The critical factor in terroir

It's wrong to focus on soil and climate alone, says Roger Morris. The most critical factor in creating terroir is finding the right grape.

Photo by Maja Petric on Unsplash
Photo by Maja Petric on Unsplash

Sometimes when I’m visiting wineries, I briefly lapse into this dream:

I’m enjoying a fabulous, complex glass of wine while chatting with the winemaker. “I’m really happy with this vintage,” she says, smiling, “but it took me 15 years to get here. I kept trying to find what grapes this soil could grow best in this climate. 

“I seriously tried about 10 different varieties,” she continues, “before I found out that Goodnplenty was the right variety, that Tuxedo Junction was the right clone and that Nightcrawler was the right rootstock. The grapes I’m growing now have great fruit and fragrance with natural acidity, bud break is late so we generally avoid problems with frost, and their loose clusters are not prone to mildew problems.

“But it took me a while to grasp that while the wine may be made in the vineyard, it’s not easy with this terroir,” she continues. “I finally said to myself, ‘It’s the grape, stupid.’”

Then I awake to hear what she’s really saying is, “We have such great terroir here that we could grow almost anything.” I quickly gulp the rest of my wine and say my farewells.

Terroir as a limiting factor

Okay, okay. Of course, terroir is essential to making great and not-so-great wines. And I assume that however we define terroir, we are including soil and climate in that definition. But we should recognize that terroir is also a limiting factor. Whether it’s through centuries of finding what grapes work and which ones don’t (as in Burgundy and Bordeaux) or more recently by soil analysis and climate evaluation (New World vineyards), most knowledgeable winegrowers will tell you a lot of grapes wouldn’t grow well in their vineyards. Plant Riesling in the Douro or Cabernet along the Rhine and tell me what great terroir these regions have. Terroirs are only magical if viticulturists learn which grapes grow best there and how best to grow them. 

Terroir is inanimate. It just lays there in the sun and the rain for season after season like an unresponsive lover. It’s dirty, big, and bulky, so whatever you do to it, you have to do it right there. You can’t pick up Burgundy terroir and truck it off to where the weather is hotter or colder, wetter or drier. No matter how important and knowledgeable Michel Rolland might be, if he wants to understand your terroir, it will require a house call. 

That isn’t to say that viticulturists can’t change terroir, that they can’t make “adjustments” out in the field just as a winemaker in his cellar “corrects” for sugar, acidity, nutrients, oxygen, temperatures, yeasts and oak. In fact, most, if not all, great terroirs undergo continuous makeovers. 

Think of the way growers baby talk to their vines:

“Are you starving, poor thing? Do we need to plant some nutrients between your rows?” 

“Is your bottom wet? Would drainage tiles make it all better?” 

“Oh, you’re thirsty? Let me install drip irrigation. It will cost a bit, but you’re worth every centime.”

And with global warming, we’re learning that choosing the right grape is more important than ever. 

Grape choice in action

Let’s take Bordeaux as an example at a time it’s dealing with unwelcome climate changes in life and the choices it faces: 

(1) The châteaux could do nothing in the vineyard and change the style of their wines to incorporate super-ripe fruit and 17% alcohol and compete with Port. They’ve ruled that out. 

(2) While the soil part of the terroir equation would be happy to continue growing the two Cabernets and Merlot, the first growths might eventually have to erect tinted greenhouses over the vines to control temperature, humidity and UV. Even another price increase wouldn’t cover that. 

(3) They could abandon their present vineyards and move further north to cooler climes, taking their grapes and the name “Bordeaux” with them. But the Loire Valley might object to the interlopers. 

(4) Or Bordeaux could adjust its mixture of grapes to better fit the climate, and they are just now doing that by experimenting with 10 previously forbidden varieties in the production of Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur. It’s quite feasible that in 20 years a Bordeaux red may have 10% Marselan. But, eventually, the right grapes will ride to the rescue – historically, they always have.

The fact is that almost any terroir in a temperate climate is potentially great – as long as you choose the right grapes to begin with and make all the right adjustments in the vineyard and cellar. 

For example, Napa Valley is a great place to make great Cabernet Sauvignon, but it doesn’t come naturally. Unless the vines are very old with deep roots, growers in almost all vineyards have irrigation systems to add water that the terroir doesn’t naturally possess. So we start right off with making a major fix to the terroir. Canopy management and just-in-time picking are necessary to keep alcohols under the 15-16% (some critics say anything more than 14% is too much) that most consumers think is desirable. And it isn’t just California Cabs. For ages, Burgundy had added sugar during fermentation to get its alcohols to acceptable levels for its Pinot Noirs. And yet these two regions make some of the best wines in the world. 

Great terroirs are seldom “great” without a lot of help from the folks who call the shots in the vineyards and cellars. The real challenge is in finding the right grapes to grow there.

Roger Morris

This is an opinion piece.

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