Wikipedia says this about terroir: “(French pronunciation: [tɛʁwaʁ] from terre, “land”) is the set of special characteristics that the geography, geology and climate of a certain place, interacting with plant genetics, express in agricultural products such as wine, coffee, tobacco, chocolate, chili peppers, hops, agave (for making Tequila and Mezcal), tomatoes, heritage wheat, maple syrup and tea. The concept has also crossed to other Protected Appellations of Origin (PDOs a form of geographical indication), products such as cheeses.”
It goes on to say…
“Terroir can be very loosely translated as “a sense of place,” which is embodied in certain characteristic qualities, the sum of the effects that the local environment has had on the production of the product. Terroir is often italicized in English writing to show that it is a French loanword.
The concept of terroir is at the base of the French wine Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) system that has been the model for appellation and wine laws around the globe. At its core is the assumption that the land from which the grapes are grown imparts a unique quality that is specific to that growing site.”
Wikipedia wraps up its explanation of terroir with this: “The amount of influence and the scope that falls under the description of terroir has been a controversial topic in the wine industry.”
So the other week, I opened a bottle of wine, happened to be Argentine, a Malbec with a huge score. As soon as I had my nose in the glass, I exhaled and my shoulders dropped. The wine was off, just a little, not nearly as expressive as I had hoped. Since it was just slightly off, I told myself again that perhaps it would blow off. So I waited, and of course, it only got worse. The ‘off’ aromas became really obvious and there is nothing else to do but pour it down the drain. Once again, I told myself to wait and see, and once again it didn’t get better. They never get better, it never blows off. When a wine is bad, it won’t cure itself. So I opened another bottle of something, and got to thinking about how many times I have heard those words “give it a minute, maybe it will blow off”, and I could not remember even once when it actually did. What I could remember is the reactions of the people pouring the bad wines when you tell them it was off. Many don’t even know what you mean, so they keep pouring, or they open another. Some taste the wine and pronounce it fine, and keep right on serving it up. I wonder how many consumers didn’t like it, and would never buy it, because they thought they didn’t like that particular flavor and not because the wine was bad?
I remember one importer one evening at a local wine event. I liked his wine, a Vouvray, so I sampled it. It was completely corked. Not even close, and I mentioned it to him. He poured some, smelled it and drank it and said, “nope, that’s the way this one is, typical in Vouvray, just the terroir.” Not in a million years, I thought. Terroir is a lot of things, see the definition above, but it is NOT an excuse for a bad wine. I wonder how that importer felt when he finally learned the difference! Another odd example happened in California. Part of what had made Napa Cabernet’s particular style so definitive turned out to be a fault in wine that everyone accepted and many looked for! The slight funk of Brettanomyces, a fault in wine, has been described with adjectives in many publications for decades; part of what makes Napa so special. I remember one particular wine had a high 90’s score, and was selling out quickly until it was publicized that the winery was having a huge issue with ‘Brett,’ and that wine in particular was affected. How did it score so well? Did the tasters not know? Did they know and accept that flaw as part of the wine’s character? Weird, huh? Wine is grapes, and grapes are fruit. Wine should smell so, with some wood as seasoning. If your wine smells like rotten eggs, burnt matches, band-aids, burnt rubber, nail polish, etc… it is most likely NOT supposed to be that way. Return it!
Shayne Hebert, ABC Fine Wine & Spirits wine and spirits supervisor
Follow me on Twitter @abcwineShayne