What the F*** is Terroir?
Oh boy, here we go. Terroir is one of the least understood wine terms and yet because it is surrounded by so much mysticism, a little bit of flamboyance and a healthy dose of bullshit we feel that it is one of the most important factors in describing a wine, and predicting how it will taste. Nobody seems to be able to give you a real definition of terroir, so we decided to dig through a whole host of definitions, descriptions, and answer this question in the best possible way. What the fuck is terroir?
The wine theory of everything
The most base definition of terroir is that it is encompasses everything the grapes have gone through as they have grown, and ripened up until the moment they have been harvested, essentially the environment in which the grapes are grown and harvested. Everything in the vineyard's environment weighs heavily on the taste of a grape. This often gets overly romanticized, people talking about how the tears of the people cultivating, and the happy mood of the cows is complete bull, but if we really dig into some core elements of terroir, we begin to understand how exactly it affects the wine that you drink.
As Oz Clarke (certified wine ponce) so elegantly put it, terroir is the effect of everything that mother nature has in store on a wine.
So what are the core elements of terroir?
- Climate - Was the growing period hot, cold, and how long did that variation last for. Some grapes prefer hotter climates, some prefer cooler. A Pinot Noir, for example, grown in a hot climate will have high alcohol content and taste very jammy (ie like cooked berries, or like the jam you put on your toast rather than fresh fruit) while the same grape grown in cooler climates will be smoother, more fruity, and lighter in alcohol content.
- Soil - Soil is interesting, because winos around the world claim there is a great effect on the mineral content of the soil and the minerality it leaves behind in the wine. Though there is no scientific evidence about what is actually going on, something does seem to be happening. Rockier soil that makes it hard for the grapes to suck up water, or are very dry, will produce much more intense wines.
- Terrain - Altitude, slope, and surroundings have a great effect on the grape. Winemakers go berserk for a good slope, knowing it will produce much richer wine (and more expensive) but even how far inland, whether it is close to the see, if it is in between mountains, right through to the surrounding plants, trees, and other flora close by.
How does an understanding of terroir help me?
Sure, understanding the different elements of terroir is nice and nerdy. Wine geeks the world over love to drone on and on about it, but what good does it do you when you sitting with a limited selection of glasses in front of you on a hot date? The answer is, pretty much zero. Unless you are totally familiar with the terroir of a region, it does not help you at all.
Understanding terroir only helps you when you have someone explaining the terroir of a region to you, and how and why the wines get the flavors that they do. Understanding how terroir effects the wine helps when you are at a vineyard or a winery, and you have two wines from the same grapes, but are in totally different price ranges. They probably come from totally different areas of the vineyard and the differences in character will be profound when tasted against each other.
Take another look at the video we shared earlier (or this link again) and skip to about 15:10. James May, who calls terroir total nonsense finally sees the light when shown a remarkable difference between the same grape from different parts of the vineyard. One having being planted in a soil with very heavy rocks, the other in soil with looser, smaller rocks.
Terroir is a fancy term that winemakers, wine enthusiasts, sommeliers, and the like love to throw around. Though not proven with absolute scientific certainty, there are things we can take from it and understand. You can either get overly romantic about, or be very straight forward in your assessment, but you cannot deny that mother nature has an astounding influence on what we taste in our wine, from location to location, and year to year. This is what makes wine so fascinating, so interesting, and so much more fun to drink, because it is like history in a glass. Everything that has happened to the wine, and to you, will be present from that first sip and linger on your mind until the last. Having that core understanding of terroir, and respecting the impact of nature, will help you wine and life so much more.