© Tyler Spangler

What does the wine world's most misunderstood concept really mean?

April 20, 2017

Devin Shomaker’s vineyard is located at an altitude of exactly five floors above sea level. It sits on a roof in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard with views of the Freedom Tower, a public housing project, and a natural gas cogeneration facility topped with two soaring smokestacks. The vines are planted not in the earth underfoot, but in waist-high aluminum planters, created from scratch by Shomaker and his partner Chris Papalia. They have also designed the vineyard’s soil: Far from being found in nature, the mixture is a blend of crushed recycled glass and perlite pebbles that was developed with Skyland USA, a provider of “engineered soil.” It was trucked in from a manufacturing plant in New Jersey, and specifically produced to have a pH of 7.3—slightly basic to accommodate the acid rain that can plague cities like New York. Besides the vines, the roof’s only other nod to nature is a runner of neon green astroturf, which is Shomaker’s homage to a field.

“We’ll be enclosing this back area in turf and making a meadow scene,” Shomaker explained to me, one chilly afternoon in December. He and Papalia, bundled in fleece jackets, had taken a break from dismantling a deck to lead me on a tour of their nearly two hundred vines.

In other settings, these growing conditions might collectively be labeled the vineyard’s “terroir,” a French term you’ve invariably heard mentioned if you’ve ever bought a bottle of wine. But here, at a former warship manufacturing site, the word seems incongruous. Terroir is generally used to describe the ways a vineyard’s natural environment, from altitude to climate, leaves its mark on wines. It’s often effectively synonymous with quality: many critics argue that a hallmark of great wines is that they taste of their terroir. Some contend it’s what makes natural wines so special, or helps explain why certain bottles, like a Grand Cru from Burgundy’s Vosne-Romanée, cost ten times more than others.

So does terroir exist here, at Rooftop Reds, where high-rises outnumber trees?

 Courtesy of Rooftop Reds

“Yeah. I mean, of course,” said Shomaker, a spindly 31-year-old with piercing blue eyes and shaggy hair. “I just don’t see why we would splice and dice terroir and say, ‘This’”—he gestured at the rooftop—“isn’t terroir, but a traditional vineyard is absolutely terroir.’”

Shomaker’s partner looked surprised. “I stand on the opposite side of what he said,” Papalia countered. “There is no existing terroir here. It’s all manmade.”

Their disagreement underscores a confusion that has long plagued the wine world: “terroir” is arguably the oldest, most influential, and most-frequently-used buzzword that no one can quite agree how to define. More than four centuries ago, connoisseurs had already decided that wines could have “a certain smell, a certain taste” derived from their terroir. Yet what exactly “terroir” consists of—and how it might flavor wines—has remained stubbornly elusive and contentious. Many oenophiles stress the link between terroir and “terre,” French for earth, suggesting vineyard bedrock shapes the taste of a wine. “The most important factor is the soil, its composition, its mineral content,” asserted German winemaker Gregor Messmer in a 2014 interview. An international zoning group characterized terroir more broadly as “a complex of natural environmental factors,” while Wine Spectator critic Matt Kramer dubbed it a wine’s “somewhereness.” Then there are those who counter terroir doesn’t exist. Mark Matthews, a viticulture professor at the University of California, Davis, dismisses terroir—“the most controversial myth of wine-growing”—as nothing more than “a shibboleth that establishes an in-group in a world unto itself” and a “marketing ploy.”

Matthews, together with Rooftop Reds founders Shomaker and Papalia, are part of a growing chorus of voices who are pushing the wine industry to reevaluate whether the received wisdom about terroir is correct. In fields from chemistry to anthropology, researchers have at last been giving this thorny concept a sustained, critical look in an attempt to lend greater precision to its meaning, as well as to untangle its effects on the flavors in a glass of wine.

The stakes are high: a more nuanced understanding of terroir—what it consists of, how it alters the finished product, and why it matters—could revolutionize how wine is made. And yet questioning terroir is highly controversial, in part because established producers have a vested interest in its existence: if great, distinctive wine can be produced anywhere, or if certain hallowed environmental inputs are less important than assumed, that could undermine fundamental assertions about what makes for fine bottles. At the very least, it could overthrow the European wine world’s historical hierarchy. The idea of terroir forms the basis for rules that have carved grape-growing regions into distinct appellations. It is the foundation for charging more for a wine from a Grand Cru vineyard than a humble villages plot. And it is closely connected with the romance and mystique of wine. Burgundian winemakers, early champions of terroir dating back to the region’s medieval Cistercian monks, contend terroir contributes to their bottles’ “sacredness.”

Saying that terroir is more or less b.s. is a quick route to unpopularity. Wine importer Thierry Theise has noted, in a what sounds as much a veiled threat as a statement of fact, that “it is an inhospitable place for a person who denies the truth of terroir[.]” Mark Matthews knows this first-hand: “On this journey, I have lost relationships with some colleagues,” he writes in his book Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing, published last year. The “terroir deniers”—so-called by their critics—stand accused of oversimplifying wine, undermining the artisans who tend to the vines, and ignoring the indisputable flavor differences of grapes grown on disparate sites. But far from reducing wine into a cookie-cutter commodity, this active engagement with the concept of terroir has reinforced how dynamic, complicated, and even mysterious the art of making wine really is.

“I get a bit annoyed when people say ‘Scientists, go home. You’re spoiling everything,’” said Alex Maltman, an amateur winemaker and a geology professor at Aberystwyth University in Wales, who has authored one of the most comprehensive critiques of soil’s contribution to terroir. “The more we try and find out, the more complex the whole thing is, the more respect and admiration I have for it, and the more romantic it becomes.”

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Slate in Germany’s Mosel River Valley

 © Getty Images/iStockphoto

Over the past several centuries, the definition of “terroir” has undergone numerous revisions, and its current link to quality marks a relatively recent development. As explored in Amy Trubek’s The Taste of Place, Thomas Parker’s Tasting French Terroir, and Matthews’ Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing, terroir has been a continuously evolving idea, one these authors argue could be informed as much by business incentives as concrete knowledge of cause and effect. Though terroir is now associated with top-tier bottles, through the 18th century, wines with a taste of terroir, or “gout de terroir,” were considered defective. “One says that the wine has a taste of terroir when it has some disagreeable quality that comes to it from the nature of the terroir where the vine is planted,” explained a French dictionary published in 1690. In France’s ancien régime, food doubled as a status symbol that reinforced class hierarchies, and the elite rejected terroir-inflected wines as rustic and impure. By contrast with our current farm-to-table culture, eating “local” was for peasants.

It took until the early twentieth century for terroir to complete its transition from a flaw to a virtue. Vintners from Champagne led the way, claiming their land had special characteristics that lent their wines their distinctive taste. As Trubek explains, drinkers’ love of sparkling wines from Champagne counterintuitively did little to improve the livelihoods of local growers, and the wines’ success actually threatened to devalue the Champagne name—turning it into a commodity that could be made (or knocked-off) anywhere in the world. “The vignerons wanted to retain some proprietary rights to the name champagne, now used all over the globe, so they turned to the soil,” Trubek writes. “The agrarian roots of the movement to create protection for place and products situate the history of terroir.” In 1905, the region’s growers successfully lobbied for the creation of strict rules—the first of many to come—mandating where (and how) wines must be made in order to bear their place of origin. (It’s for this reason that only sparkling wine from Champagne can technically be called “Champagne.”) Growers in Burgundy, also wary of competition and fraud, joined in the early push to valorize terroir, such that by the 1930s one Burgundian folklorist was marketing the region’s wines as a “subtle emanation from the soil” responsible for locals’ “joie de vivre.” Matthews contends terroir underwent another “dramatic uptick” in usage and prestige after Californian bottles bested some of France’s top wines in the historic 1976 Judgment of Paris. As the French sought to fend off American competitiors, they re-emphasized the connection between quality and place in a way that gave France a permanent advantage: New World winemakers could use fine barrels and employ talented vintners, but only Gallic vignerons had France’s exceptional land. 

History suggests the celebration of terroir was not purely a reflection of nature’s effect on grapes, but was also shaped by economic needs. Growers championed terroir because “they saw the potential benefits of a foodview celebrating an agrarian and rural way of life,” writes Trubek. (As she sees it, we’re living through another golden age of terroir, as white-collar yuppies embrace artisanal fare as an “antidote” to their “increasingly fast-paced urban lives” and the globalized food system.) California vintner Sean Thackery argues his fellow winemakers extol terroir because it’s good for their bottom line. If growers insist that great wine is made in the vineyard—not the winery—owing to the properties of their land, quality becomes inextricably tied to real estate, rather than to the experts who vinify the grapes. Land that produces high-quality wine can in turn be sold for a high price-tag. “In short,” said Thackrey in an interview with the blog Gang of Pour, “billions of dollars depend on acceptance of the concept of terroir, whose most important mineral component is therefore a very large grain of salt.”

But that’s not to say that all wine tastes the same, regardless of where the grapes are grown. Though the meaning of terroir has shifted with the priorities and prejudices of the day, few (if any) drinkers would disagree that wines from different sites take on distinctive characters. “The argument always comes down to, can you taste it or not? And you can taste rocks in your wine, so this bullshit about terroir is just bullshit,” said Alice Feiring, author of the Feiring Line newsletter and a forthcoming book about the role of soil in winemaking. Feiring detects more “saltiness” and “leanness” in wines from granite, and picks up a “chewiness” and “dense fruit in the middle of the palate” when drinking bottles from heavy clay soils. Less anecdotally, in a 2011 study on terroir, oenologists harvested Riesling grapes from twenty-five vineyards around Germany, then used the grapes to make wines that were evaluated according to color, taste, and smell. The researchers concluded the wines’ flavors reliably varied according to soil type, such that Riesling grown in basalt, for example, produced wines with “smooth acidity” and a “smoky,” “cantaloupe” perfume, while moving to sandstone yielded wines with “harsh acidity” and aromas of “boxwood” and “green grass.”

To explain these nuances, some oenophiles suggest the land may flavor wine the way cumin spices a curry. “Please posit a theory as to why Champagne tasters have spontaneously arrived at tasting terms that include marine images of iodine, oysters, and seafood shells that is more persuasive than the one that says it’s because the vines grow in soil made up of agglomerated sea fossils,” writes Thierry Theise, expressing a frequently-encountered view.

Geologists and plant biologists, though, have pushed back against that idea. In two papers published in the Journal of Wine Research, Maltman, the geologist, analyzes why it is scientifically untenable for the soil to influence the taste of a bottle, as though the vines were slurping up minerals from the earth, passing them on to the grape and then getting mixed into the finished wine. The foundation of his argument rests on plant physiology: To grow, grapevines require sixteen dissolved single elements, such as nitrogen, potassium, and zinc. Though often referred to imprecisely as “mineral nutrients,” these elements are not the same minerals that make up the soil—those are complex organic compounds, such as graphite and quartz, that are as difficult for vines to absorb as it is for humans to breathe underwater. “The notion of being able to taste the vineyard geology in the wine—a gout de terroir—is a romantic notion which makes good journalistic copy and is manifestly a powerful marketing tactic, but it is wholly anecdotal and in any literal way is scientifically impossible,” writes Maltman.

Even so, scientists posit that geology plays a more complex and varied role in shaping vineyards (and wines) than previously thought. Maltman considers the mineral content of vineyard bedrock a red herring that distracts from more influential, but less visible, natural forces that act on grapes’ character. Different soils drain and retain heat differently, for example. Land topography causes variations in altitude, exposure, angle, and convexity that can expose vines to different airflows, humidity, and mesoclimates—all of which may have a more meaningful effect on taste than the mineral content of limestone versus granite. “You can't see those things, so we ignore them,” said Maltman, while acknowledging the possibility that soil could still flavor wines in an “indirect” manner science has yet to unravel.

An additional unseen factor contributing to the gout de terroir might be the “airroir” of vineyards—the contents of the air. When eucalyptus is planted near vines, for example, the minty aromatic compounds in the trees’ leaves can travel onto the grapes, where it can persist in the wine. And though it doesn’t make for sexy copy on labels, there is mounting evidence that microbes have a powerful effect on flavor differences that are traditionally ascribed to other natural conditions, like the soil. Vineyards are home to hundreds of species of fungi, whose population and genetic makeup varies dramatically across growing sites. To examine whether the microscopic living organisms on grapes influence flavor, ecologists at the University of Auckland collected thirty-six strains of saccharomyces cerevisia yeast from six regions across New Zealand, then made thirty-six wines—one from each strain—by adding the yeast to separate batches of homogenized Sauvignon Blanc juice. The researchers found that changing the yeast altered the chemistry and aromas of the resulting wines. For example, certain strains were found to boost compounds responsible for wines’ peach and apple aromas; others enhanced the floral notes. “It’s very apparent that when you conduct ferments with different types of yeast that you got from different places, they bring different affects to the wine,” said the study’s co-author Matthew Goddard. His findings were confirmed in follow-up research by the University of California, Davis and University of Chicago. Perhaps some day bottles’ labels will swap their evocative references to chalk and quartz vineyards for promotional copy about their unique strain of S. cerevisia.

The living organisms that contribute to a bottle’s “terroir” could even extend to people. There is a growing movement, with roots in the past, to expand the definition of terroir to include not only a site’s natural characteristics, but also its human heritage. Analyzing the evolution of the France’s appellation d’origine system—an outgrowth of the rules pushed by turn-of-the-century Champagne growers—Oxford University professor Dev Gankee sees a shift away from soil and environment as the sole criterion for terroir. Instead, there has been a push to include the cultural “savoir faire” honed over generations—farmers’ traditional techniques for limiting yields, treating pests, and aging wines, for example. Bordeaux’s renowned Château Haut-Brion embraces this broader understanding of terroir as something created by humans working in collaboration with the earth, calling terroir a “veritable ecosystem where natural conditions have been modified and transformed by man, who throughout the centuries has exploited the land to the best of his ability using what nature has given him.”

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Vineyards in Champagne

 © Getty Images/Canopy

So what are we left with when it comes to terroir? Is it independent of the human hand, or wedded to it? Natural or cultural? Animal, vegetable, or mineral—or all of the above? What remains appears to be a chameleon term that means everything and nothing at the same time, a concept that conveniently adapts itself to fit any situation or argument. It is clear that “terroir,” in its slippery elusiveness, has benefited the wine industry. Yet it’s less obvious whether it has been an asset to wine drinkers. Its fuzziness can breed confusion. And the resistance to probing long-held beliefs about terroir may be hampering growers from making better wine. Teasing apart terroir and testing its assumptions doesn’t diminish the artistry and beauty of wine. Rather, investigating the nature of terroir through science and careful research can shed light on the indisputable differences that make one plot special, and how to showcase those nuances in ways that might not have been understood.

It’s possible that at least one aspect of terroir will soon become clear: Without realizing it, Shomaker and his partner have, with Rooftop Reds, embarked on a radical experiment to test where the natural world ends and the human begins when it comes to terroir. As we prepared to part ways for the day, Shomaker pointed out another rooftop in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, across a gravel parking lot containing trucks and a few dumpsters, that he hoped to use for a second vineyard. From there, said Shomaker, Rooftop Reds could travel just about anywhere, replicating the vineyard’s aluminum planters and industrially-engineered soil on buildings across the country.

“We’re considering this to be the first franchisable model of a vineyard system in the world,” said Shomaker. “One of our big ambitions was to create a vintage that truly represented New York City. But who says that emphasis wouldn’t be there for Washington, D.C., for Philadelphia, for San Francisco, for LA, for Austin?”

The earth in which Shomaker plants his vines will stay constant, even as the air, microbes, climate, and water around them may change. And if terroir-driven wines can taste of people as well as place, then perhaps Rooftop Reds’ bottles from Washington D.C. will be as mineral as they are ambitious, or the New York City wines acidic, with a touch of aggression.

Bianca Bosker is the author of CORK DORK: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste, out now from Penguin Books.