Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Terroir and Semantics

The biggest misconception about the term 'terroir' is largely one of SEMANTICS and a gross misunderstanding of the etymology and use of associated concepts.

Even the French no longer seem to understand the original meaning and intention of uses and meaning of terroir! Things started getting jumbled about years ago from my experience:

1. Vin de terroir simply means a wine from a specific (or general) locality or origin.

2. Gout de terroir means the "taste" (or any corresponding attributes) that corresponds to a given locality or origin, more in the sense of a territory. This includes all of the influences of growing conditions, grape variety or varieties) PLUS laws, customs, traditions, culture and economy that ALL play a role in giving character to a wine that associates it with a place of origin. Huge fruit bombs, oak, varietal characteristics or delicate nuances of minerality (a metaphoical, not literal term), oak, acidity, etc. all can be considered part of a gout de terroir if it means one can relate the charcteristic to a locality.

3. Gout de terre (taste of dirt) is a NEGATIVE word used to imply the winemaking and storage of the wine created a 'dirty' taste, probably really high levels of brett and other sorms of spoilage.

These concepts have become misenterpreted and collapsed with the generic term 'terroir' so the arguments have become heated, cofusing and pointless! Then personal preferences, emotion and metaphores come into play and the conversation becomes impossible!
Keep in mind that the AOC system in France is less than 100 years old. The 'hundreds of years of tradition and culture' are very distorted and have little bearing today. Great vintages of Montrachet 100 years ago would be considered 'late harvest' dessert wines today - botrytis infected and VERY sweet. The 1855 classification of Bordeaux was based on market price at the time and the wines of more wealthy families won out - go figure. The differences in the wines 50 years ago were clear and easy to distinguish. Not so much these days! When the wealthy Mentzolopolous in 1976 they were able to completely restore the quality of the wine in 2 years with the right investments. They did not changing the soil, but the yield, barrels and triage of wines during assemblage.

AND Pinot Noir is not the only permissible grape in Burgundy's celebrated Cote d'Or - it is legal (and used to be commonly practised) to add Chardonnay, Pinot Beurot (Gris) and Pinot Blanc, in some cases up to 15% of the final blend. The white varieties in most vineyards, including Clos de la Roche, Musigny, Corton, Beaune and Nuits St. Georges are more often vinified separately today and sold as white wines. The intensity of fruit, color and lack of brett in today's red Burgundies make them very different from those I grew up with!

EXAMPLE OF RELATIONSHIP OF SOIL TO GRAPE COMPOSITION:Limestone soils have high levels of calcium carbonate. Calcium carbonate binds potassium and prevents uptake. This lowers the ph in the grape and creates more acidity. The vine is subject to lime-induced chlorosis which lowers vigor and reduces yield. Also renders the soils less suitable for red wines as color concentration is lowered. This is why the 'white wine on white soils' concepts holds some truth. The flinty 'minerality' associated with older Chablis, German and Loire wines was in truth over use of sulfites and a vivid marketing imagination! Today minerality is a vague, personal and metaphorical term having nothing to do with soil per se, but living in the minds of anyone who experiences it.

Which makes it as true and real, for said individuals, as anything!