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Untangled Vine

An attempt to sort through all things wine. Specifically of, and about, but not limited to: Food and Wine in Toledo, Ohio. Plus the day to day musings of a Wine Distributor...

Terroir (hu, good god!), what is it good for?

Throughout the world, people of purported wine knowledge drop the “terroir”, assuming that a) they can identify it from a hole in the ground b) it has some sort of importance c) it makes a wine better. As with all good things in life, moderation is the best use of this term, and with understanding and respect, if not full-on appreciation.

The French at their Frenchiest, devised a term many years ago that still has no direct translation into English. That word: Terroir (tare-wahr). It sort of means that a wine smells, looks and tastes like it has a sense of place, or something in that wine indicates where the wine came from. It also refers to everything that affects the way a wine smells and tastes that is environmental, including climate, geographical situation and aspect, soil types, elevation, other species of influencing fauna surrounding the vines, etc… So what does terroir taste like, um, well, I know it when I see it. Actually, terroir, to me tastes like anything that seems unnatural for either fruit, or wood to smell or taste like. So, if it smells like eucalyptus its certainly terroir, strawberries are not. Not all wine has terroir, and some wine gets by just fine without it.

We have seen a global shift in recent years towards “new world style” of wines, which is essentially high alcohol, highly structured big juicy fruity reds that fall into the flavor profiles of Aussie Shiraz, California Zinfandel and wines of that style. Terroirists (yes that is a word) believe that this shift toward theses wines is the first sign of the cultural apocalypse. These wines have garnered big scores in the publications, so the mouth-breathing masses have gravitated towards wines of that style because The Wine Prognosticator has deemed them worthy of 90 points. This, much to the dismay of the purists.

The question that everyone forgets to ask is why is terroir a good thing? Something I never stopped to consider myself until fairly recently. After all, with the absence of terroir, many wines end up tasting sweet or fruity or just delicious. It occupies the same part of our heart that we devote to chocolate and coffee drinks and the ilk, sophistication be damned. And to be truthful, wines like that are great. There is no guilt that anyone should ever put on you for loving wines that are like that. It speaks to the visceral need for yummy things. Most people begin drinking wines that taste like this, and some may graduate to terroir driven wines. But wine can be about more than what tastes great, it is also about all of the feelings and emotions it can impart, and that is where the importance of terroir comes through. Terroir inspires the heart and the mind. It brings back old palate and olfactory memories long thought forgotten. It transports us back to specific instance and moments. It makes you think and want to talk about your wine experience. Terroir inspires the imagination and transports you to a place you’ve never been. All at once you smell the ocean breeze, or the lilac fields. Oh, and the wine can taste pretty good too.

The new world style of wines speaks directly to our inner Homer Simpson, while Terroir speaks to our inner Walt Whitman. The choice is up to you, but I think that you should take some time to try both styles of wine, and keep trying both and see where it takes you.
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At 1:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post.

Justin Stephen    

At 3:54 PM, Blogger Jathan said...

Terrior to me helps me know where I'm at. Cabernet from Stags Leap all have a similar feel, smell, and flavor. Cabernet from Livermore all seem to have a different feel, smell, flavor than their Stags Leap counterparts. They are both good, same grape, same year, but are different. Stick a glass of Stephen Kent under my nose while blindfolded, and I'll at least be able to tell you it's from Livermore. It's always there from vintage to vintage and varietal to varietal.

Frenchies are smart.


At 6:06 PM, Blogger winedude said...

I knew that at heart--you were a moderate ;-)    

At 8:05 PM, Blogger adam mahler said...

I'm not really sure that a) I'm a moderate, b)what I said insinuates that I'm a moderate. Moderates, in my opinion, are either liberals or conservatives that don't have the balls to take a stand, maybe you meant to accuse me of being a libertarian, which I am not either.    

At 12:08 AM, Anonymous Jeff said...

"Throughout the world, people of purported wine knowledge drop the “terroir”, assuming that a) they can identify it from a hole in the ground b) it has some sort of importance c) it makes a wine better."

I'll respond sequentially, since this post strikes me as basically a pretty silly troll, and the kind of wearying "anti-snob" article that's far too common these days. Re: a) I've every confidence that in a side-by-side tasting, most wine drinkers would be able to tell the difference between a Cabernet made in Napa, and a Cab made in Bordeaux, even if all other factors (e.g, brix, yeast, fermentation techniques, etc.) were the same. Thus, most people can, on fact, tell terroir "from a hole in the ground." Re: b) As a matter of fact, it has great importance: do I want a Zin from Amador County, with its very ripe fruit, high alcohol, and extracted character, or do I want a Zin from Santa Ynez, with its much more subtle, low-key character? I could list a hundred other examples... Re: c) I've never heard ANYONE claim terroir makes wine "better"- this is a classic case of presenting an asinine, straw-man argument. Terroir DOES make wines "different" from each other, however, which is why it is an important and fundamentally valid consideration amongst enologists, viticulturalists, and knowledgeable wine drinkers. To suggest that terroir is simply a ruse is to admit one's ignorance.


At 7:48 AM, Blogger adam mahler said...


My argument for terroir is justiied by my devil's advocacy against terroir. By displaying the "everyman's" suspicion of terroir, I'm hoping to justify it's existence and importance. I don't suggest for a moment that it's a ruse, but I do hear a lot of people that are unsure about it's true existence. This article is written for them, to explain (in a nutshell) what it really menas.    

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