If you have ever talked to a wine professional (maybe, you are one), you may have heard of the term “terroir.” According to Merriam-Webster’s definition, terroir is the combination of factors including soil, climate, and sunlight that gives wine grapes their distinctive character. So naturally, this concise definition is vague regarding how terroir affects grapes.
This article intends to delve just one level deeper and expound on precisely what “factors” influence the “distinctive character of the grape/wine” and how a distinctive character of one region may differ from the other.
So, let’s ‘talk terroir.’
To simplify a rather complex subject, I frame the conversation of distinct terroirs in terms of the grape’s physiological ripeness. This ripeness is the moment in the harvest when the grape’s structural components, water, sugars, acid, tannins (for “black grapes,” e.g., Cabernet Sauvignon), and flavors are perfectly balanced. When is that? Well, that isn’t easy to quantify…
If you pick the grape before this “magic moment” of ripeness, it is underripe, or ‘green’ has high acid and hasn’t developed the flavors/tannins. On the other hand, if you pick the grape after this window, you may find it too high in sugar (which leads to high alcohol wines), raisined or cooked flavors, and low acid. The wine will be off-balance, like yours-truly after the third bottle of Gruner, and will be “hot’, “prune-y’ or jammy
A long-winded metaphor for Ripeness
It’s like to view terroir and physiological ripeness in racing terms. Odd, I know, but humor me…
Let’s say you are at a racetrack and must complete a race within a specific time window. Go too fast, and you will complete the race too early. Go too slow, and you will not complete the race at all. Given this challenge, you need to account for all the elements of the track, the car you chose, your ability to drive, your brakes, and the amount of fuel you use. Only once you understand this can you achieve success in your task. Vineyard managers/vignerons make the same considerations in their vineyards.
Note: These are certainly not all of the influences on grape growing. Just the ones the author considers most pertinent.
The grape is the vehicle you chose. Grapes have different ripeness levels and require different amounts of heat, sunlight, and nutrients to get ripe. Some ‘accelerate’ early ‘and ‘race fast,’ so you have to use the environment to slow them down. Others are too slow, so you must ensure they make it before it is too cold.
The soil helps regulate the intake of nutrients and water for the roots. Many great wines are grown in poor soils found on a hillside, while many mass-produced wines are grown on flatlands with fertile soils. Why is that? Poor soils regulate water and nutrient intake better, while fertile soils store and release it all at once.
Suitable for the vine, not for the wine.
Rain is sporadic, and some areas of the world get more rain than others. When paired with clay soils that retain water well, rain can give the vine too many nutrients and force it into growing more leaves than grapes, which is not ideal for us to reach ripeness. If there is a lot of rain during the ripening period, you can also get large fleshy grapes that would lead to a watery wine. Also, wet conditions and low air circulation would lead to fungal disease.
Some vineyards have breezes, and others have winds. If you are in a moist environment, you want some airflow to keep the vine dry and restrict mold growth. On the other hand, a ferocious wind may tear out a vine and damage a vineyard if there is no protection from it.
The more sun the vine gets, the more ripeness is accelerated. Some vines need a lot of sunlight; others can do better with less. If you go higher in elevation, the UV concentration is higher, and ripeness is better (but it’s also colder, so there is some acid-ripeness balancing going on)
Aspect is basically “at what angle are you planting the vineyard” and which direction is your vineyard facing. It is a determining factor when considering how warm your vineyards get from the sun and how much sun your vineyard gets. More angular vineyards, like those on hills, get more sunlight than flat plains. Vineyards that (In the Northern Hemisphere) are on hills that face south get more warmth than those facing North (and vice versa in Southern Hemisphere). If your vineyard faces East, it gets the rising sun, which is suitable for drying off any excess moisture and preventing diseases. It also tends to be cooler in the mornings, so the ripening happens under ideal conditions. Conversely, Western-facing vineyards get more warmth and heat and can become overripe if not carefully managed.
Bodies of Water:
A lake/river next to the vineyard cools the area in the daytime while warming the area at night. A body of water will stabilize your top speed as you approach ripeness if you are generally in a warmer place. A lake also reflects sunlight, which benefits photosynthesis, the primary energy source for plants.
The higher you go, the colder it is. So if you are in a hot area, like Argentina, you may want to climb the mountain ranges and plant your vineyards to ensure your grapes ripen slower and have more time to develop all the necessary flavors.
The Human Aspect:
Yes, it’s not all about the car; the driver is also vital. The person/people managing the vineyard also play a crucial role in achieving optimal ripeness. There are a lot of levers a vineyard manager can pull to speed up or slow down the ripening process. If it’s too dry in your area, add some water (Note: Irrigation is not allowed in Europe). Is it too hot in your area? Position the vine leaves to shade the clusters of grapes. Need more air circulation? Position the vine higher from the ground to have more air come in. Too cold in your area? Position the grapes closer to the ground as heat travels up, and there will be less distance between the heat and grapes. Too many leaves growing on your vine? Lop some of those leaves off to ensure that grapes get the nutrients. Too many grapes? Cut some grapes off to ensure there is not too much competition for energy. You can plant vines closer or further away to promote competition for nutrients in nutrient-rich soils or reduce it in nutrient-poor ones. These are just a few things a vineyard manager can do to achieve ripeness, and I am sure I am missing a few other influences. Still, I think it is essential to understand that the human is a vital and sometimes most influential component of terroir.
Is Terroir Real?
High-quality wines can and should show a sense of place. At the top level, certain areas are more suitable for growing grapes than others. Cooler-climate spots are ideal for Pinot Noir, warmer places; Cabernet Sauvignon. On one hillside, you can have three or four faces that receive the sun differently and get hit by the wind differently. As a rule of thumb, nutrient-poor soils are better than nutrient-rich soils, but there are apparent exceptions to this rule. And, of course, the hotter the planet gets, the more people need to start getting involved and figuring out how to grow great grapes in our changing climate.
There are also plenty of unique producers within a singular location who the concept well. Read the article on Nicolas Joly for an example.
In the end, terroir may seem just philosophical, but it is far more. The conversation about unique vineyards and sites known for their ‘terroir’ may sound pretentious. Still, it is trying to counterbalance the production of millions of homogenous ‘Coca-Cola’ wines. Discussions around terroir stem from love and enjoyment of wine and the desire for the wine to reflect the region. They don’t teach this in a wine business class, but I am all for it.
The only question left is…
Now that you understand terroir, is it important to you?