What Exactly is “Terroir”? And Why Does it Matter?
By Rai Cornell
Have you ever taken a sip of wine and felt as though there was a mineral, almost gritty element to it - despite the fact that it was pure liquid and no sediment? That’s terroir.
Have you ever sipped one Merlot and found it smooth and refreshing while another Merlot has come across as acidic and robust? That’s terroir. We've been talking a lot about the earth’s influences on wine lately, so today we’re diving into this commonly used, but often misunderstood word in the wine world: terroir.
The literal meaning of terroir in French is “soil” or “earth.” However, the word carries a much deeper connotation in winemaking and tasting.
Terroir is the collective profile of qualities that the environment imparts on the grapes that will soon become the wine you drink.
Historically, terroir was a term used to describe any “earthy” traits that wines seemed to carry, but wine experts quickly realized these were from post-production problems like wild yeast and improper corking as opposed to the flavors the grapes picked up from the land.
Thankfully, those problems have been largely eradicated from high-quality wines. Today, the four main pillars of this powerful flavor profile are climate, soil, terrain, and tradition.
Grapes are choosy creatures. They’re very particular about their ideal growing conditions and, as a result, most grapes can be classified as either cool-weather or warm-weather grapes.
While there’s far more to the relationship between weather, climate, and wine, as a general rule you can assume that warmer climates will yield grapes with higher sugar contents and therefore higher alcohol contents. On the other hand, cooler climates will yield more acidic wines.
As much as we’d like to think that all it takes to grow a great grape is a seed, water, dirt, and sunshine, far more goes into the process. In fact, every vineyard is really one great big gorgeous chemistry lab.
From the mineral density of the soil to the composition of rock, sand, and rich dirt, certain elements come together to cause certain reactions, which carry over into your wine.
Just like pasta needs to be boiled in salt water in order for it to have any flavor, the soil that grapes are “cooked” in plays a big role in the molecules that are carried through the roots, up the vine, and deposited into each little grape.
For example, wines that are grown on particularly rocky stretches of land, like near the base of the volcanic Mt. Etna on Italy’s island of Sicily, grow in soil rich with magnesium, phosphorus, sulfur, iron, and silica. According to Sicilian winemakers, this cosmic balance of elements allows the vines to enjoy healthier growing cycles and produce more developed fruit.
In your glass, the result is a wine that is higher in tartaric, malic, and citric acids, which gives the wine more acidity, freshness, and a longer shelf-life.
The terrain of a vineyard includes its aspect, elevation, slope, and the influences of other flora and fauna in the area. The aspect of a vineyard is the orientation toward the sun. Viticulture experts deliberately face their vineyards toward or away from the sun to regulate sun exposure, growing rate, and temperature.
Elevation is what we’re all most familiar with – it’s the vertical height above sea level at which a vineyard is located. In places like Mendoza, Argentina, and Rioja, Spain, the elevation is extremely high. This translates into cooler temperatures during the day and night, a different collection of flora and fauna that contribute to the composition of the soil, and different weather conditions.
In general, winemakers admire high-altitude vineyards for grapes that are high in acidity, freshness, and antioxidants. Vineyards that are at exceptionally high altitudes – think: 4,000 feet above sea level – grow grapes with thicker skins due to the stronger UV sun rays. Thicker skins allow wines to soak up more tannins, richer colors, more intense flavors during the maceration process, and experience more complexities while aging.
Slope also affects the sun exposure the grape vines experience, as well as the amount of water they’re able to absorb from the earth.
Have you ever wondered why winemakers are so particular about their regions? Why Champagne can only be called Champagne if it was made in the Champagne region of France? Why Bordeaux wines are only Bordeaux wines if the come from Bordeaux, France? It’s not just a French thing. It’s a cultural thing.
Winemaking traditions vary from region to region, and those traditions are sacred to winemakers. Furthermore, many of those traditions originated out of necessity or an advantage given by the region’s unique landscape.
For example, in Thailand, where temperatures can reach far beyond the comfort zone of most grapes, winemakers have created “floating vineyards” in which water flows between the vines to keep the plants cool and in their preferred temperature range. It’s a successful tactic, but one that results in a unique-tasting wine as the climate is more manufactured than natural.
Across the world, in Madeira, Spain, wines are given less time to ferment and, instead, are added to barrels and aged outdoors. This process gives the wine a nutty, hearty flavor and is something many wineries outside of Madeira cannot do because their region’s weather, climate, and traditions don’t allow for it.
Terroir & You
As mind blowing as it is that the climate and characteristics of the land grapes are grown in have such a profound impact on the wines we drink, the reality is that each wine is truly unique because of its terroir.
We encourage you to map your own wine journey. As you experience new wines, take note of where that wine was made. After some time, you may notice a pattern emerging. Perhaps your favorite wines all come from the same general region or multiple regions with similar climate and terrain.
Have you unveiled your palate’s preferred terroir? Tell us about it in the comments below!