On a recent trip to Normandy, I visited the Fromagerie de Graindorge, a working dairy farm in Livarot that produces Normandy’s four most famous cheeses: Camembert, Livarot, Pont L’Evêque and Neufchâtel. As a wine merchant, my ears pricked up when I heard the dairy manager talking about ‘terroir’. It didn’t require a great leap of imagination to think that cheesemakers would adopt the word ‘terroir’ with the same pride as winemakers. After all, many cheeses have their own Appellation d'Origine Protégée (Roquefort was the first in 1925 and 40 more have followed since). What struck a note of discord, however, was that, although the milk used for all four cheeses originates from Normandy (and, as of January 2017, will come exclusively from Norman cows) it is exactly the same milk used for each cheese, a daily replenished blend sourced from milk farms spread out right across Normandy. So if the raw ingredient is identical for each cheese and the cheeses are all made in the same place, how can they talk about ’terroir’ affecting the cheese’s character? It would be like a winery importing Chardonnay grapes from all over north-east France, fermenting them together in a single location, and producing a Chablis, a Meursault, a Puligny-Montrachet and a Macon-Villages. Not only impossible under wine appellation law, but contrary to every wine drinker’s notion of ‘terroir’.

So what is the principal agent that informs the ‘terroir’ of Normandy’s ‘Big Four’ if it’s not the milk, the microclimate, the grass or the cows? At the point at which the curds and whey are separated, the embryonic cheeses are identical. It’s only when the producer steps into the picture that the character of the cheeses diverge, whether due to the ageing (affinage), the salting or the washing of the rind. If the hand of man is so vital to the character of these cheeses, it made me wonder if too much weight is also put on the soil, microclimate and topography when talking about wine’s ‘terroir’ and too little weight is given to man’s contribution. 

Let’s work backwards and reverse engineer the concept of ‘terroir’ and say that if a wine’s origins can be identified from aroma and flavour alone, then that wine must, by definition, display a sense ‘terroir’. This is an uncomfortable thought for wine purists, who maintain that ‘terroir’ is something that is earned through respect for the vineyard, knowledge of the land and its traditions and an understanding of man’s quiet role in shepherding the grape from vine to wine. But if you are able to spot a big brand Chilean Merlot from the taste alone, then surely that wine has every right to claim ‘terroir’ too, doesn’t it? I would argue this is true, but only because the winemaker’s influence is much more of a contributing factor in ‘commercial’ wines, by which I mean ‘recipe’ wines intended to appeal to a specific demographic and not primarily intended to reflect their origins in the same was as ‘terroir-driven’ wines. But if we accept that the winemaker is integral to the notion of ‘terroir’, then we can’t pick and choose how much ‘weighting’ he or she should be allowed within its key set of influences. I would even go so far as to say that the expression ‘terroir-driven’, in the sense alluded to just now, is entirely inappropriate. Perhaps ‘nature-driven’ would be more accurate, because ‘terroir-driven’ must necessarily incorporate the influence of the winemaker, be it small or large. Of course, a big brand Chilean Merlot will have a broader geographical footprint contributing to its sense of ‘terroir’ than a ‘nature-driven’ wine and the winemaker’s intervention is certain to be greater, but only a sectarian terroirist would claim that it should be disqualified on those counts.

This idea was brought under my philosophical microscope (only £15.00 from all good metaphysicalscience apparatus shops), when I visited London Cru, the new winery in Fulham that has just released four wines vinified in the capital city. Not just bottled here, but actually vinified here from refrigerated grapes shipped in from parts of France and Italy. To add further confusion to the already difficult question of ‘terroir’ that this raises, the winemaker, Gavin Monery, is from Western Australia. If you think the latter is irrelevant and that I am stretching a point beyond its load-bearing capacity, it’s worth highlighting the tasting note made by Richard Hemming on www.jancisrobinson.com for their newly released Red Wine No. 3’: “Cabernet Sauvignon from Roussillon, 2013 vintage. Tremendous scent – complete varietal accuracy with a sort of menthol tone that suggests Australia in many ways.” Coincidence perhaps, but you could argue that the winemaker’s philosophy, approach and taste has an impact on the final product. Having tasted the wine myself, I can genuinely attest to a minty characteristic in the wine that I associate with a particular Cabernet Sauvignon that I used to sell from Mount Barker. 

General manager at London Cru, the knowledgeable and refreshingly approachable (i.e. dogma free) Adam Green, believes that the wines produced at their new winery, sandwiched between Earls Court Exhibition Centre and Chelsea Football Club, have a claim to a sense of ‘terroir’, because they are informed by the place in which the grapes are grown and the characteristics of the vintage. You can’t really argue with that, unless you believe that the grapes experience a physiological transformation akin to ‘voltage drop’ during their transit from the vineyard to SW6. So terroir seems to be a moveable feast.

The best way I can think of describing ‘terroir’ in simple, graphic terms (for I am both) is to liken it to an audio mixer with 5 sliding faders representing the respective influences of the soil, the microclimate, the topography, the winemaker and the local winemaking traditions and customs. The arrangement of the sliding knobs would vary from wine to wine, much like the way you would adjust the balance on a graphic equaliser depending on whether you are listening to Mozart or Megadeth.

All things being equal, I know which I would probably prefer to drink, but if both wines are able to talk with an accent that informs the drinker about where and/or by whom they were made, then both have a right to use the T-word. Sorry wine bloggers, it’s probably not what you wanted to hear.

I’m not trying to denigrate the notion of ‘terroir’, I think it’s a wonderfully evocative, sometimes romantic, frequently overused, often helpful notion. I’m simply trying to open the casing on the back to examine the workings a little more closely and hope that this will help in the advancement of a clearer definition. Or perhaps I’m missing the point. Perhaps I’m shining a light on something that is light destructible.