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Reign of terroir

– A Wine Bluffer guide

You may have heard of the term Terroir, pronounced tear-wah. It is the term used to describe the combination of climate, soil type and the terrain where vines are grown. The importance of location as sign of quality goes back as far as the ancient Greeks who stamped their amphorae with the names of the places their wines came from. And there are stories of wine-growing medieval monks literally licking the soil to find where to place their vines. It was the French who really took the idea to form the basis of their appellation (naming) system. The Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) system, has become a model for wine regulation around the world.

The idea of terroir and the presumption that a unique quality is imparted into grapes grown in a specific place has been stressed by growers and critics alike. It has created the stuff of legends – especially in France – where to cross a road between vineyards can mean the difference between perceived greatness and an also ran. There is little scientific basis behind it and its significance is debated by many in the wine industry. To say that you can taste the chalk that Chardonnay grapes are grown on in the Chablis region is to describe the wine’s flavour or ‘mouth feel’. Whether the soil is actually coming through the vinification (wine-making) process has no real basis in fact. But terroir is important to us as drinkers and here’s why.

Terroir’s inception was probably less about quality and flavour and more about protectionism. A cynic might say that this has allowed wines to be marketed and to retain higher values for centuries. You cannot make a Champagne outside of the Champagne region of France for instance. No matter that a wine grown in Sussex beats the top French Champagne houses hands-down in tastings. It can only call itself Champagne Methodoise, in other words, made in the method of Champagne. From this you can see how a certain snobbery could spring up. But whatever to that, if the biggest names from the most esteemed wine regions add to your enjoyment then there’s certainly no reason to beat yourself up about it. The price will be more than enough of a battering to take.

Equally, the term terroir for many growers, especially in what is known as the ‘Old World’ (Europe in other words) has come to represent an ethos of respect for the land, the elements and the very soil itself. This is really important to those of us who drink the stuff when the philosophy of oneness with the environment is comprehensively employed in the creation of their wines. It is aspirational and spiritual, in this writer’s view at least.

So, what have we learnt? Obviously, the factors of sun, wind, rain, temperature, soil acidity, drainage, site elevation – and a zillion other environmental factors – must affect the vines that are grown in those locations. But for me, terroir is more about the passion of the growers themselves. The more you explore the greater your comprehension. Drinking wine is true armchair travelling and education can only enhance the experience and let us all be part of their story.

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