I recently came across this news article on Decanter.com that dealt with a scientific discovery claiming to be able to track a wine’s origin based on it’s chemical composition. It rekindled my interest in a subject that has attracted a lot of attention (somewhat controversially) over the years and is perhaps one of the most researched subject within the industry.
Having learnt the basic science behind wine-growing as a student of Viticulture and Wine-making not so long ago, it is not extremely difficult for me to appreciate the relationship of a wine’s quality to its place of birth. Since there is no specific English word for this concept, I have to relate this phenomenon to the rather parochial (or snobbish?) French term ‘Terroir’ – a word that the ‘New World’ often considers another way to stamp French hegemony on the wine world.
So, is terroir simply a marketing gimmick? Is it just a way to sell Grand Crus and Premier Crus? Well, my two cents, the very essence and relevance of the word goes much beyond a simple business tool. The fact that the French have effectively managed to exploit the idea to promote their ‘prestigious’ wines and estates should not diminish the significance of the term per se and how everything intrinsically entwined to it affects the quality of wines. After all wine is a reflection of the place where it is grown although many in the New World also relate this to the skill of the wine-maker and the myriad of options available during the wine-making process. One of these is the use of specially cultured strains of yeast that impart desirable flavours and aromas to the wine – like replicating the armpit and sweaty characters of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc! Does this approach justify wine’s natural identity? No doubt vinification techniques play a vital role but a vineyard’s potential will always remain paramount and unquestionable in wine-growing.
Nowadays huge investments are made on vineyard site selection and establishment in which the New world has taken the lead as they often lack the traditional geographical knowledge of vineyard sites unlike their counterparts in the Old World. These include soil mapping using the latest state of the art technology, gathering historical climatic data, selecting the right root-stocks and clones of vines, trellis design and so on. All these are practically carried out to ensure optimum growing conditions which in turn are at the heart of the concept of terroir. So, in effect it is a well recognised phenomenon although a classic case of ‘New world vs. Old world’ rivalry prevents the term being wholeheartedly accepted.
Depending upon one’s viewpoint, terroir may be considered as a shrewd marketing tool or an idea that relates to a wine’s quality. Unless the English speaking world comes up with a similar and extremely valid term, it will continue to find favour in wine literature and media.