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?


6 thoughts on “Terroir : The Dirty Word of Wine

  1. All the nuanced variables of input are irrelevant if they have no effect on output. All the subtleties of wine must, in the final analysis, reflect variation of their chemical content. There must be hundreds of detectable (to the human tongue and nose) chemicals in wine. Can they be detected and quantified by microarray analysis?

    • Sure, but the challenge is to know where they come from, which ones come from where, how the inputs interact to form the outputs, etc. This complex interlinking that results from a complexity of inputs is no simple task to study…

  2. Comment I received via FB from Scott – wanted to post it as it could also stir some discussion! : Cool article, nicely written. For my 2c I think part of the problem with it as a concept is that we try to make terroir encompass too much- and of course the willingness of the French to use the term in maybe a few too many contexts doesn’t help. But certainly regional and sub-regional terroir ‘signals’ of distinctly different wines being produced on different combos of Geol/soil/climate do come through in many places, even in relatively young wine regions e.g. parts of NZ. We don’t really need to be all mystical about it..

    • my response: maybe we need our own ‘new world’ version of the word.. i think the problem could just be that when we adopt a french word, the assumption (justifiably) is that the meaning will be the same.. but in the new world the industry is so different, with the much shorter history, that the meaning just CANT be the same, we don’t HAVE all the contexts to put it in. so what should our word be? typicity is one i’ve heard thrown around, but this might be too limited..

      • again from scott: Yeah the only problem in finding another word is that will any other word sound as sexy as ‘terroir’? I know typicity doesnt, it sounds like something to do with a type writer. Maybe seperate it into New world terroir vs old world terroir? Hows this for a tagline: “New World Terroir; more science and less sociology since not that long ago”.

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