Terroir is one of those words we often hear spoken in the wine world. Most of us have a vague sense of what it might mean, though many of us would be challenged to actually provide a proper definition for it. Terroir is very important to the quality of a wine, so it is worth exploring further. In this article we will put forward our definition of terroir and describe why it is so important to the world of wine.
What is Terroir?
Terroir is actually a French word that has no direct translation into English.
Since it is a French word we always italicize it when we write it, as is the grammatical convention when writing words of a foreign language. We have read others who have said that terroir is the French word for soil (that is actually sol) or for earth (that is actually terre). Similar to umami (the Japanese word characteristic of broths or cooked meats) that has no English translation, we just use the foreign word as a part of our everyday vocabulary.
The most simple definition of terroir would be the effect of site where the grapes are grown on the resulting wine.
Most go beyond that and specify that it is the effect of the climate, soil and terrain of that site that effects the wine. We think this is a pretty good start. In this article we want to take you through a number of concepts that loosely get thrown into the terroir bag and show which are really terroir and which are not and come up with a final definition of terroir while explaining why it is important.
The three common facets of terroir—climate, soil and terrain—have a well documented effect on the resulting wine.
Warm climates produce riper grapes that tend to have fuller body and cooler climates tend to produce leaner wines with higher acidity. Different soil types affect how different grapes will grow: the influence of limestone chalk in Champagne, calcareous soils for growing Cabernet Sauvignon, the rocks in the vineyards of Chateauneuf du Pape all have a well documented effect on the wines produced from them. Terrain is the physical features of the land which include the slope of the land (hillside or valley) and the aspect (the direction it faces). Each site has its own climate, soil and terrain which make that site unique.
We would add two other features to the definition of terroir: latitude and elevation. Latitude affects how the vines grow because of hours of daylight. In the summer growing season, vineyards at higher latitudes will get more hours of daylight than those at lower latitudes. Elevation will affect the growth of the vines by creating wider diurnal temperature swings which affect how the plants grow and the amount of acidity they retain. Our definition of terroir would be the total effect on a wine from of group of factors including climate, soil, terrain, latitude and elevation that are consistent across a growing site.
What Terroir is Not
In order for terroir to be useful as a concept, it must have definition and boundaries that separate what it is from what it is not.
Some have suggested that winemaking tradition is a part of a region’s terroir. Certainly tradition and how a wine is made generally affect the resulting wine, but they are different than terroir. Terroir is what the site contributes to the wine, it specifically is not viniculture or viticulture. If you put a different vineyard manager at a site, you have not changed the terroir. If you put in a different winemaker at a winery, you will not change the terroir. Terroir refers only to the effect of site.
This is very important, especially to the phrase “expressing the terroir” which is getting more common use. A wine will reflect three main things: the site from which the grapes were grown (the terroir); how the grapes were planted and subsequently tended (the viticulture) and the process by which the grapes were converted to wine (the viniculture). Apply different viticulture or different viniculture at a site will not change the terroir. It may express that terroir differently, but the terroir, the facets of the site, remain unchanged.
Wine will reflect the terroir as well as reflecting the winemaking.
If you want to express the terroir then you need to make the wine in such a way as to allow the terroir to be heard above techniques in the winery. Low intervention winemaking allows the terroir to show through more than the winemakers hand. Minimal use of techniques such as fining and filtration, judicious use of oak ageing, and avoiding adding to or taking away from the grape juice will allow for the terroir to be expressed.
Terroir in wine is not tangible, you cannot measure it and you cannot isolate it from the rest of the wine’s properties. Some people say that Old World wines have more terroir than New World wines. That is impossible and does not make sense. How could one region have more climate, soil, terrain, latitude or elevation than another region? Every site has its own terroir. It is the expression of the terroir that can be more or less. Certain grapes such as thinner skin varieties like Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo tend to show their terroir more than thicker skinned varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon whose fruit tends to dominate the character regardless from where it is grown. Change the site with a thinner skin grape and you will change the resulting wine more than with a thicker skin grape.
Terroir is not the earthy or minerally nuances that some wines express. The other French term “gout de terroir” may be responsible for this misconception. Gout de terroir means taste of the soil and is merely an idiom used to express earthy tasting wines.
Terroir is Micro, Not Macro
In order to have a useful concept of terroir, the facets of climate, soil and terrain must be consistent across the site.
Therefore, terroir must necessarily be applied to relatively small sites for it to have meaning. To us it is meaningless to talk about the terroir of France, say. France is a huge area that has both maritime and continental climates, myriads of different soils and vineyards facing in every different direction. The growing regions of Alsace and Chateauneuf du Pape could not be more different, and so it is meaningless to talk about terroir of such a large area. Discussions of terroir must be confined to areas small enough to have consistent latitude, elevation, climate, soil and terrain across the site. When one aspect changes, then it becomes a new terroir. Within the smaller region of the Napa Valley, the hillsides of say Spring Mountain have a different (very different, in fact) terroir than the valley floor.
Most land masses go through changes in these terroir factors over various distances. The largest terroirs are valleys. River valleys can stretch for relatively long distances with fairly consistent terroir. Hillsides generally have very small terroirs as the slope or aspect of the hill changes at different parts We recently visited a small vineyard in Chile that had several different terroirs within one contiguous plot of land. Polkura is a hillside vineyard in Chile’s Colchagua Valley. Sven Bruchfeld, Polkura’s owner and winemaker has identified 5 different terroirs on his hillside property and has applied different viniculture in each plot to allow the individual terroirs to be expressed. In the photo you can see the differing aspects of the different terroirs. Some plots are steep, some more flat, and they face many different directions.
Why Is Terroir Such an Important Concept to the Wine Community?
Good question, especially when you consider that terroir does not have an identifiable flavour or aroma.
The importance of terroir comes from the fact that the best wines are made from the best grapes. The best grapes come from the best terroir, those sites whose climate, soil, terrain, latitude and elevation are ideal for growing wine grapes. If you have a top site that produces top grapes, the best wine that you can make is the one that shows the unique features of that site. We learned this lesson about terroir from one of the world’s greatest living oenologists, Phillippe Cambie.
We ran into him by chance and this lead to us sharing a bottle of wine with him and having a fascinating conversation about all things wine, which we wrote about in this article.
In that article we wrote: “We talked a little bit about the “Cambie style”. Others have written that Cambie makes big, modern-styled wines. Philippe told us “That is sometimes true and sometimes not true. You tasted at Clos St. Jean. Their terroir has lots of pebbles and their heat wants to make the grapes very ripe. From those vineyards you want to make a bigger style of wine. It is what those vineyards do best. But you also tasted at Font du Loup. You will have noticed how elegant those wines are, not at all in the “modern” style. Their vineyards are sandy, and they make beautiful feminine wines. There is no Cambie style. I just make the best from what the vineyard gives me.” That, right there, is the essence of terroir and why it matters. The best wines express their terroir. Big, bold wines from terroirs that want to express boldness, Napa, the Barossa, Toro, Chateauneuf du Pape, Mendoza and other similar regions need to express that terroir to be their best. Don’t go to Napa to make a feminine, restrained, elegant wine. Don’t go to Burgundy to make a big, bold blockbuster. You won’t be expressing that terroir and therefore you won’t make the best wine from that site.
We happen to love Syrah. Perhaps our first love with Syrah was Côte-Rôtie. This relatively cool site that has almost impossibly steep vineyards and faces east produces wonderfully elegant Syrah. We love it. Elegance is what the terroir of Côte-Rôtie does best. But we also love some Barossa Shiraz, wines that are as big and as bold as they come. There are exceptions in every region, but for the most part Côte-Rôtie does elegance best and Barossa does power best.
Terroir is the effect of the climate, soil, terrain, latitude and elevation that remain constant across a site. Let the site do what it wants to do. Don’t force a pre-conceived style from a site, let that site dictate the style. It is how you will get the best wine from that site. And that is why terroir matters.