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What Does Terroir Look Like?

Soil is an integral part of the concept of terroir; Jacques Fanet’s “Great Wine Terroirs”
© Bob Campbell/University of California Press | Soil is an integral part of the concept of terroir; Jacques Fanet’s “Great Wine Terroirs”
Architectural historian D.L. Gissen wonders if one can illustrate terroir, and if so, how should it be done?

You might think you are able to taste terroir in a wine – the wet stones in a glass of Chablis or the gunflint of Pouilly-Fumé – but what does terroir look like?

Most wine reference books contain brief sections on terroir, roughly translated as a sense of place, while more specialized texts – such as Jacques Fanet’s “Great Wine Terroirs” or James E. Wilson’s “Terroir” – focus on the subject more specifically.

These authors illustrate terroir with both cross-sections and cut-away axonometric sections, which reveal the deep layers of the earth from more than one side – often across several miles in a particular region. In both the cross-sections and axonometrics, the relationship between the grape vines and the geological activity thousands of feet below emerges.

Fanet’s depiction of terroir remains particularly striking, as he believes that a deep knowledge of the earth’s strata, soil composition and a billion years’ worth of geological history is a prerequisite to truly understanding that which the French call the goût de terroir – or taste of the earth.

In Jancis Robinson MW and Hugh Johnson’s "World Atlas of Wine," the authors not only include data on geological strata in their section on terroir, but also a diagram of a vineyard's magnetic fields, which takes terroir into seemingly uncharted territory.

Indeed, the 21st century has ushered in the use of satellite imagery and GPS technology, allowing grape growers to take a closer look at their sites. The images produced enable producers to map variability within vineyards and manage them according to their needs. These technologies can identify many variables, including different soil types, vine vigor and grape maturity within a specific vineyard block – giving humans greater knowledge to manage their terroir effectively.

But it is virtually impossible to transform the experience of taste and the phenomenon of place into a single graphic system. The most ambitious effort to represent terroir in a straightforward manner appeared in a 2011 exhibition on wine at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

SFMOMA's "How Wine Became Modern" exhibition examined concepts of terroir
© SFMOMA | SFMOMA's "How Wine Became Modern" exhibition examined concepts of terroir

In this urban setting, the architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro created a room that aimed to visualize terroir. The exhibition team displayed small containers of rocks from 17 vineyards around the world in conjunction with soil and climate data, including the temperature and humidity of the site in real time. This information was accompanied by a quotation from the winemaker about his or her understanding of terroir.

The exhibition rightly emphasized the somewhere-ness of terroir, but it also firmly brought terroir into the data-ridden language of industrialization that the concept of terroir was meant to resist.

And here is the significant paradox of this research.

Terroir resists our abilities to represent it. Or to put it another way: representation brushes up against the idea of terroir. While the power of representation is strong, we must avoid over-sentimentalizing “place” – we should see all of the above activity as chasing after something that won't be pinned down, or, at the very least, drawn with any precision.

Terroir, in the end, may be as elusive as the wine in the glass.

Looking at terroir via satellite imagery vs an axonometric depiction (Jacques Fanet)
© AFP/Hachette Livre/University of California Press | Looking at terroir via satellite imagery vs an axonometric depiction (Jacques Fanet)

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  • Comments

    Bacchusman wrote:
    22-Feb-2013 at 14:36:04 (GMT)

    Alas, two great problems remain in any discussion of terroir. To begin, there is no universal agreement on what it means. Is the winemaker part of the terroir? Some think so. Secondly, and most importantly, how many plant physiologists--the only ones who could talk authoritatively about how vines transport particular characteristics to their fruit--seem to be pretty mum on the subject. Geologists can write all they want about earth structure, but let them tell me how that translates physiologically into grape, then wine, olfactory characteristics!! I don't know one who has even attempted to do that. If they're scientists worth a hoot they know well that correlation does not equal cause and effect. And in the end, the number of ways wine can be manipulated these days renders any sense of terroir pretty meaningless, i.e., if you can agree what constitutes terroir!

  • Jean wrote:
    17-Feb-2013 at 23:01:16 (GMT)

    There's a project in McLaren Vale, Australia, with the aim of demonstrating this:

  • tony wrote:
    15-Feb-2013 at 16:10:41 (GMT)

    in all the discussion of terroir I haven't seen any discussion of the global efforts to erase the 'taste of the earth'. To provoke thought, consider the fact that (most) grape growers all around the earth are working hard make their vines nutriton numbers match some university issued benchmarks. Adding NPK and even most micronutrients to meet these target numbers for 'healthy' vines is making all the regions grapes taste about the same. Add to that the current fashion of harvesting grapes 'over ripe' and then adjusting alcohol down and Viola, uniformity of flavor. When was the last blind tasting that you could identify a Napa vs Valley of the moon (minty) thumbprint of region?

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