The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Taking Another Look at “Terroir,” A French Word with a World of Meanings

Posted on | September 4, 2013 | Written by Robin Kelley OConnor | No Comments

photoThe French notion of “terroir” is a term that has American wine lovers confused, enlightened, sometimes frustrated and others intriguedThis past Saturday, Steven Erlanger, Paris bureau chief of the New York Times, wrote a very thoughtful piece, “Vive Le Terroir,” on the idea of terroir, its variations, its importance, its preservation and its imperilment.

Mr. Erlanger attempts to unravel the intricacies of the meaning of “terroir.” He says:

The importance of terroir to the French psyche and self-image is difficult to overestimate, because it is a concept almost untranslatable, combining soil, weather, region and notions of authenticity, of genuineness and particularity — of roots, and home — in contrast to globalized products designed to taste the same everywhere.

As we do not have a specifically translatable word for “terroir,” nor do the French have a translatable word for winemaker. These are words that English glimpses and lets go, or fumbles through, inelegantly.

photo (1)I just returned from two weeks in Bordeaux, France, and I saw great illustrations of how this idea of terroir plays out. I couldn’t help but notice that Mr. Erlanger discusses his recent visit to Castelnau De Montmiral in southwest France, only a few hours from Bordeaux, a perfect setting to set forth the theory of terroir in practical terms. Mr. Erlanger looks at a listing of items you’d find in a French supermarket, and he discusses them in terms of place and connotation: the “label of Le Fierbois yogurt, produced proudly in Touraine, shows happy cows lazing about on the grass under two columns of trees. Yogurt in glass jars comes from La Ferme du Manège, ‘the farm of the riding school,’ in Normandy.” Everything has a sense of origin.

In addition to the concept of combining soil, weather, region and notions of authenticity, of genuineness and, especially, of roots and home that Mr. Erlanger puts forth, I’d argue the importance of the interaction of climate in relationship to terroir. Terroir isn’t simply a place; it’s a place in time. It’s the macroclimate of a larger area to the mesoclimate of a smaller subsection of a region to the microclimate of a particular individual vineyard or row of vines. It’s the constituents of soil as in soil types: clay, gravel, limestone, sand, marl, slate etc. and each soil type’s natural ability and inherent design in association to drainage, productiveness or fertility and heat retention. It’s the natural landscape and topography is important with aspects of vineyard location, elevation, and distance to water i.e. rivers, lakes and oceans.

photo (2)I believe in this whole concept of “terroir.” It is an idea that American winemakers are slowly coming to embrace. Not only are we seeing it in action in the vineyards of New York State, but  also it is manifestly being put to test in California, Oregon and Washington State in those vineyards where America’s best wines are being produced.

The wine portfolio of the Italian Wine Merchants illustrates as a whole the importance of ‘terroir’ reflecting on the diversity, individuality and uniqueness whether from Italy, France, Spain, Argentina, Germany or the USA. Terroir may be French, but like “wine,” it’s universal.


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