Why Terroir isn’t Everything – It’s the Only Thing

Once one stops asking questions in the world of wine, you might as well admit that your time in this most wonderful of cultural, scientific and agricultural arenas is over. It is the continued search for answers pertaining to a plethora of aspects about wine that makes this such a fascinating environment to work in. Oh, allow me to correct myself, one does not work in the wine world: you live there.

That is why the continued search for the meaning of the term terroir, which has unfortunately become too easy, ubiquitous in its use instead of being respected as the very soul of wine, never stops to bring a smile to my face. I find this inspiring. It is evident of the ever-dynamic nature of the wine industry that terroir is today being as fervently and hotly debated as it was when it began to hit our back-labels, tasting notes and printed reviews in the 1990s.

Speaking as a part-time winemaker with almost three decades of life in the vineyard and in the winery, I believe that every person has his or her own interpretation of terroir. And although the wine industry – especially the South African wine industry – is known for its inability to share commonality in our opinions, I think for this we have to agree that every wine person’s interpretation of terroir is the right one.

For this is only fair. Grant us wine folk who spend our days among the vines walking the soil and smelling the breeze, the right to offer our individual explanations of terroir. I think we are to be trusted.

For some, terroir can be defined as the physical effects of soil, aspect and climate. Full-stop. These geographical features ensure the influence of nature is recognised as an integral part of the life-cycle with which each and every vine and vineyard is blessed. The most important point is the recognition that every square metre – even less – has a different natural fingerprint whose influence on the vine, the grapes and the wine can be drawn back to terroir.

Having had the fortune to farm in South Africa, Europe and Tasmania for a number of years, my definition of terroir takes on factors complementing the physical attributes of soil, climate and aspect. Here terroir, for me, gets a human face. As a creature both innovation and habit, farmers form a symbiotic relationship with their plants.

Over the years in our specific vineyards, we devise pruning times and methods – for example – which we know will have a certain influence on the growth-cycle of the vines. In turn, this influence will include bud-break, veraison and bunch-development, with the result being discernible in the wine.

The same goes for canopy management, yield control, the growing of cover-crops, trellising of new vines and harvest dates. Through time, wine farmer and vine have learnt from each other as to how to ensure the expression of site through giving – man – and receiving – vine. Lying like a gilded cloak above plant and man are the physical influences of geography and site.

I am thus not going to attempt a formal definition of terroir. But I do believe that the impact of nature and the sustained intervention from the wine farmer play a profound role in giving wine a birth-right with which to claim a discernible individuality.

For me, this makes the questioning of terroir’s very existence as an influencer on wine incredulous. For the answer is very simple. If terroir was not a factor, how else would a wine-taster be able to identify a Pomerol from Bordeaux or a white Burgundy out of Meursault? My earliest readings of Matthew Broadbent, Hugh Johnson and Harry Waugh made tasting and smelling the various characters exhibited by the great wines of Europe in blind-tastings a norm and not an exception. Terroir was just, well, there and never questioned.

During my studies in Europe, my classmates quickly learnt to recognise the unique characteristics of Riesling made in the Pfalz compared to wines from the Rheingau. It just seemed – as today – the most logical thing in the world: just as grape varieties differ in flavour, aroma and structure, so too do wines that originate from different countries, geographical zones and vineyard sites.

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Without the existence of terroir, this most simple of examples as to its prevalence would not be here for me to give.

But does terroir matter?

Of course it does. With an understanding of terroir in his or her blood, winemakers are able to use the surroundings to make the best and most complete wine possible. Terroir challenges the winemaker to continuously aim for loftier heights. Here, the site says, here I give you my most personal expression of nature through bunches of grapes. It is your task to further this journey by doing justice to it in the bottle.

What would wine be without terroir? A homogenous ocean of fermented grape juice. And don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with easy-drinking, well-made and high-volume wine that claims to be just that. There is time and a place to enjoy this, too.

But terroir is the single most important factor in making wine the multi-faced, mysteriously beautiful and complex drink that it is. The country and place from where it originates grabs the imagination of the consumer, who is during that 15 minutes – or however long it takes to drink a glass – taken on a journey of joy, discovery, imagination and pleasure.

Terroir is what makes wine tick. It is what captivates the consumer, because it is what we as wine lovers want to know when introduced to a wine. For the first two things you wish to know when meeting a new person are the same as when encountering a wine: What is your name? And where do you come from?

That is why origin, through terroir, will always be a natural and unquestionable part of wine as we know it, and wish to know it.

  • Lafras Huguenet

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