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Terroir - Does it matter?
Terroir is a belief that wine can communicate some sense of the place from which it came. But is this an abstraction or can you taste it?
It is also one of the most used and least understood wine words. Originally it was associated with earthy notes in many Old World wines. Back in the 1980s many of these ‘terroir-driven’ wines were actually affected by wine faults including cork taint and wild yeast growth (brettanomyces). Nowadays, terroir is used to describe practically every wine region. For example: France - Bordeaux’s Terroir or South Africa - Hemel-en-Aarde Terroir, Stellenbosch Terroir.
Simple definitions of terroir allow that a vineyard’s soil and climate contribute greatly to a wine’s flavour. Many agree with a catalogue of elements listed: “Soil, climate, sun exposure, slope, row orientation.”
Many grape growers argue that terroir must also include the vines themselves. They say that the great terroir of Burgundy would no longer be as great if it grew Cabernet Sauvignon instead of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
But what about the hands that care for the vines?
Some Winemakers believe that the people tending to the vineyard are what ultimately express the unique character of wines with a sense of place.
However, not everyone is convinced that people and their culture should be linked to terroir.
The decisions made about how to farm and vinify grapes make huge differences to wine, but these are not considered as part of the terroir, as some winemakers argue - “One should not fight or alter terroir”.
For centuries, people believed that a terroir’s minerals could be tasted in the glass. It’s tempting to say that a Riesling tastes like the slate from its soil, or that we taste the chalk from where a Chardonnay is rooted.
Yet science has proven that whatever we taste—call it “minerality”—is not actually dissolved minerals passing from the soil and into the wine. It’s physically impossible.
Terroir can change over time, both as a result of man and nature.
Enough credit may not be given to fauna and flora that inhabit terroir's, whether in the winery or cave. It is interesting to consider, whether the indigenous yeasts and cellar fauna of any region should or could be classed as part of terroir.
Whatever the “truth” about terroir may be, I am convinced that believers in terroir make the finest wines. Just as believers in terroir get a deeper satisfaction from drinking these wines.