5 Jul 2011

The War of Terroir: Beer vs Wine

Wine writer Tim Atkin triggered a debate on Twitter yesterday about beer and wine. Although he loves both drinks, he believes wine is more complex, is better suited to food and has a greater sense of place. Some beer fans said they disagreed – and so far I've seen one blogpost in response arguing that terroir does exist in beer.

I'll leave the complexity and food matching arguments (which I touched on here) for another day, but for now I have to say I agree with Atkin on his point about sense of place, or terroir.

What is terroir? Put simply it's the impact that the physical conditions of a specific location have on the grapes that are grown there. So the character of the wine in the bottle will reflect the character of the terroir (to some extent – many other factors such as grape varieties, the use of oak and other winemaker interventions play a big part too). There are so many different aspects specific to a vineyard's location that are said to affect the grape: the minerals in the soil; wind; rainfall; levels of sunlight; altitude; differences in day and night time temperatures. This is partly why wine, old world wine in particular, is often referred to by location rather than by grape type; the location is synonymous with the wine. Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rioja and so on. Just a mention of the words Bordeaux and Burgundy immediately conjure up images of certain types of wines. (For a further exploration of terroir, try here or here.)

Is the same true of beer? I don't think so. Not to the same extent. There are exceptions, but as a general rule a much more useful way of categorising beer is by style rather than by origin. Beer people tend to talk about porters, stouts, pale ales, lagers, bitters; less so London, California, Buxton, New South Wales or wherever. Yes, certain types of beer have traditionally tended to predominate in certain places, but overall with beer it's more a case of anything goes, hence less of a link to the physical locality.

Also, terroir in wine is said to be a very localised thing. You can get two vineyards within metres of each other that produce wines of different character when all else is equal. I'm no expert on either winemaking or brewing, but by its nature, brewing beer doesn't appear to be so intrinsically tied to the specifics of the land.

That's not to say it's a good or a bad thing, or even how significant it is. A lot of drinkers probably don't really care where the drink was made or if the local environment affected what it tastes like, they just know what they like. It's also debatable how much the concept of terroir is exaggerated, like a kind of placebo effect, a desire on the part of the wine lover to feel the soul of a place as they drink its wine. This is a powerful inclination when you really love wine.

It's also worth pointing out that terroir is not the sole reason for wines being very identifiable by region: in order to qualify for local denomination status, winemakers often have to adhere to strict rules that govern things like the types of grape varieties they are allowed to use. This is where human activity impinges on pure terroir. But nevertheless, in new world areas where there are no such rules, winemaking areas still show their distinct characters in the wine.

But beer fans shouldn't feel wholly negative about all this. Firstly, it shows that the beer world enjoys the freedom of the new world. Brewers can make what they like, where they like, and this leads to radical levels of experimentation, pushing at the boundaries of beer. Loads of new British breweries seem to be using exotic hops lately – which might not express much in the way of the terroir of the brewery, but it can produce some very tasty and interesting beer. Secondly, this isn't to say that beer can't ever have terroir. Perhaps if breweries really started to think local in every sense, a growing sense of terroir could develop further. The idea of vintages is already part of some beers, so why not take it one step further? More use of local or wild yeasts and local hops and of telling us how the local water plays its part. From a marketer's point of view as well as a drinker's, it could be a savvy move.

Also, all of this isn't to say that beer isn't hugely important to local communities. It is. But more in a social and cultural sense than a physical one. Like wine, beer brings people together; it melds communities; it smoothes out the rougher edges of life. And it can taste great. But for true terroir, it doesn't yet come close to wine.

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