The word terroir is an outrageously overused term by wine retailers, sommeliers, wine writers, and knowledgeable amateurs, and it deserves a definition and a bit of deconstruction. We use the term in two distinct ways, and this is a source of trouble insofar as it makes the overall concept difficult to explain. I hope this will ameliorate any confusion for those who are new to the concept and/or are trying to make sense of what terroir (a word which, let's face it, sounds exclusive and snobby) is actually all about, and how it might affect their experience with the wine in their glass at the moment.
The Principal Definition...in Brief
Terroir is the key element underlying the profile of great wines. It is regrettable that it defies succinct AND meaningful definition, but here goes: terroir is the representation in a wine's expression--its flavor and aroma--of the simultaneous effects of soil, microclimate, and human influence from a growing and winemaking season. Some like to limit the definition to just soil and microclimate (nature), but human intervention (nurture) is impossible to prevent: we pollute the air, fertilize the land, and let's not forget that we PLANTED THE GRAPES. We are also--in our own special way--of the land, so human contributions to viticulture and wine making are integral pieces of the picture.
Another Definition and Some Initial Confusion...
So that is the principal definition of terroir, but as I have said, we use it also in a second way, and that is to demarcate a specific place. For instance, one might say of a wine from St.-Estèphe in Bordeaux, "I've never had a wine from that terroir," and be completely understood. I might then respond, "Well, you should try one, perhaps Phélan-Ségur, as it is affordable, delicious, and has a good imprint of its terroir," referring in that case to the primary definition (the specific expression of the vineyard within St.-Estèphe), but you can probably detect the problem.
...Which Leads to the Real Confusion--Minerality
You may have seen or heard someone use the term "minerality" in a description of a wine. Minerality is an aspect of a wine's aroma or flavor that is evocative of minerals and rocks, not necessarily dirt. For example, if a wine seems to have an aroma of wet granite, this is not so foreign: we have all encountered this scent on a hot day after it has rained (unless you live where no granite exists). Minerality is often confused with terroir, thanks to the second definition above. "You can taste the mica in this Pouilly-Fumé." The Pouilly-Fumé region does have some soil rich in mica, but a wine from it is as likely as not to have a "mica" flavor (whatever THAT tastes like...and DON'T go test it--mica would slice up the inside of your mouth!). The silicates in the soil may indeed contribute to the mineral quality of the wine, but the expression of terroir is dependent upon more than just the soil. It is the dual usage of terroir that causes this problem, one which led to a politicized article I read on terroir that belonged on an Op/Ed page. I recall that the writing was compelling, but the tone of the piece was a little too incredulous to be credible, and the author went to great lengths to dispel the notion of terroir--as it had been explained to him, apparently. What he was actually writing about was minerality, not terroir. The premise of the article was based upon a conflation of terroir and "minerality" under the same rubric, which is an understandable if faulty basis (and a disappointment when the piece was at least 2,000 words). When I find the original article, I'll post a link to it, should you care to read it.
The Problem Runs Deep
This conflation of terroir with minerality is far, far too common. I know wine professionals who contend that minerality in wine is an expression of the terroir, referring to the second definition-- though they believe they are applying the first definition. Is this getting confusing? (I voted for it before I voted against it?) Just because your vines are planted on slate-based soil, you are not destined to have a wine that tastes as though you've got a piece of a chalkboard steeping in it. Any detectable mineral-like flavor or aroma is a happy byproduct of the first definition of terroir, the confluence of (at least) the three major factors, plus one not yet mentioned: it is the yeast that ferments the wine. Different yeasts interact with compounds in grape juice in different ways, revealing different flavor qualities.
As you can see, this is getting out of hand! A more specific definition of terroir can lead to endless discussion of the nuances of a concept that has a myriad of them. Starting down that path would lead to a thousand more words, much of which would get into undefinable and unknowable aspects of terroir, or at best adumbrations of the specific causes of certain characteristics in a "wine of terroir" and, well, I can see the finish line here, so I'll skip that.
One Last Thing
Which brings me to the other point worth covering here: why doesn't this apply to all wine? Some wines are "wines of terroir" and others are..."wines of something else" I suppose..."wines of fruit"? Not all wines are made to be agents of the transmutation of terroir to liquid form, as the descriptive terms "fruit-driven" or "fruit bomb" so succinctly illustrate. Such wines are made by choice by a winemaker whose philosophical leanings (or intentions for a particular wine) are not persuaded by notions of terroir. Whatever the reasons for making such wine, and there are many good ones, these wines are generally aiming squarely at a drinker's enjoyment. A good wine of terroir is doing the same thing, but it's just taking the scenic route.
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