Searching for Terroir: Two Books for Better Understanding Wine
Originally published in The Heart of Hillsborough, March 2018
In conversation with a friend recently, I was asked what books have been influential to me in understanding the connection wine has with our surroundings, and why it is more than, “fermented grape juice,” as he jokingly posited. Humor aside, his question is good – and although I have occasionally written about terroir – I have never utilized my column to share what books I would recommend as a starting point for a more thorough (and tasteful!) investigation.
Regardless of a vineyard’s origin, its grapes are reflective of the landscape in which they grow – whether it is the climate, soil, or other factors. This is what is meant by terroir, a term coined by French winemakers to describe the uniqueness of the land that make up their vineyards. It wonderfully reflects their passion, superseding the mundane descriptions that can accompany wine – making it stodgy and boring.
Terroir is the soul of wine, and the book that provides evidence is Deirdre Heekin’s, “An Unlikely Vineyard: An Education of a Farmer and Her Quest for Terroir.” What originally drew me to the book is that it seeks to answer the question, “Is it possible to capture landscape in a bottle?” It does this in a unique way – as a beautiful exploration told in engaging stories over several years in which Heekin and her husband developed an old, neglected Vermont farm into a vineyard, orchard, and gardens in an effort to employ only organic and biodynamic principles in their work. The book ultimately details how her relationship with the land deepened as she sought an authentic way to make a connection between the farm’s sense of place and what would become the wine, itself.
Adding to the rich layers of wine from vineyard to bottle – and complimenting the influence of terroir – is science. When two curators working in anthropology and entomology got into a discussion over the question, “What can science tell us about wine – and vice versa,” the result was the fascinating book, A Natural History of Wine. Ian Tattersall and Rob Desalle’s exploration of how the many areas of science influence wine not only draws upon their own backgrounds, but incorporates a broad survey that includes, among other disciplines, Neolithic archeology and classical history! By interweaving these into robust stories, the result is a three-dimensional understanding of wine and its connection to our surroundings that few other books have been successful in achieving for their readers.
While there are other excellent books that help define our relationship with wine and the sense of place it captures, these two works are what I find myself repeatedly returning to with renewed effort to learn. This is especially the case when I am seeking an understanding of the story behind a wine’s creation. That is what makes it enjoyable and memorable!
Citations and Credits:
 Heekin, Deirdre, “An Unlikely Vineyard: The Education of a Farmer and Her Quest for Terroir,” Chelsea Green Publishing, 2014.
 Tattersall, Ian & Desalle, Rob, “A Natural History of Wine,” Yale University Press, 2015.