Terroir or Not Terroir? | New Brief #246

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One word that stands out in all wine communication today is “terroir”. Wine drinkers claim to find it in the wine, and winemakers strive to express it in their work. All wine enthusiasts know roughly what that means. A regular wine drinker probably does not, or possibly just an inkling. You can appreciate a good wine without having a clue about the importance of terroir.

In any case, terroir is a vague concept. Not that it is not important. The soil, the climate, the grape, the local environment, as well as traditions and methods (everything usually included in “terroir”) create and shape the wine together with the winemaker in the cellar.

All wine comes either from a specific place or several different places, close or far from each other. You could say that “terroir feeling” means getting an impression of the wine’s origin. Reasonably, there will be more sense of terroir if all the grapes come from a limited contiguous plot than if you have blended grapes from, say, the entire Languedoc or Champagne region. However, that is not always true. What terroir means to the wine drinker is complex. What makes it even more complicated is that, in many cases, people use the word “terroir” as a synonym for “soil”. That is not strange; that is what the French word literally means.

I recently heard Jean-Louis Chave in the Northern Rhône (Hermitage and Saint Joseph) complain that some of his vines give a grape character to the wine. It may seem like a strange regret when growing beautiful syrah — but grape variety character is not what he wants. He wants a terroir character.

That is what most wine producers say. It is a trendy expression today – that the wine should “express its terroir”. We see it in every other advertising text, probably without the advertiser knowing what it means (a marketing abuse much like with the word “minerality”).

Terroir does not necessarily mean it is easier to know where the wine comes from. It can signify that the wine has character and personality. An expressive wine, as we sometimes say. Complex. It tastes more than its grape. It can be described as the opposite of an unpretentious wine with a “nice” taste that everyone can like.

However, this character and personality can depend on good, healthy vines, a successful growing season, a suitable grape variety in suitable soil, a reasonable yield, a skilled winemaker with a magical touch, ageing in oak, concrete or amphora, or ageing on the lees. And so on. A good wine is the result of a multitude of details, big and small. Never just one thing.

Perhaps we should sometimes rather avoid the word terroir. It means so many different things to different people in different contexts, so it easily becomes a word you use carelessly because you are too lazy to be more precise in your description. A vague and imprecise word can be more confusing than explanatory. It might be better to try to describe why we like the wine.

You do not automatically find a sense of terroir because all the grapes come from a small, limited plot. However, it depends on what you put into the word’s meaning. And the irony is that wine lovers are happy when we recognise the grape variety in a wine.

We have just recently returned from the first wine tour of the year, The Great South Africa Tour. It was a fabulous trip. It was actually unusually cool weather, only slightly warmer than a Swedish summer. Lovely. It’s really fun to have the privilege of showcasing this amazing wine country to new wine enthusiasts. There is an incredible variety of wines and a talent of a new generation of winemakers. What hasn’t caught up with the rest of the world, however, are the prices, but we can hope that will soon change. One of the major problems in the wine industry in South Africa is profitability. The world has yet to discover what quality can be found here. If you haven’t been to South Africa yet, maybe now is the time? Next tour will be in February 2025. You can see more about the South Africa wine tour in this Facebook group.

But now it’s soon off to New Zealand for our next wine tour, also a country that offers many surprises. Everyone is well aware of the brilliant sauvignon blanc wines from New Zealand. But it is a country with a great variety of grapes, syrah, fiano, cabernet, outstanding pinot noir, grenache, and so on. By the way, did you know that this is where bungee jumping was invented? We visit the bridge where they made the first jump. Anyone who wants to can still jump there… More on this soon.

Wine tours

If you want to join us on this years great adventures to Bordeaux and Champagne, book your places now. You can hardly find a wine tour organiser with more inside knowledge. First time we were in Bordeaux was in 1986. We’ve written twelve wine books, including wine internationally award winning on Champagne. We travel in wine regions…… all the time.

For some very special experiences – once in a life-time wine tours – you can join us next winter on the extended Southern Hemisphere Tours: Chile-Argentina, South Africa and New Zealand.

More info on our wine tours here. “World’s Top Wine Tours“. Tours with the people who know wine and who have an unrivalled experience of wine and tours.

Travel in wine regions with someone you trust.

Wine editors to the national encyclopedia, Forbes.com contributors, award-winning wine book authors, wine tour advisors to the UN and national wine organisations, wine judges … and, above all, passionate wine travellers.

Enjoy the Brief!

Britt & Per

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A cross-section of the soil, loess soil, in a vineyards in Austria
A cross-section of the soil, sandy loess soil, in a vineyards in Austria, copyright BKWine Photography

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