The Great Debate: Terroir or Technique?

It is a decision that every winemaker must make — perhaps multiple times during any given harvest season: Should a particular wine be more of an expression of terroir, or more an expression of technique?

Opinions vary widely, not only among individual winemakers, but also among wine regions, particularly those steeped in history.

In the Chablis area of Burgundy, for instance, there really is no choice to be made. There, the only variety is Chardonnay, and it’s all grown in limestone, clay and white chalk soil. The wines traditionally have a noticeable “chalky” note in their aroma, and many consider that to be the defining characteristic of Chablis.

Wines from Chablis are different than wines from Macon, Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet. No vintner in his right mind would try to blend away that “chalky” aspect of the Chablis aroma spectrum.

In California, those who fall into the “terroir” camp often express their preference by crafting single-vineyard wines.

“To make the finest wines, you must start with great vineyards,” says Paul Draper of Sonoma County’s Ridge Vineyards. “The individual character of a fine wine reflects a totality of elements, i.e. the terroir of its vineyard. Ridge bases grape-growing in each vineyard on long experience, while making use of the most recent advances in vineyard practice.”

That said, what happens in the cellar remains a critical aspect of the winemaking process.

“In the cellar, winemaking begins with respect for the natural process that transforms fresh grapes into wine, and for the 19th century model of guiding that process with minimal intervention,” Draper says. “When you have great vineyards that produce high-quality grapes of distinct, individual character, this approach is not only environmentally and socially responsible, it’s also the best way to consistently make fine wine.”

Of course, vintners who are not blessed with exceptional vineyards must be more proactive in the cellar, and can invoke their style preference through the type of fermentation selected and the type of oak barrels used for aging.

The wines they make can still be high in quality — just different than terroir-driven wines.

Posted in In the Cellar
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