There’s a word in the world of wine that crops up (okay, that’s a bad pun) pretty frequently when you’re reading about a particular wine region or style. Sometimes you even see it on the back label and many times it’s included in those overwritten wine reviews that appear in newspapers or magazines, or as cards on the shelf at the store. The word is Terroir.
Terroir is a French word pronounced tehr-wahr and there is no direct translation into English. Obviously it reminds one of the word territory so let’s use that as a jumping off place to dig a bit deeper (sorry, really bad puns today). Terroir is about the territory that is the vineyard.
Terroir describes everything that is happening in, around, underneath, above and throughout the vineyard – the entire physical environment that impacts the grapes. It is embraced in the Old World, that is the older, traditional grape growing areas of Europe, and particularly France, as the vital thing that gives the wine it’s unique character and profile. Tradition holds that it is the terroir that gives the wine its signature and that the winemaker’s role is to reflect it, and not get in the way. Many traditionalists insist that you can taste the terroir.
Terroir is about the dirt. Is the vineyard soil – clay, sediment, loose, compact, rocky, gravel, sandy, loamy, chalky, variable, shale, limestone, granite-laden, volcanic, dry, drained, low, hillside, erosive, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Or what combination of each and any of these things.
Terroir is about the air. By that I mean the microclimate of a small piece of the vineyard or the mesoclimate of the plot. How much sun, wind, rain or mist? Is there morning fog or a big diurnal swing in temperature (day versus night)? Does the wind blow hot or cold and at what point during the growing season? Imagine any force of nature that impacts that one piece of ground and that is terroir.
Terroir is about the Earth. Yes, the broad planetary systems of climate and the ebb and flow over time of seasonal patterns; the rising of the Sun or Moon; the geography of the area. The major influences of a Continental, Maritime or Mediterranean climate, inland or coastal location, valley or hilltop and the aspect of the vineyard – its face to the sun. These are all terroir.
But all of these physical aspects that define terroir, while the most technically correct way to look at it, still seem to miss something – the essence of the word. Terroir is a summation of the the dirt, the air and Earth, but also the culmination of hands in that dirt,
vines reaching into the air and the Earth giving life to the grapes.
Then add to this mix all of the history, culture and tradition of the particular place and what emerges is an amazing liquid.
Terroir is about the poetry of wine. It’s what makes wine a living thing.
And that is the essence of terroir.
So, what’s in a word? Many times it’s much more than just a simple definition.