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The Meaning of Terroir: Exploring the Complexity of Wine

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Terroir: The Robust French Word that Captures Time and Place

The term Terroir is used throughout the wine world. It is derived from the Latin word “terra,” which means “earth.”

It’s been used in the wine industry for centuries to describe the unique qualities of wine from a specific region. It explains why a Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile tastes completely different from a Cabernet Sauvignon from France or California. It explains why most Mosel Riesling tastes completely different from Alsace Riesling.

Understanding the concept of terroir is important for understanding how the wine world works, but it can be a confusing topic.

So here are the basics of terroir and how it effects the wine you drink.

What is Terroir?

Terroir is a French word referring to the environment in which grapes are grown and wine is produced. It encompasses all the conditions that have an effect on the grapevines and eventually the wine, like climate, topography, soil type, and in some cases winemaking traditions. 

What is the definition of Terroir? Def. All of the factors that pertain to a certain time and place for the growing of wine grapes such as soil, climate etc.

Nature's Palette: Vibrant Grape-Vines in Autumn Splendor
Nature’s Palette: Vibrant Grape-Vines in Autumn Splendor

Climate

A regions climate is one of the components of terroir people think about. Climate refers to the average weather patterns for a given area, and of course has a massive impact on the grapes. The temperature, precipitation, wind, and the amount of sunlight all influences the grapevines and eventually the final taste of the wine.

For example, grapes grown in hot climates like Australia or California get much riper – meaning they have higher amounts of sugar and lower amounts of acid. After fermenting and pressing, the the higher amounts of sugar in this juice result in higher alcohol levels.

The opposite happens in cold climates like Germany or Champagne. The grapes don’t always fully ripen, so they have a higher amount of acid and a lower amount of sugar. Which leads to a lower alcohol wine with higher acidity. This also works with the amount of sunlight the vines receive.

For example, Alsace is very far north and possesses a cooler climate, but it receives lots of sunshine. Therefore grapes in Alsace get much riper compared to grapes in neighboring Germany, which is why Riesling from Alsace and Germany tastes completely different.

Terroir can also refer to the climate in one small area, called the microclimate. The microclimate is generally used to describe smaller regions inside large wine regions like the sub-AVAs of Napa Valley. And it can even get as specific as the microclimates of specific vineyards.

Topography

Another component of terroir is topography. Like climate, there are many different features of topography, from elevation, slope, aspect, to the proximity of large bodies of water. The elevation affects the average temperature of a region or vineyard. Generally, the higher the elevation, the cooler the temperature.

When talking of slope and aspect, you are generally talking about an individual vineyard. The slope refers to the incline of the land, and can affect the grapevines in different ways. The steeper the slope, the faster rainwater will run off, giving less time for the soil to soak up the water. Similar to rainwater, a steep slope will allow cold air to ‘slide’ faster down the slope and can reduce the risk of frost damage. The aspect, or which way the slope faces in relation to the sun, can also impact a vineyard. It determines how much sun the vines receive, and at what times of day.

In colder climates it’s more important to ensure the vines receive as much afternoon sun as possible to help ripen the grapes, while the opposite is true in hot climates.

Lastly, proximity to large bodies of water has a large effect on an area’s climate. Generally a nearby ocean or large lake will moderate the temperature of an area, and reduce the amount of temperature extremes.

Did You Know: Many of the world’s most famous wine regions are located near a large body of water. Some examples include Mosel, Douro, Loire, Rhône Valley, Bordeaux, and the list goes on and on.

All of these different features of topography will change how the grapes grow and ripen, which in turn will affect the taste of the final wine. 

The Rocks District AVA scenery with rocky terroir

Soil

The type of soil the vines grow in is another component of terroir. The same grape variety grown on different soil types can make different tasting wine.

Chablis is a great example of this; the soils of Chablis are made up of two different kinds of limestone. Generally the higher quality Chablis comes from a type of limestone called Kimmeridgian, an ancient type of limestone made from the ocean floor millions of years ago. This type of limestone gives high quality Chablis its characteristic minerality.

The other kind of limestone, called Portlandian, is a slightly younger limestone containing less fossils compared to Kimmeridgian. Portlandian soils produces less complex, fruitier styles of Chablis. The difference in the two soil types reflects in the ranking of the region of Chablis.

The highest quality areas in Chablis, called Grand Cru, Premier Cru, and Chablis all possess Kimmeridgian soil, while the lowest quality area, called Petite Chablis, consists of Portlandian soils.

Did You Know: Kimmeridgian limestone is also found in parts of Champagne and Sancerre.

Winemaking Traditions

In some old world regions, certain winemaking techniques have been used so long, and are synonymous with the place that they almost are related to its terroir. In many old world regions these techniques are required by law in order to put the name of the region on the wine label.

Some examples of this include the traditional method of making sparkling wine in Champagne, adding brandy to Port to fortify it, or leaving the grapes to dry before making Amarone. Without these winemaking techniques these wines could not be Champagne, Port, or Amarone.

Final Thoughts on Terroir

Terroir is an important term in the wine world, but there is often some confusion surrounding the word. It can be challenging to fully understand the relationship between the natural environment, human factors, and the final product. And even more challenging to identify what aspects of terroir contribute to which attributes in the glass.

But understanding the basics of terroir is a great place to start, and will make you appreciate your next wine just a little bit more. 

Want to read more? Try these books!

Italy's Native Wine Grape Terroirs Terroir - Role of Geology, Climate and Culture in the Making of French Wines

References:

“Chablis (2) the Soils – Jamie Goode’s Wine Blog.” 2019. April 29, 2019. https://www.wineanorak.com/wineblog/wine-science/chablis-2-the-soils.

“Grape Grower’s Handbook: A Guide to Viticulture for Wine Production.” n.d. Www.wine-Grape-Growing.com. https://www.wine-grape-growing.com/wine_grape_growing/vineyard_site_selection/vineyard_site_selection_climatic_components.htm.

Staff, words: VinePair. n.d. “Learn about Terroir | Wine 101.” VinePair. https://vinepair.com/wine-101/terroir-wine-guide/.

Steiman, Harvey. 2014. “A Wine’s Terroir? What Exactly Do You Mean? | Wine Spectator.” Wine Spectator. Wine Spectator. April 7, 2014. https://www.winespectator.com/articles/terroir-what-exactly-do-you-mean-49735.

“Terroir Definition for Wine.” 2013. Wine Folly. November 6, 2013. https://winefolly.com/tips/terroir-definition-for-wine/.

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