What is exactly is terroir? It’s a word that you might have heard thrown about out of the mouths of your oenophile friends. Maybe a sommelier insisted that this Mosel Riesling had an excellent sense of terroir, and that’s why you ended up drinking a wine that tasted like eating peaches on a tire swing in the dead of summer, suspended above a dazzlingly white flint quarry. Maybe you thought it was someone mispronouncing the word terrier…Well, what is terrior, exactly?
Terroir, from the French word terre, meaning "land" is the special characteristics that the geography, geology and climate of a certain place bestow upon particular thing made in that region, such as wine. It can be very loosely translated as "a sense of place," which is embodied in the certain characteristic qualities that things like soil and mineral composition have on something like a wine. The concept of terroir is at the base of the French wine system, appellation d'origine contrôlée(AOC) that has been the model for appellation and wine laws across the globe. At its core is the assumption that the land from which the grapes are grown imparts a unique quality that is specific to that region. So what does that mean?
It means a wine grown on chalky soils will taste different than a wine grown on slate. Limestone will give a different set of characteristics than basalt. Though the reason for this is not yet totally understood, it is widely accepted that when the vines bring up nutrients from the soil they bring infinitesimal particles of the minerals and soil up the root systems, into the fruit, and ultimately into your glass. That’s why you can taste scorched earth in a good Coté Rotie. It literally means, “Roasted Slope”, and the impression of the sun-drenched soil the grapes are grown in can be sensed in your glass. Kimmeridgian clay, an ancient seabed that now forms the soil under some of the most celebrated vineyard sites in the world, (Burgundy and Champagne, to name two), is a limestone heavy with nutrients from the fossils of shellfish from eons ago. A great deal of the complex characteristics of these wines is attributed to the soil they are grown in.
You can’t really make a world-class wine without something intriguing going on under the ground. Terroir- in so many words, is that intrigue.
For some considerable time at Drinkfactory, the word terroir has become synonymous with obsession.
“ Terroir, and how to give the impression of terroir, of sensations normally only associated with wine, has really occupying us at the lab for a while now.” said Tony Conigliaro. “I’m interested in terroir- things like flint, clay, chalk, and different types of soils, because very clearly we can identify when they are present- say in wine- but we can’t necessarily actually register them as tastes. There is no such thing as a definable flavour of flint, but we have made the most incredible flint vodka using flint stones in the Rotovapor. When you taste it there is an incredible sensation, almost like licking a wet stone. The flavour is there, but it’s actually not, and believe it or not the sensation is actually quite pleasant. Working from that point we have started to experiment with other things, like clay to see what effects they bring with them when treated in various ways in the lab. Some of the effects are stunning.”
He then continued, “ Our goal in this is to bring a lot of the complexity you find in really good wines and apply it to cocktails. It already works well in our pink peppercorn and flint vodka drink (The Sirocco, a drink that has been on the 69 menu for about a year), but we just want to push the envelope and see what else we can do. We’ve been given soil samples from Champagne houses and we’ve been playing around with that. Different types of rocks, soil, you name it- we’ve tasted it. Imagine something that tastes like wine, but has no wine in it. Wouldn’t that be crazy?”
He chuckles, “Well you can see why we all are a little obsessed around here right now.”
Make sure to look back to the blog to find out what the lab is doing next regarding terroir. For now pour yourself a glass of Chablis and see if you can taste the limestone. Then get prepared to do the same with a cocktail sometime soon.