Talking Terroir with Tim Atkin

18 Jun 2021

Tim Atkin is an award-winning wine writer and Master of Wine. Amongst the publications he contributes to are Decanter, Gourmet Traveller Wine, Harpers and the Drinks Business amongst other. He also is the co-chairman of the International Wine Challenge.


Terroir, the somewhereness that “transcends scientific enquiry” is a really difficult concept to explain. However, if you had to define it for someone unfamiliar with the term, what would you say?

TA: A sense of place is probably the closest we come to it in English, but that doesn’t include the human part of terroir, nor indeed the impact of previous generations which, I think, can often be significant. Maybe we should say that every vineyard – good, bad and somewhere in between – has its own DNA. So there can be different levels of quality where terroir is concerned. I know this is not a very succinct answer, but it’s a slippery concept to define.


You’ve put together a number of reports on new world (Argentina, South Africa) and old world (Ribera Del Duero, Greece) countries. Can you talk about some of the differences in the ways the each interpret the concept of terroir?

Tim: I think it depends on individual producers, to be honest. The concept is most revered in Burgundy, I’d say, but even there some people try harder to express their terroirs than others, with sustainable agriculture as well as organic and biodynamic practices. But I think what we’re seeing worldwide, at least at the top end of the quality scale, is an interest in expressing the unique properties of great vineyards, villages and even sub-regions. There is also less reliance on new wood and late picking, which often occlude terroir expression in my view. We’re seeing greater interest in purity, freshness and balance.


As a judge and critic, how do you recognize “terroir” in a wine, and what effect does it have on your scoring?

TA: I suppose it depends if you’re tasting blind or sighted! But I look for wines with typicity rather than terroir perhaps. The problem with typicity, however, is that there is a degree of subjectivity involved on the part of the wine taster. There is also the human element (again), as different winemakers have their own ideas about what is “typical”. Look at a range of South African Chenins, Uco Valley Malbecs, or Rioja Alavesa Tempranillo blends. They can vary dramatically. So I think it’s dangerous to give higher scores to wines with “terroir”. It’s important to keep an open mind and realise that terroir doesn’t make the wine, although it certainly can have a huge impact on style. Human beings do.


How does one preserve historical terroir, the sense of place, when facing a climate change that is making longstanding traditions (climates, grape varieties, vineyard practices) obsolete?

TA: I think this is a crucial question. To a large extent, the wine industry is in denial at the moment. A lot of “classic” areas will be forced to change the way they work, the grapes they use and, indeed, their beliefs about which are the best vineyard sites. But the wine world has never been a static, fossilized entity. Climate change is scary, but it may bring new areas, new flavours and new wine styles to the fore. That could be interesting and even exciting, but I’m worried for certain cool climate regions like Burgundy. Will it still be growing Pinot Noir in 50 years’ time? People should be thinking very hard about this now, not in 2070.