Terroir is a French word that means “sense of place.” It is all the factors that work together to create a vineyard’s unique recipe, in a way that no two vineyards on earth are identical. Therefore, a vineyard has a right to claim that their unique terroir is responsible for how their wines taste, hence the names we see on European wine labels like Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Chianti, Barolo and Rioja to name a few. These famous wines are celebrated by region name, and recognized by their “sense of place.” Note: non-European regions usually put the name of the grape on the label in lieu of the place.
In the graphic above, the same grape grown in Place A and Place B could taste very different due to the variations in vineyards.
The terroir in New Zealand is different than the terroir in Napa Valley, which is why the same grape grown in both places can taste very different. Digging even deeper, the terroir in northern France is different than the terroir of southern France. Delving even deeper yet, terroir can differ between vineyards only 5 minutes a part from each other. Going even farther, (we are literally in the weeds now), the terroir of one row of vines can be different than another.
The viticultural, climatic, weather and topographical factors that influence how a grape looks, grows, tastes and acts in the winery are it’s “terroir.”
What factors impact a vineyard’s terroir? Here are a few examples:
Location, Climate & Weather
Generally speaking, grapes grown in cooler regions are more acidic and structured, and those grown in warmer climates are sweeter and riper. Vineyards closer to water may benefit from warmer air, cooler air, salty air, or even rainy air, all which effect grapes in different ways.
For example, some Sauvignon Blanc grapes grown in northwest France on the ocean coasts have subtle notes of salt, whereas that same grape grown more inland towards Sancerre has more of a mineral flavor. Vineyards situated further into the land and away from water could experience drought, spring frosts, hail, or other continental weather patterns that can impact a grape’s growing season. Location and weather are critical to a wine’s final style and taste.
Rocky soil, clay, and sand each impact grapes differently because of how they retain water, heat and nutrients. Grape vines perform differently in different soils. For example, vines rooted in sandy soils usually produce lighter wine styles because sand doesn’t hold heat for long and the vines cool down at night.
However, Cabernet Sauvignon is often planted in rocky soil because gravel will retain the heat it needs to ripen and produce a full-bodied wine. A grape-grower must know which soil types are best for different grapes, and the final style of wine they want to produce.
Sun & Heat
Sun and heat are needed to grow grapes. A vine needs sun to manage photosynthesis and heat to develop its tiny berries into sweet, ripe grapes. Vines that don’t receive enough sun/heat could result in smaller grapes with less concentration. Grapes that receive too much sun/heat could over-ripen or raisin. A grape-grower must decide how to manage a vine based on the sun levels in their vineyard. For example, cool climate vines are often arranged in a way where all the grapes have access to sun and heat in order to ripen. But in oppressively hot climates, vines are often situated with their leaves on top, shading and protecting the grapes from damaging sun/heat.
Vineyards often benefit from being situated on hills and mountains in cooler regions. Because more sunlight is available on sloped land than flat land, the additional sun/heat can help to ripen grapes that would struggle to develop on cool, flat land. In addition, slopes that face east receive softer morning sun, whereas slopes that face west receive more intense afternoon sun. With this logic, a grower may choose to place delicate Pinot Noir grapes on east-facing slopes to make a light and refreshing “young wine,” whereas big-bodied Zinfandel grapes may be planted on west-facing slopes to increase the sugar and alcohol content.
A region’s cloud patterns also impact its access to sun. Some regions may experience a cloudy summer, others may experience a cloudy autumn. Both weather patterns will impact grapes differently.
Elevation and height matter. The higher we climb up a mountain, the cooler the air gets. Elevated land is a viable vineyard option for hot places like Argentina, where viticulture could be impossible if it weren’t for higher, cooler options. On hot valley floors, grapes are at risk of overheating or ripening too quickly, resulting in wine that is out-of-balance. But on elevated land, the cool air allows the grapes to ripen and develop on schedule, building the structure and balance they need for wine.
In addition, grapes on flat land or valley floors can receive too many nutrients and overproduce in the wrong area. An over-abundance of nutrients can cause excessive leaf growth with less concentrated, mediocre grapes. These vineyards are often used to mass-produce inexpensive wine. However, hillsides and mountain soil have fewer nutrients, which increases the flavor concentration of each grape.
Globally speaking, many prestigious, well-balanced, intense, and age-worthy wines often come from hills or mountainsides. The cooler air and longer growing season on sloped land creates a terroir that allows grapes to produce some of their best expressions of wine.
A vineyard’s access to water is critical and can impact how grapes develop and taste. Like all other plants, grape vines require water to successfully develop and ripen. Too little water can stunt a vine’s photosynthesis and the grapes won’t develop. On the contrary, too much water can cause damage to water-logged vine roots or dilute a grape’s flavor concentration.
Some vineyard locations naturally have the perfect balance of water, whereas others may experience too much rain or are effected by severe drought. Regions that suffer from excessive rain can experience rot and fungal problems, and regions that experience drought can struggle to keep their vines alive. Some places are required to employ man-made irrigation techniques to fight prolonged drought.
On the contrary, there are times when fog and humidity are beneficial to a vineyard. For example, some grape-growers depend on high humidity and fungal rot to make certain sweet wines like Sauternes or some German Rieslings. Other vineyards are purposely planted in foggy areas so that the grapes can cool down at particular times of the day, like Napa Valley.
There are many other factors that can impact a local terroir. Strong winds can effect berry development and yields, thereby reducing the volume of grapes grown. Vineyards situated closer to volcanoes often have ash in the soil, which can impact a grape’s flavor. Wine-drinkers claim they can taste the ash in wines made around Mt. Eta, which soils are rich with old volcano remnants. Some vineyards are planted amongst other agriculture, which find their way into the final taste (i.e. lavender, olives, eucalyptus, etc.). In Coonawarra Australia, the Cabernet Sauvignon is planted around eucalyptus trees and those flavors find their way into final style of wine.
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