A wine with such unique characteristics which cannot be replicated anywhere and anyhow. That is the concept behind the terroir wine.
At least it should be. A lot of mysticism is involved in the use of this word. Because it is not strictly defined and obviously cannot be explained simply, nowadays “terroir-driven wines” literally pop out from every product leaflet or wine description. Misusage is so common nobody even notices it.
Terroir is commonly translated as a sense of place in wine. It is an explanation why we pay high prices for certain single vineyard wines. The idea that the particular wine can’t be replicated elsewhere no matter how much money someone might invest into an attempt. You can perhaps substitute a certain terroir wine with another, but no real alternative can exist.
Where lies the difference and how to recognize it
Most of what we use in an attempt to describe the wine is jargon. All the descriptors are metaphorical, not literal. The metaphor is unrelated to the wine directly but can be very useful as a mental image.
We as humans easily recognize and find a suitable descriptor for abundance of fruity or floral, even vegetal aromas. What about non-fruit aromatics? This is where it gets “mystical”. We have very limited vocabulary for all the aspects commonly named earthy or mineral.
It’s not actual salt we feel in a glass of Ocu (Boškinac) as much as it is not actual iodine one might feel in Škrlet (Kosovec), just as there isn’t any actual fruit in any (serious) wine, but the way it smells creates that metaphorical image.
Despite all the seductive phrases involving mineral descriptors, the mechanisms involved in grapevine chemistry aren’t clear and none of the correlations between soil and content in our wine glasses are straightforward.
But these aromas are usually considered to be an indicator of terroir wines. The very word terroir creates a mental image of some unique place, responsible for the unique taste.
We know that the taste of wine comes from flavor precursors in the grape juice. Because nutrients in soil participate in reactions that produce these precursor compounds, variations within the optimal nutritional range in certain soil might affect their concentration and ultimately lead to differences in wine flavor.
Terroir wine explained?
Mineral taste is a widely used taste descriptor today. However, since scientific connection between soil and a glass of wine is yet unclear, the question arises – is it possible for such tiny amounts of minerals to interact to produce some aggregate effect?
The nutrients may possibly interact with each other so that the balance between them is significant rather than their actual concentrations.
Even if wine has only an indirect and distant relationship to the soil composition, for example, does it mean soil doesn’t matter?
Science can prove many wine descriptions are an exaggeration. It cannot prove there is no influence.
Every grower notices certain crops thrive in particular fields and some plants grow better in certain spots in the garden.
The concept of terroir means all of the natural attributes of a particular site. Not region, not appellations, but of a particular vineyard or a place inside it. Intuitively we sense the soil properties are responsible for the expression of a particular terroir in wine.
But the soil composition can be misleading. Vines might actually absorb nutrients from soil differently from what the soil composition suggests. Every grower knows, the health of the plant is constrained by its access to the least available nutrient. In short, the soil conceivably is interacting with wine, only in a way yet unknown to science.
Terroir needs to be felt
Many wine lovers feel wonder at the relationship between the wine and the place, and it doesn’t need to be explained.
A balance needs to be achieved on one lever or another. The chemical balance that is the outcome of the balance between a place, a man, and a variety.
Terroir is not only about the soil. It is much more than that. What about climate conditions? Air flow, wind speed and the Sun’s intensity, humidity and temperature fluctuations, soil drainage, elevation differences… all are directly responsible for everything you need to do in your vineyard in order to achieve the desired results. This is all place.
A winemaker who grows the vines, ferments the grape juice, and elevates the wine in the cellar is the human responsible for the expression of his terroir.
Of course, this means that the right thing is in the right place, and in the right way. A variety. Hypothetically, thanks to photosynthesis you might grow a vine with just enough sunshine and water in some imagined scientific laboratory. Chardonnay and Sauvignon will still taste different, not to mention Plavac mali 😉
Inspired by terroir
Naturally, to express their terroir, wines made by organic farming without artificial fertilizers and minimum or zero chemicals in vineyards and cellars, stand against enological, scientifically engineered wines.
As it is poetically and beautifully explained in Kermit Lynch’s Inspiring Thirst,
…true quality is that which succeeds in surprising and moving us. It is not locked inside a formula. Its essence is subtle (subjective) and never rational. It resides in the unique, the singular, but it is ultimately connected to something more universal. A great wine is one in which quality is contained. Such a wine will necessarily be uncommon and decidedly unique because it cannot be like any other, and because of this fact it will be atypical, or only typical of itself.