Terroir, A Contrast Between Old and New

If terroir is so important to winemaking, why do new world winemakers seemingly downplay its importance?

There are really two answers to this question. One involves establishing an image for a wine that creates cachet for anyone who drinks it. The other concerns the practicality of trying to define place of origin specificity across regions and sub-regions that possess widely varied growing conditions.

Concerning the first answer, The French are no strangers to marketing and their place at the top of the wine industry is an example of how well their marketing techniques work. The success of the French, especially in Bordeaux and Burgundy has dramatically increased the value of making wine in those areas, virtually guaranteeing a return on investment with every vintage.In some cases, it almost doesn’t matter what chateau or domaine produced the wine, because the brand is so strongly tied to the region.However, it is the history of success that has allowed this to perpetuate, it took time and lots of money.

Can the same approach be used successfully in the new world? Napa Valley has as close to a terroir-like approach with vineyards like Martha’s Vineyard, but does it really make a difference? Sure Napa Valley has developed an almost cult-like following among wine drinkers, but has this truly benefited the region as a whole?

Many argue that it hasn’t. Land prices approach stratospheric heights, grape costs escalate as a result and before the “seeds of success” take, wineries fail. Sure, collectors scramble for the many highly allocated premium Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon wines, but this collecting frenzy hasn’t yet established a strong regional branding. Many are trying, though, to establish uniqueness and in some cases succeeding. Only time will tell if the notion of terroir becomes as important in the new world as it is in the old.

In regards to the second answer, the regions and sub-regions in many of the new world areas are so much vaster than their counterparts in the old world. terroir becomes much more a factor in grape growing in smaller delineated areas, not across the vastness that is new world vineyards. This vastness, combined with a high degree of variability within viticultural zones, makes it nearly impossible to create the precise delineation required to establish a sense of terroir.

Take the Barossa Valley in Australia, an area that is approximately 100 square miles of vineyards with nearly 30 different soil types present. Contrast this with Bordeaux in France, an area that is approximately 250 square miles of vineyards with only about 6 different soil types. How much specificity can one establish with the high degree of variability found in the Barossa Valley? I suspect very little.

Also, the scale of modern viticulture employed in new world vineyards also makes the notion of terroir irrelevant. Most new world winemakers are looking for ways to apply greater generalization as a means to mass-market wines to a global community. Because many of the regions and sub-regions in the new world are virtually unknown outside of the local area, there is almost no value to touting the specificity of those unique locations. Lacking the prestige, new world winemakers can do better by leveraging the areas that are known, which leads to more and more generalization. A trend diametrically opposed to the idea of terroir.

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