Terroir is one of the sacred shiboleths of the wine world. The idea that a single spot on the world can communicate itself through a bottle of wine is one of the bulwarks of our industry (and the reason a lot of have some fun jobs). Le Du’s has always been a Burgundy-centric store, and Burgundy is the HQ of Terroir, the proof of concept. The wildly different expressions of, say, Pinot Noir between Volnay and Pommard, which literally abut each other, seems to put the concept of terroir beyond reproach.
But, like most things, the devil is in the details. Wine people love to throw out soil types like baseball card collectors cite batting averages.
“Oh, this is grown on iron-rich clay with a lower strata of limestone peppered with marine fossils dating back to the Cretaceous.”
These are lovely things to say and no one loves geology more than me (that’s not true, lots of people love geology more than me) but citing the specific mineral composition of a vineyard to explain the specific character of the wine is like attributing all of the flavors of a meal to the type of metal of the pan.
“The mineral nutrients in wine normally have minuscule concentrations and they lack flavour anyway. Although attempts to explain the perception of minerality involve allusions to geological materials, these are irrelevant to its origin. Whatever minerality is, it cannot literally be the taste of minerals in the vineyard rocks and soils.” Alex Maltman, Minerality in Wine: A Geological Perspective, Journal of Wine Research
HE definitely loves geology more than me. And he’s also correct. There is no way for mineral compounds to travel up into a vine let alone the grape LET ALONE the finished wine. To use an example, Sancerre is grown on Tuffeau, a type of chalky limestone. As people who think about this kind of thing, we associate the flavor of Sancerre with the expression of Tuffeau. In other words, Sancerre tastes like chalk. But, in reality, this can’t possibly be true so it’s more accurately stated as chalk tastes like Sancerre.
Yet, there are discernible similarities between wines grown on the same soils miles, countries, even continents apart. Is it a wild coincidence Sancerre and Chablis both produce mineral driven white wines with plenty of zip and zing and both are grown on limestone? There are plenty of people with much more specific palates than my own who can identify soil types from one whiff of wine which seems to suggest terroir, at least in the purely mineral sense, is a true and real thing.
And don’t get me wrong, I truly believe the micro-climate, drainage (which is very much affected by the soil’s mineral composition to be sure), and even microbial composition (a BRAND new field of research which, in my humble opinion, will yield many answers) has a tremendous amount to do with the specific glories of the finished wine.
But is this truly enough to explain the wild swings? Of course, it is a romantic ideal saying, a certain bottle is exceptional because the little bit of dirt it comes from is just a special place graced by God and the Fairy Folk, and that very well might be true. Yet does this ignore the human agents? Does Volnay taste like Volnay because everyone making Volnay thinks it SHOULD takes like that, or that’s how they remember it tasting from when their fathers and grandfathers made it?
I have always argued the big secret to the remarkable and individualized wines from the Cote D’Or in Burgundy has to do with this small plateau being farmed by a Millenia of Monks. Think about that for a second. A thousand years of Holy Men spent their energy and attention focused on these small bits of land. And now we’re to believe there is no connection between this directed human energy and the glory and diversity of Burgundy? Not only is the end wine a result of what is expected but perhaps what is expected has been somehow psychically projected into the soil.
There’s a word I’m quite fond of called “synchronicity”. It was originally coined by Carl Jung and it is defined as “the simultaneous occurrence of events that appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection.” I would argue this is a much better explanation of what causes singular wines to taste the way they do. A confluence of drainage and microbes and micro-climates and, sure, even soil types combine with the ineffable influence of human intention and desire to come out the other side as “terroir”.
Ultimately, it seems to me to reduce the differences and spectacular variety of single vineyards or appellations by throwing up your hands and saying, “That’s just this bit of dirt, I don’t know what to tell you” takes what I consider to be a big, magic concept where human will and spirit directly interact with vast natural variables then merge with custom and generational memory to produce a consumable bit of art and makes it small and simple. And I can certainly tell you there is nothing small and simple about a great bottle of wine.