Terroir has been a controversial subject for wino’s as long as I can remember and likely for more than a century, possibly several. I don’t think the subject should be controversial, but like all complex theories and concepts, terroir needs to be explained in a simple manner. I find the best way to do this is comparing the concepts of terroir in terms of items that the newest of wine drinkers can understand.
A couple of weeks ago Steve Heimoff reposted a controversial comment by a reader about the subject and it’s purity in Europe versus it being a marketing ploy in the “new world”. That was after an original post by Steve that also featured that nasty word terroir. Tom Wark also published a post about the controversy of Terroir which doesn’t seem to have gotten as much intense debate as Steve’s. I wonder if that is a function of the difference in the size and type of their blog audiences or the difference in the tone of the posts.
The term terroir is just awkward, it doesn’t have a clean and exact translation and therefore is interpreted in many different ways. Yet it is important, the concept keeps wine from becoming a commodity like milk or coca-cola. Coke or Pepsi, Cab or Merlot. My guess is that 80% of the wine drinkers in the US who order a wine by the glass, order by grape without much regard as to where that Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio comes from.
I’d rather leave the term Terroir to wine geeks and think about wine like we do people. When I look at a glass or bottle of wine, I try to remember to ask it: who are you and where are you from. If I can’t get straight answers then I question the wines value. I give more value the more answers a wine gives me. Does it taste good, does it taste like the grape or style it claims to be, does it taste like it comes from somewhere in particular (not some wine factory), does tell me I won’t be disappointed when I find forgotten bottles lurking in my cellar years after I first taste and buy the wine and will it go with the types of cuisine that I enjoy (and eat regularly). I am not taking a shot at ‘wine factories’, they are important for introducing people to wine and varietal wines and when all the other stuff just doesn’t matter (like when I’ve had too many glasses and my palate is impaired or when finances are tight). But I don’t want to pay more than a certain amount for a wine that is (only) tasty and does indeed taste like a Cabernet or Chardonnay or whatever it says on the label. If I pay more I want more answers.
Wine ought to say something of importance to me, not just get me drunk. But I think Randall Grahm really says it succinctly with this quote I found on Vinography:
“The only wines that matter are the wines of place. Everything else is dispensable and not necessary,”…
“But wines of place enrich the world. They make our world more interesting….”
Obviously from what I’ve written, I don’t agree that everything else is not necessary. There is a place for simple Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir. I just don’t want to pay too much for such. I gladly poured a Fred Franzia Pinot Noir by the glass at The Maidstone in East Hampton this summer because it tasted like a decent Sonoma Pinot Noir (and was priced right). Granted I would have pinned it as a cheap Carneros Pinot even though it was labelled as Russian River. But as both Tom and Steve have mentioned most wine consumer’s palates aren’t refined enough to tell the difference between Pinot Noir from those two neighbors.
As for the comment that started the debate on Steve Heimoff’s site that terroir only is relevent in ‘Old World’ wines and that Californian wines don’t offer expressions of terroir, I disagree entirely. If terroir isn’t relevent in California then why were the Chardonnay vines of Château Woltner on Howell Mountain grafted over to Cabernet Sauvignon? Isn’t that a pure example of terroir (& mother nature) telling a very famous wine family that they made a mistake? And that is only one example of terroir telling humans to plant something else.