Samui Wining & Dining
Down To Earth

For the French, when it comes to producing good wine, terroir is everything.


23This month, I thought I’d talk dirt to you. What I really mean is soil, or, in fancy French-speak, terroir (and I don’t want to hear any ‘long and smooth legs’ or ‘gorgeous body’ wine puns). And the French do love their terroir. In fact, they worship it and almost consider Bordeaux as a holy land (I have heard that, in some high profile vineyards, workers are required to scrape their boots before leaving!). And it’s in such wine areas the concept of terroir reaches its lofty heights.

Terroir is the lynchpin of the French ‘brand’. It is, depending on your point of view (and degree of cynicism), either a cunning ruse to protect real-estate values, or a proud extension of the French view of themselves that’s developed since the revolution in 1789. The whole ‘Appellation Contrôlée’ system is based on terroir. Monsieur Jerome Quiot, President of the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine, which runs the AOC, has stated as recently as the 1990s, “Ce qui fait le charactere et la typicite des vins AOC, c’est le terroir.” That is to say, what makes the typical character of the wines granted AOC is its terroir.

In the 21st century, for many wine commentators there’s an antiquated hollowness about the notion of terroir and AOC rules (and they cannot stand up to any logical scrutiny). But for generations of wine drinkers, the notion of terroir, as represented by those sacred words on a wine label, Appellation Contrôlée, is nothing less than a badge of honour. Wine enthusiasts have taken it as some sort of guarantee, confirming extreme quality. In Bordeaux, it’s led to many wine names, individual chateaux as well as areas, being connected to the nature of the vineyard’s soil. Graves, as in gravel, is the best-known example. The terroir conviction is enshrined in French AOC wine, and is the basis for many other wine growing countries’ geographical wine laws. Somewhat surprisingly, in 1997, South Australia was the latest to fall in with this concept, when it created the self-styled Limestone Coast wine area.

Clearly, to many believers, earth is at the heart of great wine. Soil, and what a romantic Frenchman once described as ‘the call of it’, is what is supposed to be found, detected by the nose and discovered by the palate, by the skilled wine taster. The highly developed nose of such a taster enables him to assign specific areas of production the various wines. But terroir has become a loaded word in today’s wine lexicon. It somehow denotes that only some wines are capable of showing it. That terroir alone makes a wine great.

Now, I realise that I sound sceptical. And yes, certainly types of soil, and the composition of its rocks and minerals, find expressions in some wines. Indeed, in some rare cases, it does define the (earthy) wine. However, there are so many other factors that influence wine. For me, such obvious things as the grape and climate, impart far more character onto a wine. And, at great risk of further stating the obvious, the most blatant contributing factor, in any resulting wine, must be the winemaker himself!

To be fair, what’s probably happened with terroir (the word) is that, over time, it has morphed into a more general all-encapsulating term for French wine lovers. Representing locale, antiquity, sun and shadow proportions, rainfall, temperature fluctuations, elevation and everything else you can imagine being part of the land’s soul. Ambience, another hard-to-translate French word, might be a description the idealistic Gaul would agree with. And this is something I can more easily relate to. I do understand the French people’s rightful pride in their historical wine regions.

In South West England, where I come from, we’re fiercely proud of our apples; no others compare to our cherished Somerset fruit. The idealistic visions of sun-drenched orchards in the beautiful autumn countryside, friendly rosy-faced cider-drinking farmers harvesting the shiny ripe apples, cultural references (‘the apple of one’s eye’) and emotive varietal names, like ‘Granny Smith’ and ‘Golden Delicious’, all romanticise our humble fruit crop. I believe it’s an in-grained trait in human nature to be loyal about your own local area. And often, the locally-grown food or beverages become a symbol of that patriotism (ever spoken to a Belgian about beer, a Swiss about chocolate, or a Greek about olives?).

With a broader, less literal, understanding of terroir, one can appreciate that certain wines have distinctive tastes and smells. And Bordeaux and Burgundy red and white wines are great examples. But many other countries have distinctive flavours and aromas: Italy, Spain and Germany all spring to my mind. As indeed, does the Napa Valley, Western Australia, and certainly, New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs have an instantly recognisable characteristic. When I researched the soil composition in Marlborough, the Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc’s hallowed ground, I found out that it’s gravely with large pebbles.

The iconic Chateauneuf-du-pape is also grown on very stony ground, and the brilliant Italian Barolo emerges from limey clay and sandstone. And limestone is common amongst the Aussie red wine gems from Western Australia, too. Somewhat unusually, much of Germany’s celebrated Rieslings are grown on slate-rich soil (could that explain their distinctive flavour?). And interestingly, both Champagne and Spanish sherry grapes are children of chalky soil. Big-name Champagne growers know very well that the light-coloured soil does not retain heat during the night as much as darker soils, so development of the essential fine acids is enhanced.

With all this in mind, I will, of course, accept that the composition of, and nutrients found in, a particular soil could be a significant influence in a wine’s final outcome. But beware – the ambivalent untranslatable terroir is a prickly, nebulous, illogical, seductive topic and is often proudly steeped in ancient history. The unaware step in it at their peril!


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