Should the concept of “terroir” influence the position and market for premium wine?

Posted by Peter Koff MW on 16th Apr 2019

I have written much about terroir in previous articles and have started to think more about how terroir should inform market positioning.

To recap, terroir is the “somewhereness” of a vineyard, based on the idea that certain sites and regions are innately better for the production of quality wine than others. There are attributes that attach to the best “dirt” that allow the production of better wine. It is seemingly an immutable law of nature that the great things in the world, in this case great terroirs, are rare. This means great terroirs are expensive and therefore the wines produced here are more expensive. Think about some of the established great terroirs; classed growth Bordeaux, Napa Valley, Burgundy’s Cote d’Or and many others.

For the concept of terroir to be a useful marketing and positioning tool there is a requirement to educate the consumer to respect terroir and to pay a premium for it. The approach that is being applied is a logical and rational one. Wine is classified into essentially three levels. The entry level is basic table wine; wine that is made with an eye to quality and drinkability and a low price point. The next level up is “vin de cepage”; a wine made from known and respected grape varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon. These wines are marketed with the idea that certain grape varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, make better wines that others and so consumers will pay a premium for them. In both these previous instances, the vineyards are treated as a commodity; satisfying the need for low priced grapes for say red table wine, and for decent, varietally correct wines in the case of vin de cepage. Then we come to the pinnacle; terroir wine. Here we wish consumers to recognize that only very good terroirs will imbue a wine with something extra, something that is worth paying an even greater premium to acquire. The stakeholders want consumers to know and understand that classed growth Bordeaux wines are made in a special place, are that much better for it, and deserve a healthy premium. We want consumers to believe that the best wines made from Bordeaux varieties hail from Bordeaux. We want them to believe that the Cabernet Sauvignon based red wines from Bordeaux’s left bank are the benchmark wines by which all other Cabernet Sauvignon based wines are judged. The same goes for marketing the idea that the benchmark for fine Pinot Noir is the Cote d’Or of Burgundy or that the world’s best sparkling wines come from Champagne. To be sure, this is not just marketing. The quality of wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne has long been appreciated and continues to be appreciated today. In the past, these wines have been allowed to earn a premium, often a hefty premium, and that continues.

The producers, the regional consortia and the marketers of this concept of terroir guard it very carefully. The boundaries are firmly established, only certain grape varieties are permitted, yields are controlled, rules may be established controlling the use of irrigation, the addition of acid to musts, the use of chaptalization, minimum must weight, minimum vineyard planting density, minimum alcohol levels, maximum sugar levels in the finished wine, minimum ageing requirements and even mandatory tasting to confirm quality and typicity. (Musts refer to the pressed grapes before and during fermentation. Chaptalization refers to the largely legal practice of adding sugar to the musts to increase the alcohol levels in the resulting wines. Must weight refers to the specific gravity of the must, the idea being that lower yields, better terroirs and better vintages will result in musts with higher extract and better potential). These rules serve mainly three purposes; to limit the extent of a specific terroir, to ensure that there is uniformly high quality of wine being made there and to ensure that the wines have a degree of similarity in character. Perhaps a downside to this is that there is a potential ceiling on the quantity of wine that can be produced but there are strategies that can be employed for producers who wish to grow, particularly if a specific brand becomes more recognizable for its quality than the terroir! For the most part, in the great terroirs of Europe, producers are encouraged to declassify to a lower appellation, wines that are not at the highest levels, resulting in lower priced wines. Some producers will declassify voluntarily, though in some situations, declassification could be compulsory, say in the event that a producer exceeded the maximum yield for a specific terroir appellation. In lesser vintages, higher appellations such as Burgundy 1’er Cru may be declassified to a village wine or even Bourgogne Rouge. Ironically, there are therefore often bargains to be had in lesser vintages. I recall an instance of where this practice backfired. 2002 was a very poor year in Tuscany, mainly due to excessive rain. Most of the producers in Montalcino declassified their Brunello’s to Rosso di Montalcino. Those producers who made very good Brunello in that year, and there was a small handful, were roundly castigated as being greedy irrespective of the quality and had a difficult time to sell their wines!

In conclusion then, the concept of terroir is being used to great extent for market positioning. It is a logical and desirable approach to maximizing return through limiting competition and the maintenance of great quality and reliable expectations.


Want to taste a wine from great terroir of Montalcino?

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Selected by Peter Koff MW


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