This is an excerpt from Archie MacDairmid’s article in Issue 5 of Ferment which you can grab here
What is terroir? Please adopt a needlessly terrible French accent and repeat after me “tare WAHr” is quite literally the French for ‘soil’ or ‘earth’. It is one of the most used and least understood words in the world of wine. Wannabe wine dorks will use it like a magic word to explain some ethereal quality in the wine they just spent too much money on in a fancy restaurant, but equally, world class wine makers will talk about a site’s terroir as the reason they flew half way around the world and dedicated years of their life to the care of a particular plot of vines, striving to make the perfect wine.
For many years it was the great divide between the ‘old’ world of France, Italy & Spain and the ‘new’ world, particularly Australia, New Zealand & the US. As one Aussie winemaker famously put it in the 1980 (just for balance, please adopt a needlessly terrible Crocodile Dundee style accent and repeat after me) “Terroir mate? That’s just a poncey French word for dirt that lets you charge another 20 dollars a bottle”.
The best description we can come up with is that terroir is how the natural characteristics of specific place – the soil, the climate, the weather, the layout of the vineyards and anything else that can possibly differentiate one piece of land from another, effects the flavour & appreciation of a wine.
Interestingly, while it has been a subject of intense debate in the wine world, the idea that where you make your beer might give it a unique & unreplicable flavour is totally commonplace. The brewers of Burton upon Trent once brewed ¼ of Britain’s beer because ‘Burton water’ was held to be the best for brewing anywhere in the country.
This drive to find unique bits of the world to produce wine has led to some absolute extremes, for the good & the bad. If you fancy trying your hand at winemaking in some of the most famous terroir in the world, the Grand Cru vineyards of Burgundy in France, you have to be extremely talented and get someone to hire you, or eye poppingly well off. A single acre of vineyard, enough to produce around 200 bottles of wine per year, can cost your around £3.5million, but least for that money you are guaranteed that you’ll be working with some of the best grapes around. If you want to start from scratch things can get… challenging.
Winemakers in China, now the world’s 5th largest grape grower, who are searching for the best places to grow often settle in the Xinjiang region in the extreme north-east of the country. The only problem is that the vines need to be buried every winter to avoid them being killed by frost, while in summer, high temperatures threaten to dry the vines to the point of dehydration & death if they are not constantly irrigated.
So aside from awesome stories to tell your friends, why should you look for wines with truly unique terroir? Well, to bring it back to be beer, the big macro brewers don’t set out to make ‘bad’ beer, they set out to mass produce a consistent product that will taste identical, year in, year out, worldwide. Quality is compromised for consistency, interesting flavour profiles dropped for economically viable ones. Wines that lack terroir – think ‘super regions’ like South East Australia (which is larger than most countries in Europe) France’s Pays d’Oc or Chile’s Valle Central – are the macro brewers of the wine world. They provide cheap, plentiful & generally utterly forgettable plonk for the supermarkets.
Wines driven by their terroir are the microbreweries – flavour is king, every glass should give you a sense of the place it was made and the passion that drove a winemaker to spend months caring for the soil, the vines & the grapes they provide with maniacal focus. Terroir then might be a fancy word for dirt, but it is also a byword for quality, passion and wine well worth seeking out.
Archie McDairmid owns Luvians Bottleshop in St Andrews and is Ferments wine aficionado.