Wine 101: Terroir (or: This Was Fresh Ground This Morning!)

by Elton Nichols on December 16, 2010 | (1) Comment |

If you want an easy way to sound like a seasoned wine veteran, casually mention “terroir”. It’s a simple and integral, yet often overlooked, aspect of wine making that will score you instant points with wine professionals and make hot girls swoon over your sexy wine skills (though more the former than the latter).

Great wine starts from the ground up!

The famous Terra Rossa soil of Coonawarra, South Australia

Terroir simply refers to all of the factors that make an agricultural product taste different if it were to be grown in a different place in the world.  Terroir as applied to grapes would include factors such as elevation, average daily temperature, difference between daytime and nighttime temperature, rainfall and latitude (prime quality wine grapes are usually found between 30-50° North or South;  too close to the equator is too hot, too far is too cool).  When we got to soil composition that’s when the debate got heated.

How much difference could a different soil actually make?  Every soil type has specific properties that promote or suppress the various natural characters of the grapes grown there.  Think of how much easier it is to run on hard packed sand than it is to run down a soft sandy beach?  Or what about how walking barefoot on white sand is easier than black rock on a sunny day?  Not to mention the amount of water retention that each soil type has.  If you were a thirsty plant and your roots hit a segment of soil filled with water you would need look no further, but if you were in well draining soil with a deep water table you would have to grow very long roots to survive.  It is a well known fact that lazy vines that aren’t stressed make less concentrated flavors in their fruit and therefore simpler, cheaper wines.

So those are ways that influence how a grape would taste, but what about those crazy sommeliers that claim to actually taste the rocks and stones in their wine?!  Well, there is no denying that the minerals that the roots harvest become a portion of the mass of the plant, but it’s hard to make people really believe that those minerals would still taste the same after being processed and broken apart by a plant.  My answer to that: grapes don’t get washed off after harvesting!

Think about it, if a winemaker washes their grapes off they run the risk of watering down their wine.  Water on the outside could be absorbed into the grape itself, or could simply collect in the vat with the grape juice.  Who would want watered down wine?  It is just like preparing a mushroom to cook, you want it clean but not waterlogged and mushy.

So if a grape isn’t washed off then anything on the outside of that grape will become a part of your wine.  Minerals and dirt kicked up by the harvest crew, the eucalyptus trees surrounding your vineyard, the salty seawater air blowing in from the coast less than a mile away;  all of the things surrounding the grape during its growing season become a part of the finished product, and that to me is the essence of terroir.  If done properly no other bottling of wine before or since will ever be exactly the same as the one you have created.  However if you realize that your particular terroir would just make your beverage taste horrible then you may just decide to add artificial lime flavoring and tack on the word “Chill”.  Just saying.

One response to “Wine 101: Terroir (or: This Was Fresh Ground This Morning!)”

  1. […] quaking in their boots, but many of them are looking over their shoulder.  Grower Champagnes are terroir driven.  They are from a specific place and show the universe from the perspective of that one location […]