The Concept of Terroir in Winemaking: A Sense of Place
Terroir is a concept that was first used hundreds of years ago by French viticulturists and winemakers, to explain the sense of place where wine grapes come from. Since then, winemakers and wine industry professionals around the world are using the word terroir — sometime incorrectly — to describe that je ne sais quoi to distinguish different regions and sub-regions in the wine world.
What is Terroir?
There is no direct translation from French to English for the word terroir. That means it isn’t easy to define. However, if you believe what “Wine for Dummies” has to say about the word, it’s pretty simple:
Terroir: A French word that is the collective term for the growing conditions in a vineyard, such as climate, soil, drainage, slope, altitude, topography, and so on. (Wine for Dummies, 5th Ed.)
“And so on”? See, it really isn’t easy to give an exact definition of terroir!
In “Hello Wine” Melanie Wagner defines terroir this way:
Terroir is the essence of a particular place. As it applies to a grapevine, terroir encompasses the soil, subsoil, aspect, slope, nuances of weather, orientations to the sun, the ocean, the river, humidity, neighbouring plant species, elevation and, ultimately, human intervention. (Melanie Wagner, 2013)
We believe terroir is composed of four primary influencers: Soil, Terrain, Climate & Weather and Human Intervention. These factors affecting the grapevine and the grapes it produces, will ultimately influence the characteristics of the wine produced. The original intention of the word terroir was not likely this technical. As we learn more about the science of wine, it is important to keep in mind the essence of the word and the art of making wine.
Terroir is the Soil
The most basic requirement for all plants aside from water is soil. Grape vines that produce the best grapes for making wine, require soil that drains well and is nutrient-poor. Soils that offer good drainage facilitate the movement of oxygen in the soil preventing the growth of bad bacteria and/or rot in the rootstock. If the soil is rich in nutrients, the plant will put more energy into its foliage and less on its berries. Nutrient-poor soils tend to yield smaller grapes which in turn have less juice, more stem, more skin, and offer a higher concentration of flavour and sugar. Why? Because if a vine has to struggle for nutrients, it will concentrate on reproduction. Basically a grape vine says to itself “Oh no, I can’t find nutrients. I’m going to die. I need to make sure I have a legacy. I’ll make my berries look really good to birds who will then eat my berries and poop out the seeds into the soil so I can live on!” That, my friends, is the circle of life… and how we get great tasting grapes that make great tasting wines.
Terroir is the Terrain
The terrain is composed of numerous factors such as mountains, altitude, slope, aspect, proximity to the ocean or other large bodies of water, humidity, and local flora. The combination of major and minor differences influence the flavours that are present in a grape which is why the terrain is so important. For example, a large body of water has a moderating influence on the sub-region and ultimately the vines. If a region’s climate is prone to spring frost, the sub-region close to a large body of water can reduce the risk of frost by moderating the temperature. A mountain range can protect a sub-region from high winds or heavy rainfall that may damage the vines. If a vineyard is planted on a hill, the slope can affect when and where the sun hits the vines.
Terroir is Climate and Weather
Climate and weather are similar, but defined differently. Climate is the overall amount of sunlight at heat a region gets during the growing season. Wine regions are categorized in 3 basic climates: Cool Climate, Moderate Climate and Hot Climate. The climate affects the grape varieties grown and the style of wine made in the region. It also can give us an idea of what to expect regarding temperature and weather conditions. Weather is made up of things like rain, wind, frost, hail etc. An easy way to think of the difference is that Climate does not change from year to year, but weather can be different each year and affect the vintage of a wine.
Terroir is Influenced by Humans
Human influence cannot be avoided, but many wine producers today are leaning toward as little human intervention as possible. The traditional methods of human influence, are cultivation, vine training, harvesting, fermentation, and overall production of the actual wine through to bottling. For example, whether the grapes are picked by machine harvesting or hand selection can influence the style of a wine. If the vines are basket trained, that kind of human influence can protect the vines from regions that have strong winds.
All of these things can give a consumer a sense of where a wine is from and offer regional identity to the wines. This is terroir — a sense of place.
Want to dig a little deeper into the subject of Terroir? Here are some great reads to start with:
(“Wine doesn’t mean sh*t unless you know where it comes from.”)