Oh, that elusive reference wine drinkers make to “terroir” sets my wine 101 readers to wonder…what the heck is this person trying to say with that one word? Short answer: Everything that went into getting that grape to become that wine.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, terroir is “The complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate.”
However, when you hear a wine drinker espouse on the benefits of a Pinot Noir from Burgundy over the same wine made stateside, it could mean more than that simple description to them. It’s the same grape but grown and turned into wine in two very different regions. And some wine aficionados may be able to discern one from the other based their own drinking experience and preference.
Let me explain.
Of course the soil and weather in one place is not completely one hundred percent duplicable in another. And if you are a Francophile (a lover of French things) you may appreciate French wines over domestic wines. This could be for reasons of respect for the longtime French winemaking history, and/or because you truly believe that the French make a better Bordeaux then we make here with our grapes that also make up our domestic Bordeaux and Bordeaux blends. (According to Wine Spectator, The Grapes of Bordeaux, March 29, 2007, The red wines of Bordeaux rely primarily on three grapes—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc—though Petit Verdot and Malbec are also permitted and grown in tiny amounts.)
With that said, a person referring to terroir may be referring to the winemaking history and growing practices of a specific region. The roots have been underground a lot longer in what is referred to as the “Old World” (Europe) wine grape growing regions over the “New World” (everywhere else, including: USA, New Zealand and Australia) regions, giving an old world wine a feeling of more substance, to some.
Often an aficionado is thinking of more about what’s in the dirt too – substances such as shale, limestone, sandstone, clay and more.
And, as far as weather, knowing that one year was particularly wet or dry can also affect the terroir in a wine.
A Sense of Place
More often I find people referring to terroir in a more romantic sense. A French Bordeaux reminds them of a long-ago wine trip to the region. The aromas coming from a Sauvignon Blanc that was aged in a stainless steel tank, may bring up strong memories in the taster of a wet gravel driveway leading up to the winery.
A person referring to terroir can be thinking of everything that went into making that wine – including the winemaker. If they are familiar with a winemaker’s work, they may be able to detect a new winemaker, or the handiwork of a new assistant winemaker, in the “mix.”
In conclusion, please feel free to use the term terroir in describing what you think affected the wine you are drinking. Does your South African Cabernet Sauvignon express stronger aromas of soil over a Cab from Napa Valley? Is there more structure in your Old World Bordeaux? It’s all up to you, and your own personal perceptions of terroir.
Eve Bushman has been reading, writing, taking coursework and tasting wine for over 20 years. She has obtained a Level Two Intermediate Certification from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust, has been the subject of a 60-minute Wine Immersion video, authored “Wine Etiquette for Everyone” and recently served as a guest judge for the L.A. International Wine Competition. You can email Eve@EveWine101.com to ask a question about wine or spirits that may be answered in a future column. You can also seek her marketing advice via Eve@EveBushmanConsulting.com