I have the opportunity to tasting new wines once or more a week, and about once a week my colleagues and I at the liquor store have a discussion as to whether or not “terroir” exists. At a convention I recently attended for the liquor store, a respected winemaker made a strong statement that made me rather uneasy. He claimed, “Terroir, which some call dirt, barnyard, haystack, or earthy, doesn’t come from the vineyard but instead from brettanomyces.” (Brettanomyces is a yeast strand typically linked with the “horse sweat” smell found in some ales and wines.)
The comment given by the winemaker was disconcerting for a couple of reasons. First, this idea goes against everything that I have been taught up to this point. Second, at what point did terroir become linked with dirt?
To clearly understand what I am attempting to get at, “terroir” needs to be simplified for people that haven’t heard the term or have heard it used wrongly. It is an all encompassing word that defines everything that’s wine. As defined by the Webster’s Dictionary it is, “The complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate.”
The Webster’s definition is a good definition, but still doesn’t achieve the draw that the word terroir has in the wine community. It is far more than just climate, topography, and soil. It’s also the way in which the grapes were cropped, the barrels used to age the wine, and more. So for any person to claim that it is dirt or barnyard, particularly a winemaker, is feeding into an ignorance that is intensely prevalent in the wine business. If a winemaker is abusing terroir and guiding others to misuse it, how far up and down the chain or out into the world does it go?
I think that time begets information. Since wine has been a very important element of the American way of life for such a long time one could say that awareness of wine has grown over time. Based primarily on what this winemaker said, it is tricky to see the growth, but maybe this will be an enigma in my career. Hopefully in the future years the “New Generation” wine drinker, using their basis of knowledge, will catch themselves before they misuse “terroir.”
Nicolay Castro is a wine manager at Colonial Spirits, a Boxborough liquor store. Courses at BU kindled his fascination with wine and earned him his expert standing. Nic is a great person to ask about the right wine to bring to a social or give as a gift. Make sure to check out Colonial Spirits’ wine blog, where Nic and the rest of the wine managers at Colonial Spirits share their collective enthusiasm for wine.