Where exactly does a wine get its character? Certainly the grape(s) used provide certain flavours, and the winemaker, with his or her personal winemaking style, somewhat dictates what the final wine will be like. However, there is something else that is far more important when it comes to what a finished wine will taste like. It’s “terroir”. This all encompassing “buzz” word or concept has always been important to “Old World” (Europe) producers, but is now being embraced big time by the “New World” (everywhere else).
So what is “terroir’? Very simply put, “terroir” is the natural environment of a piece of land that grows grapes. This reflects all aspects of climate, soil, and topography.
When it comes to climate, numerous factors play a part. Temperature is a big one. Within wine grape growing regions of the world, those that are closer to the equator experience warmer temperatures and those further away, cooler. Hours of sunlight, its intensity and heat units can play a huge part in the resulting grapes and ultimately the wine, especially red, produced from them. Rainfall is another key issue to climate. Some regions get more while others do not and irrigation is imperative. Surprisingly, wind is key in really warm growing areas as it helps cool the area by air-conditioning the vineyards. It’s also great in keeping moisture from building up between berries in bunches where the grapes grow tightly together thus deferring rot from forming.
Soil is huge for obvious reasons…grapes grow in it. Did you know, though, that all grapevines do not like “wet feet”. Rich soils that retain moisture (great for other fruits and veggies) waterlog their roots, which like to be stressed and have to go searching long distances for water. Well-drained soils (both surface and sub-soils) like gravel and clay work best. Certain varietals require more of some nutrients (chemical components) in the soil than others.
Finally, topography places a huge part. What is referred to here is the lay of the land or aspect, elevation/altitude and the degree and direction of any slope or incline affecting when the vineyard gets sun (morning, afternoon, etc.). All of these can impact the raw material (grapes) and ultimately the final wine.
By examining the topography carefully, doing a soil analysis and matching a particular sub-climate or microclimate to a specific grape variety, a wine producer can decide what will work best in a specific site.
Interestingly, terroir plays a bigger role in uni-varietal wines (those made up of only one grape variety) more so than those that are blended from several. Once grape varieties from different locales are mixed, the effect of their individual terroirs gets more homogenous or less defined.
Individual wine regions and sub-regions around the globe possess certain terroirs that are indicative in the characteristics of the wine they produce. Within those regional terroirs, specific vineyards and properties carry a little more complexity or detailed terroir of their own.
This concept of “terroir” is so important that many wine-producing regions, worldwide, use it as a basis for demarcating, delineating, and regulating wine zones. Appellation systems, sub-wine regions, and “cru” systems are all based on this.
The next time you come across “terroir” on wine labels or in conversation, you’ll have a better understanding about what it entails.
Edward Finstein is a wine writer, author, TV and radio host, educator, judge.