Terroir or Not Terroir, That is the Question

Got into an interesting discussion the other day.  The topic was about wine (naturally) and about what the term terroir (ter war) means.  Terroir, from Latin, Terre, or earth. 

Now in the wine world it has been a phrase that the French have used over centuries to describe the land that grapes are grown on and that will eventually become wine.  I should mention that the French and other countries use that same term to describe things like cheeses, coffee and a whole range of what would generally be considered artisanal products. 

The confusion during our discussion, was that there is a belief that terroir means, literally, an earthiness that a wine possesses.  Which can be a trait that a wine can possess regardless of its origin or how that earthiness may have been added to the wine, for example, the use of wood barrels.

I explained that it really has more to do with the locale where the grapes are grown.  This includes all sorts of elements.  First and foremost is the place, and more specifically, the land (earth) on which the grapes have been grown.  Different soils can be one of the first aspects that can greatly influence the taste of wine.  The best example I ever had was a riesling from Germany that was called Mosel Slate.  Why might you ask was it so memorable?  Thanks for asking.  When tasting the wine you could, and I know this sounds terrible, actually taste the strong minerality of the wine, so much so that if you were to lick a piece of slate, you'd think the wine came directly from that soil.  Other great examples are Sauvignon Blancs, especially from Chili.  Some of the best are grown in limestone soils.  Again, when drinking the wine you can almost taste the rocky soil in the wine.  It can also help to add the great acidity and vibrancy to the wine.

Now, before I go any further, I am going to say that so far science has yet to confirm or discover that the earth on which wine grapes are grown actually imparts flavors to a wine.  But as with most scientific discoveries, a lack of proof doesn't mean it doesn't exist.  Let's face it, no one knew what gravity was until Galileo, Newton and Einstein developed their various theories.  Like how I dazzled you with my knowledge of science??

Okay, but there is still more.  

Additionally, other forces come into play when discussing terroir.  Climate is one of the biggest.  How cold or warm a particular area becomes throughout the day, the amount of rainfall, fog or sunlight, all can change the taste and flavor of a wine.   To be a little clearer, I'm talking about climate not weather.  Weather can and does influence a wine, that's why I keep so close a tab on each vintage.  But climate is usually considered the long term (maybe 30 year) average of an area.  Cooler climates are better for some grapes over others, or warm climates favor other grapes.  This is what wineries use as their guide of what to plant where.

Still not done.  How about the topography of the area?  I think I've made mention that I favor hillside, or sloped, vineyards.  Now this has as much to do with growing the best grapes as how that influences the terroir of the wine.  The last item I'll mention (thank goodness I'm almost at the end) is what wineries might plant alongside their vineyards.  You heard right.  Some vineyard managers will plant certain types of flowers or fruit trees in the hope that these might become part of the wine as well.

Oops, one more item.  but this relates to the human interactions that some might say effect terroir.  Those are items such as the decision to use wild or manmade yeasts.  Whether to use oak barrels (and the various types of oak and the toast used), stainless steel tanks or other vessels to make the wine.  While we know that these factors do play a roll in the flavor of a wine, I tend to leave these out of my definition of terroir as I think more in terms of what Mother Nature has given us.  

Bottom line;  Terroir can be earthiness, fruitiness, minerality, it can be specific descriptors such as flintiness, leather and a few that I've read in reviews that I tend to not like as they don't have anything to do with a product made from a fruit.  I should also add that just because two wines are made in the same area or region, doesn't mean they'll taste the same.  The final product becomes the melding of the grapes and the winemaker.  

Clear as mud?  Or should I say "Terroir?"


Terroir Diagram.png