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What is Terroir?

What is Terroir?

We’ve all heard terroir dropped in wine conversation, but what does it mean? Actually, there is not technically a direct translation for the French word in English. The root of the word, terre, means ‘earth’ in French, and while this is related to terroir, it means much more than just land. Terroir – in just one word! – refers to all of the natural conditions that make a specific place unique. This includes:

  • climate
  • weather and wind patterns
  • soil
  • precipitation
  • surrounding geographical conditions (i.e. proximity to rivers, lakes oceans or other bodies of water, surrounding flora)
  • altitude and situation on hillsides, slopes or mountains
  • temperature
  • sunlight

Terroir refers to all of the natural surrounding conditions that affect the growth of grapes in a vineyard, from sunlight and slopes to soil and rainfall

Though terroir is most commonly associated with wine, the term is also used in oil, coffee and tea industries to talk about the growing conditions of these products; really it could be used in any agricultural context. In the wine world, this of course refers to the conditions the grapes and vines grow in, down to the position of a vine on a particular slope of a hill in one specific plot of land, and its angle to the sun and earth.

Why does terroir matter?

This is a slightly loaded question, because some people argue that terroir is not actually as important as it has traditionally been considered. To understand that, let’s look at the history of terroir:

  • Terroir goes back to the Benedictine monks, who brought Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes to Burgundy and started making wine under specific conditions based on their scrupulous studies of the land and conditions there, ranking plots of land down to the finest details.
  • Today, of course, Burgundy is known for producing some of the world’s most premier wines… in other words, there is a lot of stock and respect in the Old World concerning the significance of terroir and its effect on wine
  • Classification systems across Europe (DOC, AOP/AOC, etc.) are based on this idea of terroir, emphasising the significance of location rather than grape – this is why Old World wines are labeled according to vineyards or region rather than varietal (i.e. Bourgogne, not Pinot Noir)
  • An approach that prioritises terroir sees no two places in the world as able to grow and produce equivalent wines

Though Burgundy itself is a very small region in France, it is divided into nearly 100 designated areas of wine growing, with the most coveted Grand Cru wines specifically coming from the most specific, best plots and even micro-plots of land – those with the ‘best’ terroir

Another school of thought

Here is where the controversy comes into play. When the wine industry started growing in the New World, new winemakers disregarded terroir and said that they could grow grapes and produce wines that were just as good as the most respected wines of Europe.

These New World producers said that it did not matter where grapes grew, putting more emphasis on the role of the winemaker and their decisions in fermentation, ageing, bottling etc.

What actually matters

Today, most people recognise terroir’s significance. We all know the effect warm versus cool climates have on wines (sweet versus dry, accordingly). But there is so much more than climate at play. Altitude and fog affect cooling periods, sunlight and rainfall affect ripening times. Various soils absorb nutrients and water at different rates. You can just imagine how if you factor in every element of terroir, you really are looking at incredibly unique conditions that affect how a crop will grow, and ultimately how a wine will taste!

In saying that, the role of the winemaker cannot be understated either. A winemaker can consider all elements of terroir, and factor them into the choices he or she makes – highlighting, tweaking, or adapting to make the wine he or she desires (i.e. introducing malolactic fermentation to soften harsh, acidic wines, or picking early to keep grapes from over-ripening).

As is often the case with wine, it is sensible to land somewhere between the two extreme schools of thought. We can’t deny the significance of terroir, but we should also be open to newer, innovative methods of producing wine, and recognise the amazing winemaking regions of the world that have not traditionally been viewed as such (and conversely, not putting too much stock into the value of a wine just because it was grown in a highly respected area of designation!).

I recommend doing side by side tastings of the same variety – look into where each wine was grown, what the terroir would be like in those places, and also read about the winemaker and process the may have used to produce the wines – any differences you taste should be reflective of these elements. And you’ll probably get to discover some of your new favourite growing regions!

You can read more about the differences between Old and New World wine here.

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