Pretty sure it is one of those… moving on:
TERROIR: the set of all environmental factors that affect a crop’s epigenetic qualities, when the crop is grown in a specific habitat. Collectively, these environmental characteristics are said to have a character; terroir also refers to this character1.
Terroir is a word that is perhaps over-utilized in the world of wine but for good reason. The sum of an awesome wine is greater that its parts (in my opinion). With so many small tweaks that can be made in the wine growing we use”terroir” to describe why a wine is the way it is. There is no scientific measurement or qualification. It is an esoteric concept where even those that know what terroir means, or meant to represent, cannot fully figure it out. Those of us in the industry tend to use it as a way to tell people why a wine has special characteristics due to the environment around the vines that produced the grapes that were used for making said wine. The reason we use the “T” word is because the environment is an “X” factor that we don’t fully understand.
Enter Mark Matthews and Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing. I haven’t read his new book just yet but I did quite like the quote that was pulled out by the Wine Spectator: “When I told the winemaker at one of Napa Valley’s leading midsize wineries that I was working on a book that dealt with bullshit in winegrowing, he responded with a chuckle and asked, ‘How are you going to know when to stop?2‘” Clever, very clever.
Unfortunately I cannot find the source of this but I do remember a while back that there was a company looking to literally break down a 100 point wine chemically and recreate it for manufacturing purposes, in essence negating the idea that the wine was special at all. It would end up proving that all they hype behind exceptional or classic wines is BS because they can be recreated. I don’t like ratings either but that was a silly failed attempt that looked to prove a point that was irrelevant. The reason that exercise failed is because there was none of that “X” factor. There are forces beyond a wine growers control that allow winemakers to have the opportunity to make great wine. Every part of that statement is a giant “what if” because great wine is an art form.
Good wine can be manufactured, great wine is created and there is a significant difference between the two.
To Professor Matthew’s credit as a scientist he looked to try and explain or disprove a hypothesis that the world of wine generally embraces without question. I can totally understand why he would be interested in spending the time to try and do that. I think he wasted his time but I do still need to read those 221 pages before I can really have a say. In one way he is right. Terroir is not a proven fact, it is theory. It is a way that we try to comprehend something that is incomprehensible. I can think of other ways to try and prove or disprove terroir but none of which are worth attempting.
I would also argue that with the amount of technology and products available within the world of wine you could manufacture a wine that tastes like Oakville Cabernet or Alsatian Riesling without procuring grapes from those regions. I do honestly believe that those wines would be missing something… that “X” factor would be oddly absent. The wines would probably be good but not great. They would taste manufactured not like everything was in balance and in harmony.
As I understand it there is much more to the book than just terroir but it is definitely the excerpt that has caught most of my attention. Maybe terroir really is a myth. Maybe it is simply us humans trying to understand something that we are having a hard time grasping.
But who am I to say? I’ll let the wines speak for themselves.
1 – Tanzer, Stephen. “What is terroir?”Stephen Tanzer’s Winophilia. Retrieved 2 May 2016.
2 – Matthews, Mark. “Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing. Retrieved 2 May 2016.