Terroir is a word that many wineries in the industry are using to convince the consumer to buy their wines. It is a compelling argument linked to authenticity, craftmanship and high-quality wines. However, the terroir concept is not adapted to all kinds of wines as will be seen below.
A premium wine is a wine sold between above 12 GBP RRP. Terroir is a special character given by the vineyard and its environment to the wines. It is a distinctive taste deriving from growing conditions. Through a SWOT grid (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats), this essay will analyze the situations where terroir should be used to position and market a premium wine and which situations should use other arguments, such as brand or production philosophy depending on the aim of the producer.
Terroir is a strength to promote premium wines. Same winemaking techniques employed on different plots achieve different styles of wines, demonstrating that terroir has a unique influence on wine style. Besides, in a context where international competition is on the rise, terroir can be a competitive advantage. Bernard Billaud Simon, producer in Chablis, uses terroir as his unique selling proposition (USP), compared to other Chardonnay based wines. It is the Kimmeridgian chalky marl, composed of prehistoric oyster shells which gives the wine’s unique characteristic flinty-iodine taste.
Appellations across Europe – the base for expressing terroir - have long been a guarantee of quality, and therefore a USP to market the wines. Chianti Classico has a higher positioning than surrounding appellations such as Chianti Colli Senesi or Colli Fiorentini because Chianti Classico terroir is deemed superior. The Chianti Classico Isole e Olena 2015 can be found at 15 GBP in the UK versus 9 GBP for the Chianti Colli Senesi from Bichi Borghesi in the same vintage.
Appellations are also a guarantee of authenticity of the wines, protecting their origin, ie. terroir. Regions such as Champagne have understood that the defense of terroir is a key component of their sales strategy. That is the reason why the CIVC dedicates over 4 million €/year and cooperates with over 40 lawyers worldwide to this purpose.
However, the notion of terroir has also its weaknesses. One is found in the appellation system and is linked to the inability of some PDO organizations to recognize their best producers. In France, Alexandre Bain, top producer in Pouilly Fume is a case in point. His wines are sold in top Michelin Star restaurants worldwide, but they haven’t been given the seal of approval by the tasting committee of the appellation and have the Vin de France mention on the label. This is a lost opportunity for the Pouilly Fumé appellation to be associated with the best producers.
Another is the proliferation of super PDOs, ratifying the supposedly higher quality of their terroir. Italy currently has 74 DOCGs – that is 74 super appellations – versus only two DOCa in Spain, featuring Rioja and Priorat, both recognized for the superior quality of their top wines and terroirs.
Moreover, not all premium wines are terroir driven. All do not have a unique attribute that cannot be reproduced elsewhere. When this is the case, producers find other arguments to market and position their wines. For instance. Thistledown wine company in Riverland, is selling its Gorgeous Grenache (15-17 $) stating that it comes from sustainable agriculture in order to make it stand among other such wines.
As the notion of terroir is embedded in the PDO system in Europe, this same notion can be adapted and linked to the idea of regionality. This opportunity will allow New World countries to go beyond the couple grape variety / country of origin. This is one of the reasons why the number of GIs in Australia has been steadily growing in the past 20 years – from 50 on the 2000’s to over 70 today, in an attempt to introduce an arranged notion of terroir to better market its wines.
On the other hand, PDOs across Europe can grab the chance to overhaul the way they work and give approval to those wines with a true sense of place. That would reinstate some among the best producers in Cava, Rasteau, Pouilly Fumé, Gaillac and many other appellations within each respective PDO and give them again the role of “terroir champions”. For instance, Gourt de Mautens in Rasteau had to leave the appellation because even if it did have the right grape varieties, these were not in the right proportions. The domaine is now selling its wines under the IGP Vaucluse. If it came back to the Rasteau appellation, it would be a great advantage for the latter.
A considerable threat to the argument of terroir are branded wines. Branded wines, generally below premium price, are widely sold across the world. They are now trying to conquer the premium segment, upgrading their wines with Reserve versions. This is notably the case of Concha y Toro, which has added new wines in 2018 (Carmenere and Chardonnay) to the Reserva Privada range, at around 15-18 $, driven by the search of increased profitability.
Along with branded wines, marketing driven wines are gaining momentum through the phenomenon of “virtual wineries” which have neither a vineyard nor a winery. Proof of their success in the US, is the increased offer of custom crush facilities, from California to Washington State, which did not exist ten years ago.
Besides brand itself, the argument of terroir also disappears when a person can heavily influence what the consumers drink. This has been the case over a period of 30 years with Robert Parker. His grading system has been more powerful than terroir. Importers, distributors and resellers alike were looking for wines with high Parker scores: that was for them the ultimate selling argument.
Finally, since there is no proven scientific link between terroir and wine profile, there is a real risk of science revealing that link. As Michael Feuillat, Director of the Institute of the Vine and Wine states, if terroir is revealed, it will lose its sacredness. And premium wines using terroir as a USP run the risk of losing a valuable argument to differentiate themselves in the market.
As stated in this article, the concept of terroir is a way to confer wines their USP, supported by the appellation system, guaranteeing both quality and authenticity. However, that same appellation system can fail to recognize its best producers and grant too many areas a superior status. Besides, not all premium wines are terroir driven. On the positive side, the notion of regionality and a revamped PDO system can put terroir back in the center of the game. Provided that terroir wines can deal with branded wines, virtual wineries, a score system dominated by a few personalities and the potential revelation of the mysteries of terroir by science.
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