Is terroir the truth?

Two words currently very popular in local wine circles are “passion” and “terroir”. Every producer seems to have a high class of both. Through repetition and careless use, the words have reached the point where they are in danger of meaning very little. While a quarrel over passion and the surplus of it that many winemakers claim to have would be a truly subjective and rather sterile one (though one surely wishes they all had as much knowledge as passion), the facile use of the term terroir is more important, as it degrades a potentially valuable concept in wine.
In the common definition of the word, terroir is the sum of the interaction of divergent natural forces: the soils, the aspects of the slope, and the vine with the effect of the weather, wind and rain, on a certain area. Terroir can be seen as the collected geological and meteorological forces that offer a bunch of grapes for vinification, with a usual emphasis on the soil. Crucially, the sense is that the components of terroir are natural – that is they cannot be greatly influenced by human management. You either have ‘good’ terroir or you don’t. As a character that is inherently part of your farm, it belongs only and very noticeably to the place the grapes come from. Terroir is often described as a distinctive ‘line’, vintage after vintage, something that comes from beyond, as it were. In the most romantic use of the term, a winemaker will claim to express the terroir through minimal intervention, allowing the land ‘to speak for itself’.
When adherents of the concept explain terroir, there is always an element of the mystical, this singular character that comes from the earth, an emanation of the natural forces. This clearly springs from the belief that humans have little influence over the nature of terroir. As an example, this is what Vergelegen winemaker André van Rensburg recently said: ‘Even when a winemaker tries to enforce his will, Vergelegen will always come through. The grapes from this property rule supreme over the winemaker’s ability and desires.’ The importance of terroir is largely sacrosanct amongst “serious” producers. Even more, it has the tang of dogma (certainly this, perhaps even a quasi-religious conviction), indicated by the way that those that pooh-pooh terroir are treated as heretics or easily dismissed as hapless “New World” winemakers.
Now, it would be foolish to question the primary role of the soil and the climate on the formation of the grape. Likewise, the acknowledgment that certain areas are better suited to wine grapes (or particular varieties) than others is stating the obvious. Referring recently to the New World, eminent British wine writer Andrew Jefford recently wrote that ‘it is hard to exclude terroir from any wine at a rudimentary level’; he goes on to say that ‘the primacy of the vineyard has now finally been acknowledged, and … harvesting, handling and winemaking techniques are now of sufficient sensitivity and restraint to permit the voice of the vineyard to sing out.’ What he is saying is that we are now getting closer to the truth – the vineyard’s terroir – and the gap between the Old World and the New is narrowing.
Of course, the French claim that great terroir is behind their finest wines. It underlies their appellation contrôlée system and their established hierarchies. But in the New World we can all claim superior terroir, since there is no regulation over the strength of this claim. Therefore the grounds for competing over who has the ‘better’ terroir, the most interesting terroir, and who expresses that terroir to best effect, are wide open to marketing exploitation. On this level, the idea of terroir is being denigrated to mean, simply, a place where wine is made and, furthermore, that place is simply lent more importance by calling it terroir, instead of, say, site. This use of the term terroir is, one feels, less rigorous than Jefford’s.
Yet if we look more closely at the “proper” concept of terroir, many questions arise. It is true that even in the Cape – without the hundreds of years experience open to the historic European regions – we have shown that, for example, Constantia suits sauvignon blanc, just as Stellenbosch in general suits cabernet. But when terroir is presented as an unalterable and God-given set of conditions, further investigation is needed. Is terroir more than a well-chosen site with a sympathetic vine planted there? Is terroir really the soul of a wine?
A closer look at terroir
There is an alternative definition of terroir, fairly widely used, that includes the human stewards of the grape as a crucial component. According to this more elaborate definition, the viticulturist and winemaker are included as important vectors, because they interpret and modulate the product of the land, the grapes. Perhaps because a person is not as majestically mysterious as the land and the weather, this component is omitted from most interpretations, yet it is vital. And, once this component is added, the mystique of terroir begins to tarnish.
Growing a grape, much less making a wine, is not a spontaneous act. Planting a vine here in this patch, or there in that one is interpretive. Choosing which variety to plant on this patch is a selection. Before this, preparing the soils, a common practice, leads many a producer to add tons of lime, amongst other enhancements. Again, this is an interpretation (if not a complete modification) of the primary element of terroir. Then one of the most powerful tools in the arsenal of grape-growing, one now acknowledged to be crucial to growing quality grapes in many areas, is irrigation. Irrigation and chemical manipulations of a soil type make the local geology a supporting player – some would say only a support structure, a medium, for the plant. Trellising, pruning, spraying to create even fruit set … the list of human modifications goes on.
Furthermore, if you have made your interpretative changes for only one or two or even 20 harvests, how sure are you that you know what the ‘typical’ expression of your site is? Are you willing to stick to only one type of vine on one soil type and not change the clone of that vine when a ‘better’ one comes along, perhaps one that is more resistant to the insect that is unnaturally trying to alter your terroir?
In the cellar the grapes are subjected to a potentially staggering range of manipulation, or tweaks. Does the winemaker use this or that yeast, which bring out different flavours; does he select this or that barrel, which might heavily influence the wine’s character? These are just some of the obvious interventions. What about the particular bacteria in an old cellar that gives a certain wine a distinctive profile? Is this closer to terroir because it is less controllable?
The notion that you can ‘taste’ terroir becomes increasingly dubious.
Any pure line from the soil to the wine, which is what the general claim of terroir is, is highly contentious, if not wholly romantic. Once the collection of interventions is acknowledged, one must also acknowledge that they are interpretations that could have taken another route, given a different winemaker, or the planting of different varieties in that soil. Terroir is not absolute, it is translated, altered and enhanced – and ultimately created.
For centuries the French have regulated what is planted where. Their experiments in consistency are further advanced because of the constraints imposed by regulations and the limitation of alterable sets. Even here, their terroir must be seen as a relative and ultimately constructed term. Decisions were made in the process of growing grapes and the style that the wine was made that have actually created what is now accepted as the terroir. Conversely, in South Africa we are still involved in a highly random viticultural activity. We tend to plant every variety everywhere. Our knowledge of our sites is improving, but still potentially open to endless re-interpretation.
So where is the magic?
In Constantia, good sauvignon blanc was not waiting to burst forth from the soils. To suggest that it was there and only needed ‘unlocking’ is a misrepresentation of a process that is filled with direct intervention and decisions that constantly promote one direction or shut down another.
It stands to reason that every grape is born of some sort of terroir in the basic sense of the word, but terroir does not explain why one wine is better than another in the very superficial sense that we tend to use it. It is hard to escape the notion that terroir is used as a fancy catch-phrase ((it helps to invoke a French accent!) for all that is mystifying and random about making wine – of which there is still a great deal. Let terroir mean regional and local differences in soil, climate and style. But let it also acknowledge the multiple interpretive acts of the growers and winemakers. How we have interpreted a patch of soil and the vine in it is crucial.
As a corollary, a wine born of many different places cannot be a wine of distinct terroir. Its terroir is confused, mixed. A wine that is constructed from the fruit of Wellington, Stellenbosch and Paarl is not a wine that’s worth labelling “of terroir”. Yet one hears again and again that even these wines “express their terroir”, we hear that all wines sing their soil. This is clearly false, as the most preliminary investigation of the wine-making practise will reveal. Of course, it does not mean the wine is not good, as many quality wines assembled from diverse sites prove.
For terroir to have currency, the wine must firstly be from a distinct and homogenous piece of soil. Then, crucially, the level of intervention has to be reduced to a minimum. Just as a Karoo lamb has a certain flavour that comes from being allowed a ‘natural’ life, so the flavour of the grape needs to be as unadulterated as possible. One quickly realises that this means non-interventionist or low-impact soil management (ancient farming practice, if not biodynamics), minimal if any irrigation, natural yeast ferments, and a grape variety that is not going to be excessively modulated by fresh wood maturation. Certain varieties, like sauvignon blanc and riesling, would seem more immediately reflective of site as their vinification is less complex.
The wine of these grapes, made in the same way over the course of successive vintages, will surely tell you something about site; and if another variety in the same place has the same elements in its flavour profile, the evidence begins to mount. To claim this knowledge at a far earlier point, as nearly every local producer does, is opportunistic – or based on a lamentably loose definition of the concept of terroir.