• Simon Reilly

Is terroir bollocks?


Terroir is probably the most commonly used word in wine these days.

Terroir is a French word which has no direct translation into English. It basically refers to everything about a specific site that makes it unique. The climate, the soil, the altitude, the direction it faces, etc.

Winemakers talk about vineyards having a great terroir as if it is the holy grail. The be all and end all.

They also talk about using winemaking methods with minimal intervention to allow the terroir to shine. Natural winemaking being a good example.

But is this just a lot of bollocks? Is terroir the be all and end all?

When it comes to natural wine, can you taste terroir or can you just taste flat cider?

Personally when I taste a natural wine, my initial impression is “that is a natural wine”. This conclusion usually comes before I am able to decipher what grape variety it is, let alone what the terroir of the vineyard is like.

Surely if I am immediately drawn to the winemaking style, then the terroir is not the be all and end all.

Taking this question beyond natural wine, I recently visited the cellars of Nervi in Gattinara, a town with its own DOCG in North Piemonte, Italy.

In Gattinara, Nebbiolo is king.

Nervi’s top cuvee is a fantastic wine called Molsino, from a vineyard on the top of the hill overlooking the town of Gattinara. It became Gattinara's first cru in 1970, its debut vintage. Made from 100% Nebbiolo, it is aged in the large, oval, wooden barrels synonymous across Piemonte.

View from the top of Nervi's Molsino vineyard, towards the town of Gattinara

Winemakers I met across Northern Piemonte used the same rationale for the use of large barrels, rather than smaller French barriques. The wine has less contact with the wood, reducing its impact and allowing the terroir to shine. There’s that word again….

When I visited, Nervi were running an experiment with different types of wood with the 2013 Molsino. They currently use a range of barrels and need to buy more so they decided to test which ones best suit the wine.

To do this, they are aging the 2013 Molsino in four different barrels made of wood from Vosges, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia. I was lucky enough to be taken through a tasting of each of the wines from barrel in the cellars at two years of the usual three years in wood.

Above and below; Nervi's winemaker, Enrico Fileppo, takes us through the barrel samples

The wines tasted completely different.

Even in these large wooden barrels, the impact of the different oak had a significant impact on the wine. I acknowledge that it was only part of the way through the ageing process but the wines were so markedly different it was difficult to see how they could come back to the same place over time.

So where does this leave the terroir?

Terroir is obviously important. You can’t cook a great meal without great ingredients. But a bad chef can easily ruin it.

For me winemaking ability and style is just as important as the terroir. You can’t make a great wine without great terroir, but you can’t make great wine without a great winemaker either.

When I buy wine, I place more emphasis on the producer than the terroir. I’d much rather drink a wine from a lesser terroir made by a great winemaker than a wine from a more reputed terroir made by a winemaker who doesn’t have the same skills.

So terroir is not bollocks. But it’s not the be all and end all either.

It’s time to champion the winemaker as well as the terroir.

#nervi #gattinara #terroir #wine #piemonte #nebbiolo #barrels #winemaking #naturalwine

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