can be explained simply by soil analysis. This will all play be translated in the finished wine.
CAN YOU JUDGE A WINE BY ITS TERROIR?
Sadly, as is almost always the case, terroir on its own presents challenges as a guide to buying wine, not least the time required to research the received wisdom on the subject. Furthermore, there are always going to be individuals who out-perform or under-perform with regards to their land. Heavily-handled technology and co-operative blending can strip wines of their identity, as can the use of chemicals, as organic and biodynamic producers would argue. Thus wines, even those produced on good sites, can be thrown out of balance by use of cultured yeasts, for example, or overuse of oak.
It is always better to seek advice from your wine merchant.