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Super Wine Geek (SWG) Lexicon: Terroir

You’re reading the latest issue of a wine magazine and one of the wine reviewers writes that a particular wine is a “classic expression of terroir” and you wonder if that means the wine is good or bad. Wine books and other resources note (perhaps not very helpfully) that the French term “terroir” (pronounced tare-WHAR) roughly translates to the word “place” in English, and usually go on to explain that there really isn’t an equivalent English term to convey the full meaning of the word, which is meant to encompass the full ecosystem in which the grapes used to produce a particular wine have been grown.

Climate, weather, sunlight, soil composition, humidity, temperature, and dozens of other factors all influence terroir. However, this description is much too clinical and falls short in capturing why the concept of terroir is so important in the world of wine, so let’s look at it in a different way.

About 10 years ago I realized that, despite being born in Alabama and having lived my entire life in the South, I knew very little about Southern literature or the great Southern writers – William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams – so I signed up for a class at the local liberal arts college on Southern literature.

As I read through many of these authors’ master works – The Sound and the Fury, Why I Live at the P.O., A Streetcar Named Desire, just to name a few – the concept of “place” continued to be a consistent and important theme. The locations in which these stories take place are not incidental, but rather are critical to the telling of the tale. Think about it: would Stanley’s plaintive cry of “Stella!” in Streetcar have the same impact if instead of the sultry, steamy desperation of New Orleans as its backdrop, the location were changed to…Cleveland?

When I started studying wine, the idea and importance of “terroir” struck me as being roughly the same concept. Chardonnay grapes are grown – and Chardonnay wine is made – almost everywhere in the world, but a wine produced from Chardonnay grapes grown in Chablis has a distinctly different taste, structure  and character than a Chardonnay wine made in the southern area of Burgundy, in California or in Australia. Although some differences are the result of winemaking techniques, the influence of the place – the terroir – is unmistakable.

This concept of terroir is critically important to the wine industry in Europe, to the point that many of the laws governing the wine industry are defined and issued by geographic region. In many European wine regions, laws dictate numerous aspects of wine production for that region, including which grapes can be grown in certain areas (sometimes down to a particular vineyard!), what types of wines may be produced from those grapes, and strict rules about techniques and technologies that are allowed (or not allowed) to be used when growing the grapes and producing the wine. All of these laws affect how a wine can be labeled – which will require its own blog entry to explain! – but the bottom line is that many European wine industry regulations are created to protect the integrity of a region’s unique sense of place – its terroir.

So the next time you hear someone mention “terroir,” just think of a young, sweltering, swaggering Marlon Brando… and imagine him taking a swig from a glass of cool, crisp, delicious Chablis!

Marlon Brando and Chablis!

Marlon Brando and Chablis!