For several hundred years, French was the language of European politics, of fine arts, literature and of course all matters pertaining to gastronomy. While wine was produced widely throughout Europe since the Roman times, it was the French who created regulations, set parameters to protect their best products and founded the concept of terroir and the link with high quality, unique expressions of flavours to a specific plot of land, whether it is for cheese, chickens or wine.
In English, words like terroir have no translation. When it is used in the context of wine description or wine making, it has a positive connotation. For example, one might come across a wine description such as “a wine with great terroir expression” or “wine that is terroir-driven”. The innuendo here is that the flavours and personality of the wine is so unique and special that it echoes the place from which it originated. Wines with terroir expression possess a clarity in its personality and an innate ability to articulate its sense of self.
An example would be well-made crisp Chablis with mineral, lean, citrus notes crafted in such a way that one can almost imagine the cool climate of this region. More accentuated terroir expression might be found by comparing two Grand Cru vineyards in Chablis – e.g. Les Clos with its complex, minerally character versus Valmur, with its lean citrusy flavours. Often, these characters can be attributed to terroir rather than winemaking since regardless of whether a Les Clos is made from Willam Fevre, Louis Moreau or Domaine des Malandes, the personality of this vineyard site is distinctive from its neighbouring Grand Cru vineyards.
In winemaking and viticulture, terroir is one of those nebulous but often used terms which imply quality. When I asked Michel Rolland, one of the leading consultant winemakers in Bordeaux, how he defined terroir in English, he replied, “All places have terroir. Simply viewed, it is the place where the vines are grown – it includes the climate, the soil, the specific vineyard conditions – everything! The more important question is, which place has great terroir. Now that takes generations to discover.”
This quest for the best terroir is not an easy one. Finding the best means understanding where a specific grape variety (with the correctly chosen rootstock and clone) meets the best soil, climate, vineyard conditions and the right person to coax the most balanced, flavourful grapes from the vines. Most wine producers will admit that understanding great terroir is easy, it is only the first 300 years that is difficult.
Besides terroir, many French wine terms are used throughout the grape growing, winemaking and wine writing world. In winemaking, words such as sur lie (where wine is left together with its dead yeast cells to accumulate complexity and depth) or saignée (the ‘bleeding’ of red must/juice prior to fermentation) are common. One word in French can describe an entire process while the English equivalent would require a full sentence, or in most cases, several sentences as an explanation. Another example is the French word mousse, which is used to describe the texture and quality of the effervescence of a great champagne. An English word like bubbles, froth or carbon dioxide, just doesn’t have the same resonance as mousse.
Words like élevage in French, which in English translates to the period of maturation for wine, has different nuances in French – élevage signifies nurturing and raising, as one would bring up a child. In English, the maturation of a wine simply evokes the process from the period the wine has finished fermentation to the time that it is bottled. There is no sense of responsibility, nurturing and desire to do one’s best implied in the English translation. These are subtle but distinct differences embedded in the words, which help to formulate a mindset that puts the heart and soul into crafting a beverage that has personality.
When French winemakers talk about their wines in barrel, they often refer to each barrel as a ‘he’ or ‘she’. This might partly be a habit extending from their language which sees the world in feminine and masculine terms but it also no doubt evokes a different relationship that the winemaker or vigneron (a French term that means wine grower not just a winemaker) has with wine. Each barrel is considered individual and different – one like a feisty boy perhaps with too much vigour and energy pumping through its veins or another like a shy girl who chooses to be quiet and subtle.
We all know that there are plenty of poorly made French wines out there; some that have no market and need to be made into vinegar. However, at the very top end of the quality spectrum, this French spirit among the vignerons definitely exists. It is ingrained into the psyche of a vigneron’s soul if they desire to make great wine; it is in the very language they speak.