Terroir is a French word and a concept in wine that refers to the characteristics of a specific place and how those characteristics impact the flavor of the resulting wine.
It is a layered, complicated, and often misunderstood concept in wine.
Terroir therefore is something in wine that can be tasted, smelled, and experienced in your glass.
It is the reason why bottles are labeled promentatly with their Place of Origin on the front. The place communicates information about the wine.
A Sense of Place
The word Terroir originates from the Latin “terra” which means earth, land, or soil. The concept of terroir translates more directly into “a sense of place.”
It encompasses all the unique components of a specific location - climate, soil, terrain - and how those components make the resulting wine distinct from others and thus impossible to be replicated.
The Origin of the Concept of Terroir
Before modern wine-nerds labelled this phenomena as terroir, the Greeks, Romans and afterwards the monks had an idea of this concept.
The Greeks and Romans both stamped their amphora with the location where the wine hailed from.
The monks kept track of this as well and were even known to have detailed records of how certain grapes grew in certain terroir better than others. The bible even makes reference to terroir, denoting specific wines to be “Wine of Samaria” or “Wine of Carmel.”
The Components of Terroir
Climate is the sum of an areas temperature, rainfall, and sunlight. Within an area there is a macroclimate (regional) peppered with many microclimates (variations within a region.)
A cooler climate tends to produce wines with higher acidity and lower alcohol as they have less ingredients for the plant to photosynthesize (light + warmth+ carbon dioxide = sugar & oxygen.) Remember your grade school fundamentals?
A warmer climate on the other hand will typically produce wines with a higher alcohol content, fruiter flavors, and more body. More sunshine, more photosynthesis, and more sugar to the fruit!
For the majority of us, dirt is just that - dirt. But for viticulturist and wine-os, soil is a vital component of the concept of terroir. Soils vary and can be categorized as clay, silt, loam, sand, or a combination of different types.
A remarkably complex dance of nature is occurring under each vine in which the roots and the soil interact. The fertility, water drainage, and heat retention of soil impacts the vines physiology and the resulting wine.
Topography is the visible aspect of terroir. This sums together the features that shape the land - mountains, rivers, lakes, valleys, and rolling hills.
Within that, elevation and slope can majorly impact how a wine from a particular region tastes.
For example, a sunny slope with well-drained soils in a particular region may offer exceptional growing conditions in comparison to a fertile flat field only a mile away.
That being said, certain grape varietals have growing preferences, so one grape varietal may thrive in a condition that another does not do well in.
Terroir truly reflects the idea that winemaking begins in the vineyard.
They say you can make a bad wine from good fruit, but you can not make a good wine from bad fruit.
To communicate terroir, a winemaker must take a step back and allow the fruit to speak for itself and reflect its place of origin.
Terroir is meant to be tasted, smelled, and experienced through our senses.
The more you understand the concept, the more you’ll notice it in a wine’s profile. So, pickup your glass, inhale deeply, and be transported somewhere truly special.