What is terroir, really?

by Liz Caskey on March 18, 2010


One of my favorite wine books is a memoir written by Lawrence Osborne entitled The Accidental Connoisseur. Filled with insights, humor, and brilliant prose, he brings to life the other side of wine: the people behind the wines.  This book closely parallels the documentary Mondovino (which if you haven’t seen it, is highly recommendable, trailer above), and he puts on the table and probes some interesting discussions flying around the wine world. Namely, “What is taste? And what is terroir?” And how do you acquire, find, and identify these? The author travels from small producers in France and Italy to New World California looking for the microscopic differences between essentially identical wines to see if terroir really does exist.

Last night, after re-tasting some samples from my friend José Manuel Ortega’s vineyard in the Maule and San Antonio, O. Fournier, two wine appellations with very defined terroir in Chile, I started to ponder this question again. Terroir is one of those concepts that gets thrown around all the time in the wine industry. Winemakers wax on about it, marketing agencies use it to sell cases, and circles from novices to pros like Parker ardently look for it in a glass. I would almost surmise that it’s shifted in the public light from being something real to more a concept of place. An overused buzz word with a vague notion of meaning. No, no, no. That’s certainly not the idea. Let’s define what constitutes terroir and, in a very broadstroke manner, how this is happening in Chile (although I could write another book on that!).

Terroir is a group of vineyards, or vines, from the same region, which belong to a specific appellation sharing the same type of soil, weather conditions, grapes varieties, and wine making savoir-faire. These factors all contribute to giving a specific, unique personality to the wine, much as if it were a person.  All of these are necessary for terroir. Not just one of them. ALL of them. Nowadays I often hear terroir interpreted as a sense of place. The climate. Typicity does not constitute terroir. Not in the (true) French definition at least. A place can be definite in its climate but not have terroir in other respects. Plant the wrong varietal and you can even have anti-terroir. As one winemaker friend of mine put it, “The expresssion of terroir can be diminished by improper pairing or by anything that affects the plant / soil / climate relationship: over-irrigating, improper canopy management, improper fertilization techniques… the list goes on. Bad vineyard management and bad winemaking erase terroir.”

So is there this spirit of place in Chilean wines? Although vines have been planted in Chile for nearly 500 years by the Spanish, the focus on terroir-driven wines simply didn’t exist here until fairly recently (say last 10-20 years). The focus was producing wine in volume without the rigorous studies, diligent planning, and careful execution of projects where Terroir was the guiding force from the beginning. Let’s face it, Chile, unlike France, did not inherit thousands of ancient vineyards. This was/is virgin soil. A rugged, far flung, albeit Mediterranean-temperate climate perched on the southwestern edge of the American continent. Pioneer terrain if you will. Chile’s varied soils, climates, altitudes, mountains, and people were basically given carte blanche to experiment. They had no choose but to learn through exploration. Trial and error. But let terroir to chance? Not exactly. Presently in Chile, I would say that there’s a larger sense and deeper understanding of terroir than ever within the Chilean wine-making community. A generation of winemakers who have studied in France, or with experts, to understand what real terroir is–and how they can identify it and express it in Chile.

So going back to our definition then, terroir starts with the soil, the climate, the varieties, and yes, man. Think about it. Wine is a CREATION. It is birthed by nature and given form by man. The vines, like humans and all living things, have in their DNA the ability to adapt, or not, to specific conditions, depending on the evolution of their unique origen. The vines naturally capture the soil’s minerality and expresses it. The vines also express the weather in their temperament. High-altitude or coastal wines may show high acidity from cold nights or high alcohol from excessive sunlight. And yes, they take on man’s energy. All those seemingly small decisions in how to best express the wine nudges the vine of how to be and what to do. It sends signals: from early pruning to cutting back bunches,  de-leafing for ventilation, when to harvest (or let hang) and a non-intervention philosophy in the winery. When the vines are loved and a project made with an eye to terroir and that attention to quality, how can a wine NOT best express all that it was meant to be? That, my friends, is terroir in my humble opinion. A wine showing all that it can be: the soil, the place, the people, the origen, it’s fullest expression. This is a beautiful confluence and manifestation of two worlds.

In Chile, we now know there’s terroir here for sure. Right now, winemakers adore the minerality in the limestone soils and cool coastal climate of the desert Limarí, making arguably Chile’s most unusual and mineral-laden Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. How about in the newer areas of the Bío Bío and Traiguen where Pinot pioneers are looking for the perfect terroir to produce earthy, mineral Pinots with a natural 12.8% alcohol? Or parts of the Alto Maipo valley where Almaviva and El Principal produce some of the best Cabernet in the world? The Chilean wine industry is now being lead by inspiring projects, from big to small, of terroir-minded growers, winemakers, and owners. Terroir is not a concept—it’s a way of being and making wine. Experts like Pedro Parra, the “terroir doctor” who runs the national agronomy institute in París, now works with vintners to understand this, from north to south. Other winemakers and consultants are spearheading mind-blowing projects where terroir reigns: Patrick Valette as a consultant to Neyén in Apalta (Colchagua), and the new Viña Vik project in Cachapoal, a project with its own valley and over a dozen micro-climates and soils. How about María Luz Marín for planting in the Lo Abarca area of San Antonio when all her colleagues thought she was nuts? She studied those mineral-laden, sandy soils and looked to the Loire–and now produces one of Chile’s best Sauvignon Blanc. Or Felipe Díaz of Loma Larga in Casablanca who wrestled to get Cabernet Sauvignon to ripen to no avail with the cold nights. He followed his instinct and planted Malbec in a sandy patch in his vineyard which ripened with beautiful acidity. Eureka.

After all this, can I taste terroir in my glass? Yes, you can. Wine has a personality. I always write about wine like people because no two bottles are ever the same. Are you and your brother the same person even though you have the same parents? Of course not. Well, wine is no different. Did your DNA, upbringing, beliefs, values, education, and people in your life impact you? Okay, that’s climate and soil. And then YOU adapted, grew, and gave your best. Well a vine does this naturally to form the grapes which then are transformed by man into a wine. So really when you ask, can I “taste” terroir, it’s really a twofold question: 1. It obviously is what’s going on with the wine, and 2. what’s going on with YOU as you drink the wine. One is geological, the other psychological. And our “taste” is presumably the balancing act between the two. After all is said and done, we have to keep in mind is that the pleasure in any wine is subjective. We each bring something to what is in the glass and interpret that result differently. So try to feel the wine as a person, understand where it’s coming from. Let it speak to you, feel its presence, and let it tell you who it really is. That, for me, is terroir.

{ 1 comment }

Todd Trzaskos March 20, 2010 at 2:53 am

Bravo! Chile is all too often only seen as a source of cheap, good quality juice, and folks overlo0k the fact that you can decant a $10 bottle of wine and get a whole lot more character than if you just go right at it. Chilean nuance is phenomenal, and I knew it to the core when we first opened a bottle of Von Siebenthal Carabantes here in VT, and I swear I could smell the Chilean dust and the air in the glass. Nothing short of transcendental…
Chile is only just starting to show its deep potential.

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