The Preoccupation with Provenance: What is Terroir in Wine?

Terroir.  Spend enough time drinking wine and it is inevitable that you will end up talking to someone about terroir and how it is a French word with no exact translation in English.  This, in turn, will be followed by a litany of factors which may include, soil, topography, macroclimate, mesoclimate, microclimate, proximity to water, and perhaps even more indefinite variables such as local culture and the “winemaker’s thumbprint.”  This level of explanation for a seven-letter-word would, ordinarily, be healthy grounds for skepticism, but these conversations are just so darn romantic.  They call to mind the warm breeze of a Tuscan hillside or the salty air of the French Riviera...it’s hard not to be enamored with the concept of terroir.

In the scheme of things, terroir is a relatively recent development in the 8,000-year history of wine.  And it’s origins come from a somewhat unlikely place.  After the fall of the Roman Empire, which established most of the famous European wine regions, the institutional force that shepherded wine through the Middle Ages was the Catholic Church.  The Church has a close history with wine, owing to wine’s crucial role in the Eucharist.  Monasteries, in particular, took the lead in the cultivation of the vine.

 The Cistercians, an order founded on the idea that monastic life in medieval France was too permissive, began their cloistered existence on land that was granted to them in Burgundy during the 11th century.  They applied strict discipline to all tasks, including the growing, making and drinking of wine.  Over years, they noticed that wine made from grapes grown in one part of the vineyard tasted different from grapes grown a mere 100 meters away.  They then began to painstakingly document these differences and divide the vineyard on these terms.  This observation is a seminal moment in the modern understanding of terroir.  The Cistercian order expanded from their Burgundian home to found numerous monasteries throughout Europe, and their concept of terroir spread as well.

Then, as now, the role of terroir as it came to be known, was poorly understood.  The direct relationship between the content of soil and the taste of wine is a mystery.  While certain vineyards do consistently turn out better wines than others, no one can say precisely why.  Is it the soil?  The exact angle of the sun?  The way the breeze comes around the corner of a hill?  There are innumerable variables and it’s all but impossible to parse out which ones have the largest influence on the final taste of the wine.  This is not to say that it isn’t fun, or even useful, to think about wine within the physical and cultural contexts in which it was made.  But, it is problematic to define a wine with a term that is so inherently ambiguous.  The terroir that ultimately matters is not the qualities that the ground imbues upon the grapes, but those that the wine imparts on you.