Terroir: What it Means For Wine
Wine is often seen as a scary, black hole of a topic encompassing not just different, unpronounceable grapes but different countries, regions, languages, worlds both new and old. Not only that, bottles of wine can vary in price from $5 to thousands of dollars, sometimes tens of thousands, of dollars. What’s the difference and where to start?!
If you look at any bottle of wine the first thing you’ll notice after a brand name is either the name of the grape or the name of where the wine came from. Now we all know that different grapes taste different, but where the wine came from is equally as important to the wines flavor. This is all down to the wine concept called terroir; pronounced ter’wär.
Defining the Term “Terroir”
Terroir is a French word with no direct translation into English, but it can be defined as:
All the natural environmental forces which affect a given vineyard site or wine region.
These forces include every nuance of the climate from rainfall, sunlight hours, and wind, to the frequency and presence of fog. It also takes into account the angle, elevation, and aspect of the slope a vineyard might be on,
Take into account the makeup of the soil and the water retention rates of the soil. It’s both geology and hydrology. Remember these are all natural factors, none of this has anything to do with the viticulturists, those that grow grapes, or their actions.
This concept of terroir can be applied on three different levels:
- Large wine growing regions with macroclimates with generalized soil makeup.
- Individual vineyards with their own mesoclimates and more specific soil characteristics, all the way down to specific plots inside vineyards with their own microclimates and distinct soil characteristics;
- This last category can be taken down to the level of each individual vine. It is said that terroir gives wine a sense of identity as the terroir of a certain region is reflected in its wines, more or less consistently, from year to year.
The Terroir Debate
Terroir is a well-studied science, yet the jury is still out on its importance in the flavors found in the wine. It is an essential element of how Old World wine (think France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria) is classified; by region.
In the New World, however, (think America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina) terroir is not a part of wine’s classification, where it is more classified by grape variety; nice and simple. Although, the concept of terroir is beginning to creep into New World thought.
On the whole, New World producers dismiss the concept of terroir as mysticism and a marketing tool for commercial interests. Claiming that it is done by producers in the “prestige” regions and vineyards of the Old World. But remember, the new guys in town are going up against the old guard, trying to surpass these wines in quality and worldwide esteem; so each side has their backs up.
Suiting Grapes to Terroir
In the Old World, there are grapes that are classified as “noble grapes” in certain regions. These are grapes which excel in the conditions (read terroir) found in these regions.
There are some grapes, much like other plants, which are notoriously picky about where they’ll flourish. Many grape varieties will grow well in many different climates, soils and regions, however, there are certain circumstances where they excel. These circumstances are defined by nature and the environment of the region, therefore, fall under the umbrella of terroir. Suiting a grape to terroir isn’t just about trying to express the location in which you’re planting vines. It’s about finding the right grapes to produce the best wine you can from the weather and climatic influences in the area.
Here’re two examples:
Champagne, the wine, has been developed through centuries in order to get the product we today call Champagne. This, however, would undoubtedly have been impossible to create if the soil of the Champagne region wasn’t so chalky, and acidic. The climate is very cool, causing grapes to barely ripen, retaining a lot of their acidity. Both these terroir-based factors (soil and climate) are defining factors in Champagne, the region, and the wine which that region produces.
Bordeaux, the French wine region, produces some of the worlds most expensive wines. The region is split into many subsections, but here we’re concerned with the left bank and the right bank. These are wine growing regions on the respective banks of the Gironde estuary. The two main red grapes grown in the Bordeaux region are Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. This all happens on opposite sides of the same estuary yet the climate for both regions is essentially the same.
The main differences lie in the soil. The left bank is made up of a much more gravely soil, whilst the right banks’ soil is mainly clay based. It is a proven and well-known fact that Cabernet Sauvignon produces a much better wine in the gravel-filled soil of the left bank than it does on the clay soil of the right bank. The opposite is true for Merlot. Therefore, if you’re ever lucky enough to tour Bordeaux’s right and left banks you’ll find that the left bank is mainly planted with Cabernet Sauvignon and the right banks are planted with a majority of Merlot.
The Last Word
Terroir is by no means the be-all and end-all of wine concepts but to almost all wine experts it is considered an extremely important factor in defining the wine that you pour into your glass. If you’re interested in getting into wine or creating an impressive wine list, then this is something you must pay attention to. Many wines from many regions in neighboring vineyards are vinted in exactly the same way; yet have drastically different flavors, textures, and body. The only explanation we really have for this phenomenon? Terroir; mother nature and all her influences.