So what is terroir?

Good question…

There are, broadly speaking, two types of wines – industrially made, and authentically made. Wines that are manipulated to be easy to like – and wines that are unique and true to themselves. Think Kraft American slices vs. Humboldt Fog…. filet o’ fish vs ceviche…. Budweiser vs. Hill Farmstead. They clearly reflect different philosophies – strategies, if you will – one that swerves towards the lowest common denominator, and one that isn’t afraid to have an actual point of view and a sense of that fleeting somewhere-ness that says it wasn’t made in a factory.

So terroir wines are the latter. They aren’t made with pure profit or economies of scale as their driving factor (but at a certain point, both must be taken into account – this is a business after all.) They reflect where they come from, have a certain niche appeal, would rather be interesting than popular.

In contrast to spirits or beer, the wine market is much more fragmented – many small producers and very few big brands. That reflects the scale of the product, the fact that wine is an agricultural product so sensitive to its provenance, and, importantly, that we only get one shot at making wine per year and vintage variations are always going to be a variable that makes wine a constant shapeshifter. Winery size and production levels don’t have a whole lot to do with it – there are small wineries (who often charge an awful lot for their wines) that manipulate with a heavy hand, and large wineries that respect the grapes they’re given and still put out a consistently great product at a fair price.

So… why should you care? I admit, sometimes I want a $10 porch pounder rosé, and sometimes I want to have a deep moment with a pinot noir I can’t afford but bought anyway. I’m willing to be a champion of the latter to make sure the former doesn’t overtake and make things too homogenous, boring, expensive. Have a place for both in your repertoire, but make sure you pause to understand and appreciate when someone’s heart and soul has gone into a wine, when they are acting as a medium for the earth to whisper directly in your ear.

Terroir is a subject of ongoing debate, and it can get really geeky really fast.  If you’re newer to wine or don’t feel the need to get knee deep in semantics, simply don’t get caught up in the debate – just keep that concept of ‘somewhere-ness’ in the back of your mind, and ask yourself if the wine you’re drinking tastes like it was made in a factory or made in the field.

That being said, I imagine I’ll occasionally delve into the terroir debate here, not as a partisan (I think there’s a wide range of valid viewpoints) but rather as an observer and commentator trying to make some sense of it all. I’m happy to have some company if you want to join me on the journey down the rabbit hole, and later this week I’ll post a list of books that I’ve found to be interesting & helpful should you want to delve deeper.

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