You may or may not have heard someone refer to the terroir of a wine. Like most people, you’ve probably wondered what it means and how, or why, it affects the wine you drink.
Terroir, while not specific to wine, is a well-used word within Sommelier vocabulary. In this article, we’ll dive into the definition of the word as well as its importance to the wine you drink.
What is Terroir?
A French term meaning a ‘sense of place.’ It originally stemmed from the Latin word terra for ‘earth.’
Terroir refers to the unique characteristics and conditions of a certain region. As well as how those conditions affect the flavors of agricultural products, like wine. And no two regions are quite the same.
The Factors of Terroir
While many factors play a role in the winemaking process. 4 main elements make up a terroir. These factors include:
- Soil Composition
These are not the only elements that affect wine. But it’s important to note why understanding the terroir is so crucial to the flavor. And the final result it will bear.
Just as climate affects how humans have grown and developed, it has similar effects on wine. Climate can generally be broken down into two types, cool or warm. It’s also typically determined by geographic location.
Other factors within the climate that may also affect grape growth include rainfall, frost, hail, humidity, and sunlight. These factors, while most are necessary, can negatively affect the grapes as well.
Sun helps the grapes grow adequate sugar levels but can also cause them to dry out. Rain is necessary for growth, but an overabundance can cause flavor dilution or even disease.
The soil grapes are rooted in has a surprising amount to do with the flavors produced. This is because the grapes pull all their necessary nutrients from the soil they grow in.
The amount of rock, mineral content, and overall composition will be reflected in the finished product. Different compositions may offer better drainage or create the perfect balance of moisture.
Typically, sandy soil will produce drier wines. While clay-based soil offers bolder flavored wines.
When referring to temperature concerning terroir, it’s important to understand the reference is to a long-term average. Not the seasonal changes that every vineyard experiences. We can typically split temperature into two components, warm and cool regions.
Warmer regions are going to ripen grapes more quickly, resulting in fuller-bodied and more flavorful wines. They’ll be low in acidity, high in sugar content, and often have more color.
Wines produced in cooler regions have a tougher time ripening and produce lower acidity. Grapes in these regions produce lower sugar levels which result in a drier, more refreshing wine.
One last component of terroir is the topography. There’s a reason vineyards pop up in certain places on a map. Topography takes into consideration slope, elevation, and other physical features of the surrounding area.
Steep slopes can allow for better drainage and typically receive more sunlight. In contrast, higher elevation leads to cooler nights and produces a more elegant wine.
Surrounding lakes can influence the changes in weather and temperature throughout the year. Most often leading to warmer summers and colder winters. While mountain ranges can offer protection from wind and damaging weather.
Microbes and Terroir
While not a traditional component of terroir, microbes and yeast play a large role in the winemaking process. More recently, studies have shown that biological markers, similar to fingerprints, can trace a wine. This means every wine has a unique biological composition.
These studies have yet to show if there is a correlation between the microbe and yeast types and the flavors produced. But it does open up new doors to understanding what gives each wine its unique characteristics.
Now that you’ve learned what terroir is and its importance to wine, you can put the knowledge to use. The terroir of wine offers a baseline of understanding for vintners and wine drinkers alike. Because of this, many wine classifications have been based on these components.
So the next time you pick out a bottle of wine, take the time to learn where it comes from. It should give you a greater understanding of the flavor profile before you even take a sip.