The French word “terroir” is unique and cannot really be translated. Technically it includes everything around the vine which can influence the vine. It includes consequently amongst others the topography, climate, geology and soil type. These unique characteristics of a site create unique growth conditions for a vine, which consequently produces unique grapes to produce an unique wine eventually.
The cliché that winemaking starts in the vineyard is accepted by most people, but it may be more correct to state that the focus of winemakers should be to produce wines that are of the same or better quality than the grapes which were utilised for it. In spite of that it is however a reality that geographical indications are one of the oldest forms of intellectual property. It is however not only an indication of the origin of the products, but also of its characteristics, which are the result of the combination of natural and human inputs. In this way geographical indications represent the cultural heritage of those who use it. The French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) system is probably the most known example of the regulated use of geographical indications, which offers trade protection to products like Champagne, Calvados, Cognac, Bordeaux, Roquefort and many more. Other countries apply the same principle more or less in the same way and the South African Wine of Origin system, which was implemented in 1973 has the same aims. Different levels of origin indications varying from the smallest (single vineyard) to demarcations as big as the Western Cape are utilised to apply the system.
During recent years the terroir concept led to the development of local actions. The Terroir Wine Competition was initiated to compare wines from specific origin in order to identify leading regions for specific wines. Participation in the competition is consequently limited to wines which are certified as prescribed wines of origin. The Cape Vintners Classification (CVC) attempts to promote terrain specific wines which reflect the soil type, topography, climate and microclimate in their style and quality. Membership is consequently limited to estate owners, who comply with prescribed wine quality, technical and environmental standards, cellar door facilities, as well as ethical and social responsibilities.
A narrow margin however exists between basic geographical indications and terroir, seeing that the marketing advantages of the terroir concept can easily lead to the misleading use of it.
Except for the influence of salinity little is known about the influence of soil and soil characteristics on grape production, grape composition or the sensory characteristics and composition of wines. It also appears that the recommendations in this regard are rather based on expert opinions than quantitative research. The influential publication on the role of soil on terroir (Seguin, 2008) however confirmed that the physical properties of soil and the influence of it on the water stress of vineyards are of utmost importance and cultivation on slopes is also better than on flat lands.
Other French research stated that better wines are usually made from poor soils. It must however be borne in mind that French research is usually executed in regions where irrigation is not applied or allowed. Although it is possible that better French wines are made from poor soils it is possible that very good wines can also originate from very fertile soils.
The considerable variation in soil characteristics over a short distance (in tens of metres) impedes the conclusions about the influence of soils. Different procedures known as “precision viticulture” can be applied to overcome these problems. The use of the terroir concept on larger geographical regions is consequently not scientifically based, but is rather used for marketing purposes (Bramley, 2014).
Bramley, Rob, 2014. Smarter thinking on terroir. Wine & Viticulture Journal, July/August 2014: 53 – 58.
Seguin, G., 1986. Terroirs and pedology of wine growing. Experientia 42: 861 – 873.