Terroir: Fact, Fiction or Just Plain Science?


This past Monday science mag Cosmos published a story which explored the science behind the wine world's beloved – and sometimes besmirched term: terroir. 
“In vino veritas – in wine there is truth – says the Latin proverb, but the truth behind how grapes ferment into a unique vintage is a mystery long cloaked by the term terroir,” the article began. 
In the story, reporter Andrew Masterson spoke with scientists, a sommelier and winemakers about the intricacies of terroir. The results were as varied as the opinions about terroir itself.
“Terroir has far eluded science. But that may be about to change. And many places will be avidly watching this science,” Masterson wrote. “As climate change plays havoc with existing wine growing regions, new contenders to the wine industry – such as China – will stand to gain from demystifying the secrets of fine wine.”
Unlocking that mystery, however, is more difficult than it seems. Even scientists, the objective minds that they are, disagree on the legitimacy of terroir, Masterson noted.
“There is no doubt that the soil impacts the growth of a grape vine,” he wrote. “But these days, scientists debate as to whether the quality of the soil can in fact explain the unique quality of a wine.”
Robert White, a University of Melbourne soil scientist, told Masterson he believes terroir does give a wine its unique quality.
Australia Wine Research Institute's Markus Herderich disagreed.
“I wouldn't say there's no link between soil and wine composition. But it's probably not a direct relationships,” he told Masterson. “The consensus among flavour scientists is that the minerals in soil don't play a direct role in wine flavour.”
Ren Lim, a sommelier and former captain of the Oxford University Blind Tasting Society, told Masterson he's sold on the idea of terroir, noting the unique flavors found in Cabernets from different regions in Australia.
Wine blogger and educator Quentin Sadleron also gave a “yes” vote for terroir, pointing out the nuanced differences between Beaujolais grown in various types of soil.
University of California, Davis' David Mills, however, pointed to the various microbes in wine fermentation as a possible explanation for the subtle differences between wines from a specific region in the world. 
Mills and his colleagues are mapping out the DNA makeup of fermentation microbes. Their studies have shown that the fermentation fingerprint of Chardonnay, for example, differs between vintages from Napa, Sonoma and the Central Coast.
They published the results of some of their work in January 2014 in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Masterson wrote. 
“The reason I love this study is that it starts to walk down a path to something we could actually measure,” Mills said in an interview after the study debuted. “Someone has to prove that something about terroir makes it to the bottle, and no one has done that yet.”

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