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When It Comes to Terroir, Is Nature or Nurture More Important?

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From a vineyard’s soil composition and surface, to the region’s climate and sun exposure, many wine professionals think quality wine will show characteristics of its place of origin. The French sum up this concept in the word terroir.

But another thought is that other factors, such as farming methods and winemaking techniques, are equally responsible for a wine’s defining characteristics. This leads some to believe that two wines produced in a similar area can taste wildly different. But, can both the “nature” of how the wine grows and the “nurture” of the winemaker be the true expression of terroir?

The Impact of Nature

Some believe terroir accounts for the natural environment of any viticultural site including the soil, topography, macroclimate, mesoclimate, microclimate and more. In this theory, these environmental factors should influence wine taste to such a degree that reproduction is not possible elsewhere, regardless of viticulture and winemaking methods, according to the Oxford Companion to Wine.

“In Alto Adige, if you taste the water from the side of the mountain from mica-schist, it has this refreshing acidity, while the water that comes from the other side of the Dolomites picks up more chalk and the taste is more astringent,” explains Dominic Würth, winemaker and proprietor of GraWü winery in Italy’s Alto Adige. 

Indeed, it would appear that the nature surrounding the vineyards impacts the taste of grapes and, thus, the wine.  

Another example is Anjou in France, where the difference in soil has a direct impact on the berries themselves. The region is famous for Chenin Blanc, with some vines grown on schist soils and others on limestone. The schist soil doesn’t retain water as well as limestone, so the vines experience hydraulic stress, causing the production of smaller berries with thicker skins. Thus, Anjou Chenin Blanc from schist often has more intensity and crunch than its limestone counterparts.

Additionally, winemakers who want the terroir to impart the most character to the wine let the environment do the work. “To express terroir, you must avoid using pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals,” says Raphael Bennour, manager at Domaine du Gringet in Savoie, France. “Vineyards should be at least [certified] organic, and the vinification approach in the cellar should be minimalistic.” 

This is because harmful chemicals would destroy the flora and fauna of a place, and oenological additives in the cellar would alter the taste of the grapes. However, even in this case, the degree to which terroir affects the taste of wine is contentious.

The Impact of Winemaking

Some experts would say that different winemaking techniques disguise the terroir and can impact the flavors of the wine just as much as the environment.

Most blind wine-tasting exams (including the Court of Sommeliers and WSET) use “typical” examples of wines from select vineyard sites or wine regions. Hence, the examinees can have an educated guess on what the wine is. But “typical” has very little meaning when winemakers make deliberate changes.

“What I’ve learned in school is what certain vineyard sites are supposed to taste like,” says Jesse Becker, Master Sommelier. “If you’re in Musigny [France] and you obliterate the wine with new oak, you’re missing the point.”

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