The concept of “Terroir” has been embedded within wine culture for centuries. Unfortunately, it’s become a near-religious concept to many people in the wine trade. In this article, we tasked a winemaker and a sommelier to answer the question “WTF terroir?”
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The Winemaker’s Concept of Terroir
Let’s get this out of the way: terroir is not real. It’s the line we give to wine journalists and sommeliers. It’s a romantic concept, not a winemaking tool. One of the best vineyards in Napa was made from dynamiting out a rock ledge. Wineries have consultants who develop ways to alter their vineyards’ soil pH, Microfauna, and nutrients.
It’s the Bugs
There is an argument for terroir, actually. Every vineyard has a distinct microbiome. The yeasts and bacteria on the grapes are unique. A significant amount of research shows that this is a major cause of variations of flavors from different vineyards.
It’s a System
Another way to think about variations between vineyards is to think about how the system was constructed. Every choice influences the outcome.
There are plenty of things you can’t control in a vineyard: the soil type, rainfall, aspect, sunshine, or anything else that the natural world throws at us. But what you do with that information is the difference between a good vineyard and a mediocre one.
We have the tools to build great vineyards: what type of trellising, how far apart we plant, what type of rootstock we use, what type of drainage, and what type of irrigation system we install. And, of course, what grape variety we plant. A vineyard is a synthesis between nature and human innovations. In other words, it’s a system.
This is not the answer people want, but its the honest one.
The Sommelier’s Concept of Terroir
Wine is a beautiful and complicated thing. It can take years to fully understand the intricacy of what seems merely fermented grape juice. Wine’s enjoyment comes from understanding how it tastes and smells, but also why.
A single glass of wine can have dozens of aromatic compounds, scents, and flavors reminiscent of everything from ripe fruits to flowers, from vanilla to your grandma’s closet.
The Language of Wine
Both wine enthusiasts and professionals try hard to discern what they perceive on their nose and palate and elaborately describe it to their fellow tasters or guests. However, to master wine, you must become a translator, a wine whisperer, someone that knows the wine’s language and can translate it to English.
In this short lesson, you’ll understand why a glass of wine tastes the way it does because wine is itself translating the place from where it comes from, its terroir.
Terroir is a French term that is hard to translate. It means a sense of place and comprises everything that happens both in the vineyard and in the winery that makes it smell and taste as it does.
Terroir combines the climate where the grapes are grown, the soil in which the vines are planted, the rains and sunny days, and the methods used to make the wine, from grape to bottle. However, it’s the weather and the human element that matters most in the terroir equation.
Perhaps the most important part of terroir is climate because the weather conditions and overall temperatures shape the wine’s personality.
How Weather Affects Terroir
In the old days, classifying wine regions as old world or new world helped students differentiate between European wine regions with traditions going back thousands of years and the new wine-producing countries. Today the wine community prefers to classify the wine regions for their climate.
Cold Weather Wine Regions
Cool-weather regions, like Champagne in France, New York State in the US, the steep German vineyards, or the chilly Chilean coastline favor grapes that can withstand the cold like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, or Riesling.
The colder the weather, the least the grapes will ripen. Unripe grapes mean less sugar, therefore, less alcohol. Remember, alcoholic fermentation transforms the grapes’ sugar into ethanol. Cold weather also promotes acidity in wine, so if you like crisp, fresh wines with low alcohol levels, drink wines from cold regions.
Cold climates favor citrus aromas in white wines and tart red fruit flavors, like cranberries, in reds.
Warm Weather Wine Regions
Warm weather does the exact opposite. As a result, you can source full-bodied, plump wines high in alcohol and body from regions like Napa Valley in California, Southern Australia, or the Italian island of Sicily. Grapes that do well in warmer climates are Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Zinfandel, and Tempranillo.
The weather has a further impact on how we perceive wine. Warm climates develop ripe fruit aromas for red wines and even tropical fruit scents in whites.
Winemakers also play a big part in how the wine smells and tastes. The wine aged in oak barrels is infused with wood aromas like cinnamon, vanilla, clove, and other baking spices. Aromas of dark chocolate or roasted coffee come from barrels too.
Not all wines rest in barrels; barriques are incredibly expensive and reserved for the best wines, making the investment worthwhile.
Winemakers can put a little makeup on white wines, too; wines can end up with a creamy texture and buttery aromas from an optional secondary fermentation. This is because winemakers promote good bacteria that turn the acrid tartaric acid present in all wines into mellower lactic acid.
Final Thoughts on Terroir
The first thing you have to understand to appreciate wine’s nuances is that the weather in the vineyards reflects itself in your wine glass. The will of the winemaker influences its personality just as much.
If you sense ripe fruit in a glass of warm, alcoholic wine, you can surely tell it comes from a sunny vineyard; if your wine is tart and citrusy, it inevitably comes from colder plots.
Like a detective, start listening to wine and make sense of what you recognize. You’ll soon find you like some wines over others, and most importantly, you’ll know why they taste the way they do.