The War on Terroir
What are we fighting for?
There are a lot of wine terms the average drinker has to contend with: body, bouquet, legs, nose, yada yada yada. But the most disputed is terroir. Terroir is defined as a group of vineyards (or even vines) from the same region, belonging to a specific appellation, and sharing the same type of soil, weather conditions, grapes and winemaking savoir-faire, which contribute to the specific personality of a wine.
Can you tell if a Cabernet is grown in Napa or France? Well then, can you tell if it's grown in Languedoc-Roussillon or Bordeaux? And is it from Château Latour or perhaps Château Léoville-Barton? Some people claim to be able to pick these nuances out; others call it a marketing scheme. Does it matter? It's up to you to decide. The wine world is embroiled in a fiery debate as to whether terroir truly exists, if it matters and whether people can actually discern it. It's an ugly argument. Alibi wine columnist Joseph Baca and I have spent a ridiculous amount of time arguing (and name-calling) over the subject. So we called in a few professionals, and this is what they had to say.
Dave Hunter, National Distributing Company
“Sure, I believe in terroir. If you consider the mineral value of the soil, soil pH, rootstock, pruning, vine selectivity and if the winemaker leaves the fruit the alone, terroir is happening in the vineyard.”
Mark Matheson, Matheson Wines
“The typical definition of terrior is the influence of microclimate, local soils, minerals, grape clones--all these very small things that affect your wine and make it different from your neighbor's wine. There is debate about global styles versus terroir styles of wine and if wine is getting industrialized. I personally find that claiming that you have a specific terroir is a way to differentiate your product and say that yours is better than others, even if there are very small differences in taste. Obviously, a Cabernet Sauvignon from Rutherford Bench, Napa, will have a different taste than a Cabernet from Washington State or the Hill Country in Texas or from, say, even Sonoma.
Vince Tofanelli, grape grower and wine maker in Napa Valley
“It's kind of nebulous in some ways, not only what's happening in the air and climate, but also what the vineyard manager does. The less manipulation on the part of the winemaker, the more potential for the wine to display vineyard characteristics as opposed to characteristics of the winemaker.”
Michael Cooperman, sommelier
“This is probably one of the most heated, controversial subjects in the business, and it really depends more on the particular scenario. With respect to the individual character and identity of wine, I personally believe that terroir is more important than winemaking. Many winemakers that have the privilege to make wine from grapes grown on a celebrated piece of land--for example, the vineyards of Grand Cru Burgundy, Montalcino in Tuscany, the Stag’s Leap district of Napa Valley, etc.--will tell you that they mostly just try to get out of the way and let the wine make itself. They see themselves as 'helping the wine along' during its journey from vineyard to bottle, ensuring that all processes go as they should. I suppose that in this sense, some might consider the winemaker more important, as he or she makes sure that nothing goes wrong or makes better decisions than another. But ultimately, if they didn’t have great grapes from a great vineyard to begin with, could they make a great wine?”