Terroir : The Dirty Word of Wine


I recently blogged about wine and science, and mentioned the difficulty of terroir as a concept, given its vast array of nuances and effective unstranslatability out of the French language.

But its just dirt, right?  … If only it were that simple.

As part of my masters program we spent two months studying nothing but the subject, and even then we only scratched the surface.  To give an idea of the complexity of the concept, our courses throughout the unit included those in geology, sociology, administration/law, geography, landscape analysis, and sensory analysis.

We had lectures and field trips, all to grind into us that terroir is an all-encompassing concept that includes everything from the underlying geology, the soil, the climate (at multiple scales – macro-, meso-, and micro-), to the ‘savoir-faire’ or know-how of the producers, and the collective social network in a region.


But is it a concept that will ever really become fully embraced in the New World countries ?  Sure there are plenty of viticulturalists around the world who adhere to the concept, could even be considered die-hards who devote their work (and often, therefore, their lives) to expressing the terroir in their wines.  And then there are even more wineries who hype the concept of terroir as a marketing tool, hoping that this catch-phrase will help sell their wine, but not necessarily embracing the concept at its fullest.   I’ve found this to be a potential barrier between French and non-French wine pros, as the French are so indoctrinated with terroir that the idea that this concept just doesn’t exist in many winemaking cultures is simply incomprehensible.  The French (many of them, at least, and a select few outside of France as well, of course!) want to valorize their terroir, but in labeling any old wine as terroir-driven, many new world producers aren’t helping to define the concept amongst consumers.  How do we solve this dilemma?  Is it possible to have real terroir-driven wines in places where there isn’t a history of wine production?  Its certain that anywhere where the land hasn’t been too badly destroyed the geological/pedological components of terroir exist, but is that enough?  How do we judge the relative importance of the different components – the soil, the climate, the people?  Posing these questions begins to shed some light onto why scientific studies looking at the ‘terroir effect’ have such limited applicability – the concept is too complex to study with a traditional, reductive scientific approach.  So we need a new method.  Or… do we let it remain the seductive mystery that it is?


Why Translate [Wine] Geek? Drawing parallels between wine and science

A recent course in wine marketing (part of the International Vintage Master) got my wine-science connection sparking again.  After spending a year thinking about nothing else, and then 7 months of zoomed-in wine studies, I had a bit of a breakthrough moment.  When the prof started talking about how to communicate with consumers, and the fact that they’re just bogged down in jargon and the technical detail that us wine-geeks are so apt to adopt, I had a light-bulb moment.

This is the connection.

Frankly, this disconnect is exactly what has always driven me batty about science too.  Within the community, be it of wine or of science, the members are so incredibly impassioned about their subject and want nothing more than to spread this passion like wildfire.  But what happens?  They open their mouth spew their vernacular and immediately are seen as geeks without proper social skills, for the plain and simple reason that the language doesn’t translate across this community boundary.  To understand wine geek you have to be a wine geek, and to understand the scientific lexicon  you have to be a well-indoctrinated nerd.

But this was always exactly my mission for science – how can we, as scientists, communicate effectively with those outside of our community, who would certainly also be interested in our musings, if only we could get the point across without becoming entangled in the jargon-laden argot of the trade.  The implications are critical given the ethical issues tied up in so many scientific questions these days (think stem cells, or this new drug in development made from resveratrol, the compound in red wine, thought to be able to help us live to up to 150 years… but who would have acces and what would determine this access? Not sure we’re ready to broach these questions yet, and not sure we’ll ever be ready to if the communication barrier between what’s really going on with the science and the public perception of it remains as formidable as it is now).

Perhaps the gravity of the situation is not quite the same, with wine sales on the line rather than lives, but the same issue presents itself in the wine world.  What other beverage has the exclusive power of wine, the power to embarrass for a poor choice, to bring great pride for choosing a wine that pleases your guests.  To make people avoid for fear of not knowing the correct terminology?  How can we expect to attract new consumers when we are in the process of scaring them off, just in the language that we use?  It is time for a new approach, just like for science.  We need to learn that communicating with those outside of the ‘inner circle’ is imperative to our success and that a different style of communication is called for.  We can’t use geek-speak to talk to real people.  And we know this.  Anyone who’s ever geeked-out on a friend, on any topic, knows that glazed-over look that befalls them within the first few seconds.  That will never work to sell a product to a non-believer.  We already have the geeks under our thumb, what we need to learn is how to talk to the rest of the world.
I don’t know which will come first, but perhaps those with an interest in communicating about their wine (for marketing purposes, primarily, but also to  convey its hugely important cultural affinities to the uninitiated) can learn from   the scientists who are learning how to communicate, and vice-versa.  We certainly live in a age where this seems like a feasible goal to shoot for – with our plethora of social and alternative media that allow seamless transmission of information between individuals of all different profiles.  Its time to talk, or chat, or tweet, but let’s let down the barriers.  Let’s talk to everyone.

DSC_0704(Terroir.  one of those wine buzz-words that’s so poorly explained and little understood.  How can we get the message across that its more than just dirt?)

When a river runs through it… it sparkles?


Saumur, located right on the Loire River, is a city in France known for its horses (the Cadre Noir is based at the National Riding School in Saumur, along the lines of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna) and its wine.  Saumur-Champigny is (amongst connaisseurs, at least), one of the better known appellations of the Loire Valley, but Saumur is also home to a large number of sparkling wine houses, most notably making wines in the appellations of Crémant de Loire and Saumur Brut.   

At Bouvet-Ladubay we were lucky enough to have a course on how to taste sparkling wines, with the well-known regional enology consultant Jean-Michel Monnier.  The specificity of sparkling wines require special treatment to fully appreciate them in a ‘professional’ style tasting (otherwise, please, I beg you, just keep enjoying your champagne like you always have! that’s the point, right?).


We discussed different types of glasses and their merits (those shown above, and these newer models are definitively the best), and the very real importance (for once) of specific glasses because champagne flutes are laser-treated to create little imperfections in the bottom on which the bubbles can form!

Swirl? Nope, for once there’s no need since the bubbles carry with them all the volatile aroma molecules as they rise in your glass and then release them at the surface.

DSC_0680(here we see the sometimes-disasterous effects of the enormous pressure build-up inside a bottle of bubbly.  the bottle in the center of this storage rack at Langlois-Chateau during the aging process)

DSC_0667(View from vineyards of Langlois-Chateau – with city of Saumur and its Chateau in the background)

In sparkling wine the most important aromas to watch out for are the primary aromas, coming from the fruit and the terroir – so fruityness, herbacity, floral, minerality (I really should make a vow not to employ this term until I find a satisfying working definition, but here it is).  The secondary aromas come from fermentation (that’s why they’re considered secondary – its an added layer to what the grapes supply on their own), and are expressed by yeasty, brioche-y, nutty, buttery, lactic aromas.  Finally, there is even a tertiary bouquet, which comes from the aging of these wines (either in barrel [initial fermentation], or in bottle on the lees and later in the final bottle – see the process for making champagne outlined here) – oaky, toasty or vanilla aromas from the wood, or more subdued, complex versions of the secondary fermentation aromas (coming here from the autolysis of the yeast cells after fermentation has finished).