What the "F" is terroir?
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. But terroir is also one of the most important factors in describing a wine, and predicting how it will taste. What we found is that terroir is as close as we can get to a single unifying theory of wine.
Terroir encompasses everything
Terroir is essentially the wine theory of everything. Terroir 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. To put it mildly, terroir is the effect mother nature has on your wine.
The elements that define 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.
So how does it help me to understand terroir?
Unless you are totally familiar with the terroir of a region, you really wont gain anything from your everyday wine decisions. 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 the intricacies in the choices within a winery or between them. They probably come from totally different areas of the vineyard and the differences in character will be profound when tasted against each other so you can begin to understand why one wine is so expensive but the other is not. Why does wine from one side of the road cost $50 and the other $500? Terroir.