Terroir, (pronounced ‘te-rwar’), is a term which will be familiar to any oenophile who has ever looked to dig a bit deeper into where the drink in their glass has come from. The term stems from the French for land, ‘terre’, and this is a give away for what terroir truly means.
Terroir broadly means environmental factors and human practices which influence and bring about the end product of a specific artisanal good. Terroir also affects a number of other products you will be familiar with. Tobacco, hops, tea, cannabis, (where legal of course), and agave for its use in tequila or mezcal are all examples of products where terroir is very much considered when defining and appreciating the end product.
For our purposes we are obviously most interested in the king of terroir. Its original use was to describe French wine. Indeed, this concept helped to form the very French wine regions known and loved worldwide today. Let’s look further into this French term and what exactly makes up terroir. Not only this, but we will look at some of the tangible effects terroir has had on both wine and winemakers.
Origins of Terroir In Wine
The origins of terroir are undeniably French. There is actually no English equivalent for this term. This fact is why the French term is so ubiquitous across writings on wine. The term originally began to be part of the typical oenophiles lexicon, as a means of distinguishing old world wines from new world wines.
However, while the term may have gained popularity within relatively recent history, the idea itself is a long-standing tradition in French wine-making. Monks were instrumental figures in wine-making throughout Europe. We attribute the rise of of the Burgundy and Champagne regions in France to the Benedictine Monks.
Monks and their monasteries tended to span considerable areas of land. The fact that they were able to oversee a vast area of land was key. They could develop a rich understanding for terroir as it influenced the wine they produced.
What factors are considered in Terroir?
Now you know where the word comes from. Next, it’s time to understand which factors are considered when assessing terroir. Broadly speaking there are four primary factors at work when we consider the terroir of wine. These are outlined below.
Perhaps the most obvious factor in terroir is climate. This is the weather of the region. It applies to points such as heat, rainfall, hours of sunlight and so on and so forth. To provide an example, Chardonnay grapes appear to be particularly prone to climate. Warmer climate Chardonnay such as California have a tropical style, compared to cooler areas such as Germany which have stronger aromas and flavours of green apple.
Another key part of terroir is the soil type in a region. The list of soil types is long. They form four broad categories. Igneous soil made by magma and lava cooling on the surface of the Earth. The wines of Sicily grown on the volcanic soil of Mount Etna are examples of this soil type. Then, there are metamorphic soils. These form from other rocks combining through heat and pressure. The slate soils in Germany’s Mosel Region is an example of this.
Another form of soil is sedimentary soils. These are heavily made up of minerals left by water. Two regions who have been influenced by this are the sparkling wine region of Champagne and the sherry region of Jerez. The final classification is based on soil textures. These soil textures are composed of the three previously mentioned soil types. Silt, (which is like a fine sand), is a prime example of this. Silt is prominent in the Austrian regions which follow the Danube and are principally involved in producing Grüner Veltliner.
This aspect of terroir is simply the natural arrangement of the physical geography in the area. Rivers, Valleys and Mountains are all be perfect examples of this. Vineyards on riverbeds will have a more mineral soil, as we’ve discussed. Valleys, such as the Loire Valley, is very hot in the day and subsequently cools off dramatically in the night. Mountains provide greater elevation and therefore winds cause lower temperatures compared to vineyards at sea level. Indeed, this final point is part of the reason Malbec has thrived in Argentina, compared to its native France.
Surrounding Organic Life
This point is last but not least in understanding terroir. It pertains to specific insects, flora and fauna. Certain animals may remove the presence of certain pests. Perhaps, the instance of a certain flora increases the likelihood of pests coming into play. The Phylloxera is a particularly prevalent pest which feeds on grapevines. More than once have they been responsible for nearly wiping out some strain of grape variety or another. The local organisms and the degree to which they are allowed to interact with the vines is a key part of a region’s terroir.
Effects of Terroir on Wine-Making
It goes without saying that terroir has a deep impact on the wine. However, it also has an impact on the winemakers. Vintners will often have to make decisions about when to prune their vines, selecting time to harvest, the introduction of pesticides or certain forms of irrigation. All of their decisions here are undoubtedly informed by the terroir of that specific region.
On the other side of the matter, a vintner’s relative ‘inaction’ can also be related to terroir. Organic and biodynamic vintners opt for a more natural and low-intervention process to wine-making. Although organic wine can still possess yeast compounds and sulphites, which biodynamic wine does not. Vinters in these cases are making a clear choice to not alter the impacts the terroir is having on the wine. In this sense, these wines are the truest representation of the terroir they are grown. The vintners take a step back and let the terroir do its work.
Now you have been provided with a good background on exactly what someone means when they use the term terroir. It is a term ubiquitous in modern conversations of wine and rightly so. It is impossible to separate the wine we drink from the terroir where it grows.
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