Talking Dirty – What IS terroir?

No, not terrier, not terror. The term terroir, pronounced tearrrr-wahhh, encompasses all the natural elements that can affect a vine, such as the composition of the soil, the climate, the altitude, aspect and slope of the vineyard, and the surrounding geography. For dyed-in-the-wool Old World fans, terroir is everything in a wine. For staunch New Worlders, it is a lame excuse to charge over the odds for faulty wine. The truth lies somewhere between these two extremes.

How does terroir show itself in a wine? Take away the flavours of the grape variety, take away the flavours that can be attributed to the winemaker and what remains is a result of the terroir. The geographic and climatic influences are undeniable. Wines from higher altitudes tend to be crisper than those from lower ones. Wines from vineyards on slopes angled towards the midday sun will be riper than those facing away.

The impact of the soil is more controversial, but for Old Worlders, it is perhaps the most important aspect of terroir. There might be an earthy note, maybe a hint of stone – flint, slate, or volcanic lava, for example – and sometimes a nuance that you can’t pin down – ‘minerality’ is the in-word on such occasions. There’s no science that shows how elements in the soil can end up in a wine. However, my glass of Riesling from the slate slopes overlooking the Mosel river has more than a little slate-y tang.

And what if you can’t taste the soil? Maybe the terroir didn’t have much character anyway. Nothing wrong with that, providing the price is right. Or more worryingly, the producer didn’t manage to transfer its character to the bottle. This could be the result of sloppy winemaking. Too much oak is the big culprit here. If you want an overdose of wood, chew a pencil, just keep it out of my wine. Or it could be high yields. The more grapes a vine is asked to produce, the less will be their flavour. Or it could a bad diet. If a vine gets its nourishment from fertilisers and its water from an irrigation pipe, then the soil is almost irrelevant.

To experience the highs and lows of terroir, head for Burgundy, where there are hundreds of different vineyards, each (allegedly) with its own unique character. In the good cellars, the nuances of the different terroirs shine through in the various wines. In the bad ones, you wonder why someone has the gall to charge £30 or more for overoaked, underflavoured wines that are hard to tell apart.

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