Terroir is one of those wine terms that you come across as you get interested in the subject – and sometimes when reading winery advertising. Yet getting a definition of what it actually means has been difficult, until now.
Terroir is a French word referring to a sense of the place where wine is produced. Cynics said that since every country has planted classic French grape varieties and some countries are using French names – such as champagne – for their wines, terroir is the one thing that France can keep for itself. A French Champagne maker can scoff that, while another country makes their fizz in the same way from the same grape varieties, they cannot make Champagne because they don’t have the same terroir. By terroir they mean the magical alignment of location, soils, hillsides and valleys, temperatures and weather found in Champagne.
New world countries then started claiming their terroir was special and gave uniqueness to their wines. Cabernet Sauvignon from the Stags Leap area of Napa Valley was different from Cabernet Sauvignon grown in Sonoma.
And that is what appellations and viticultural areas are supposed to recognise.
But ask any wine lover to explain terroir and watch them struggle.
For years wine experts around the world have been working on an internationally accepted definition. The starting point was the following definition presented to ‘Planet Terroirs UNESCO’ in 2005:
Terroir is a delimited geographic area within which a human community constructs, in the course of its history, a collective knowledge based on a system of interactions between a phy¬sical and biological environment, and an ensemble of human factors.
The technical specifics thus acquired display originality and impart a reputation for a benefit that originates from this geographic space; so that one may share equally in these specific characteristics of the land.
That definition was kicked around and modified at various international conferences in following years. Some new world regions were not happy with the emphasis on ‘history’, since they themselves had only a short history of growing grapes.
Finally, in 2010 under the auspices of OIV (The International Organisation of Vine and Wine), the following definition was adopted:
“Vitivinicultural ‘terroir’ is a concept that refers to an area for which there is collective knowledge of the interaction between the physical and biological environment and applied vitivinicultural practices, which provide unique characteristics for goods originating from this specific area. Terroir includes specific characteristics of the soil, topography, climate, landscape and biodiversity.”
So now we know.
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Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape, also available for the Kindle.