A generation or two ago, many wine drinkers who loved Burgundy considered a slightly funky, barnyard flavor in certain wines as a manifestation of its famed terroir. And it might have been, depending on your definition.
What they tasted was the naturally occurring, yet controversial yeast named Brettanomyces, or “Brett.” Wine purists consider Brett a deadly flaw, but many connoisseurs think, in moderation, it can be a delightful flavor component, especially in red wines.
That disparity of opinion shows how difficult it is to define “terroir.” Practically every winemaker credits terroir as the most important part of winegrowing, yet characterizations of it vary widely.
Building a definition
Until recently, a firm definition seemed unnecessary. At its most broad, terroir represents “a sense of place.”
“The notion of terroir has been with us for more than 1,000 years,” says Chris Howell, wine-grower/general manager at Cain Vineyard in Napa Valley. On occasion, Cain consciously allows Brett to ferment in its wines though this doesn’t always happen. “Long before anyone had any idea about labels, brands and marketing, certain wines were identified with where they grew.”
Simple definitions of terroir allow that a vineyard’s soil and climate contribute greatly to a wine’s flavor. Many agree with a catalog of elements listed by Ana Diogo Draper, winemaker at Napa Valley’s Artesa winery: “Soil, climate, sun exposure, slope, row orientation.”
“Being able to identify the major character of your terroir and emphasizing it into your wines is the ultimate objective of a good winegrower,” says Michele Dal Forno, of Dal Forno Romano in the Veneto region of Italy.
But what are the deeper elements of terroir, and how do they affect the composition and the taste of wine? Here are some of the most important considerations.
Soil composition: The chemical and physical makeup of the soil, like minerals, rocks and dirt, gives direction to the flavors that grapes produce.
Soil surface: The color of the soil affects its ability to absorb or reflect the sun’s heat. Surface stones retain the day’s heat into the evening.
Soil drainage: Some vines like extra moisture, while others hate “wet feet.” Generally, winemakers prefer vines be water stressed to produce more concentrated flavors.
Vegetation: Grasses and herbs between rows compete with vines for water and nutrients, but can also improve soil, increase biodiversity and help with pest management.
Microbial activities: Microscopic beings that are unique to certain locations, like yeasts and bacteria, can affect a wine’s taste.
Altitude: Generally, elevated vineyards are cooler, possibly affecting how and when grapes ripen.
Degree of slope: Steeper slopes drain well and may get stronger sunlight.
Aspect: The direction a slope faces affects the amount of sunlight vines planted on it will receive.
Coastal or continental: Vineyards near bodies of water usually experience more moderate temperature swings.
Heat: Vines flourish in moderate climates, and struggle in arctic and tropical zones.
Sunlight and daylight: The more sun a grape gets, the more sugar it produces, which affects the resulting wine’s alcohol levels. Too much can cause sunburned grapes.
Precipitation: Moderate rain/snow are necessary for vine growth, or comparable artificial irrigation.
Wind: Strong, steady winds can slow the maturation of a grape. When vines flower, wind can also cause fewer bunches to develop.
Humidity: Humid climates tend to cause more vine diseases like mildew.
Fog: Fog acts as a cooling agent and promotes botrytis in sweet-wine regions.
Day/Night temperature fluctuations: Depending on location, daily temperature swings can affect grape maturation.
Severe weather: Hail, frost, drought, floods and wildfires are the biggest threats to grape production and vine survival.
When these elements align, they are expressed in what we describe as a wine’s terroir.
Old World winemakers credit their historic terroirs for any distinctive characteristics. But in the past century, New World winegrowers began to produce highly rated wines from soils that have never grown European or Vitis vinifera wine grapes. Can they possess great terroir?
Terroir affects grapes, but how do grapes shape the terroir?
Many grape growers argue that terroir must also include the vines themselves. They say that the great terroir of Burgundy would no longer be as great if it grew Cabernet Sauvignon instead of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
“A terroir can bring excellence to life only with a very specific vine,” says Francesco Zonin, of Italy’s Zonin1821.
David Coventry of Talbott Vineyards in Monterey agrees. “Vines act like lenses that focus the power, energy and flavor of the vineyard when properly planted and farmed,” he says. Or, as Tuscan winegrower Stefano Casadei puts it, “[terroir] is simply represented by a triangle where the vertices are located: the vine, the climate, the soil.”
But what about the hands that care for the vines?
Matthieu Bordes, winemaker and general manager at Château Lagrange in St.-Julien, would add the region’s winemaking history – “something specific to them” – especially in defining classic European terroirs.
However, not everyone is convinced that people and their culture should be linked to terroir.
“I know the decisions I make about how to farm and vinify our grapes make huge differences to our wine, but I don’t consider them part of the terroir,” says Edward Boyce, co-proprietor/winemaker at Black Ankle in Maryland. “[They’re] critical, but separate.”
Peter Mondavi Jr., co-proprietor of Napa Valley’s Charles Krug, believes decision-making only goes so far.
“Terroir is the aspect of grape growing that is largely impervious and independent of human influence,” he says. “One should not fight or alter terroir.”
For centuries, people believed that a terroir’s minerals could be tasted in the glass. It’s tempting to say that a German Riesling tastes like the slate from its soil, or that we taste the chalk from where a Chablis Chardonnay is rooted.
Yet science has proven that whatever we taste—call it “minerality”—is not actually dissolved minerals passing from the soil and into the wine. It’s physically impossible.
Terroir can change over time, both as a result of man and nature.
“Change in climate is not purely a rise in average temperature, but probably more about weather accidents and sudden changes,” says Bertrand Verduzier, director of international business for Champagne Gosset.
Enough credit may not be given to fauna and flora that inhabit terroirs, whether in the winery or cave.
“Maybe terroir is really down to microbes, which thrive in rainy places, but struggle without water?” asks Boyce.
This is echoed by Royal Tokaji’s managing director, Charlie Mount. “It is very interesting to consider, in Tokaj and elsewhere, whether the indigenous yeasts and cellar fauna of any region should [or] could be classed as part of terroir,” he says. “Certainly, the unique combinations of cellar molds in Tokaj have an influence on the finished wines and are very distinctive.”
“In the New World, we have challenges to find and even define new terroir.”
Michael Twelftree, proprietor and managing director, of Australia’s Two Hands Wines brings the conversation back to Old World versus New World.
“In the Old World, people may inherit a wonderful site, but the risk, discovery and hard work tending the vineyard was taken by their ancestors many years before them,” says Twelftree. “In the New World, we have challenges to find and even define new terroir.
“Aspect, soil, weather, row orientation, clone material, trellis type, irrigation and canopy management are all done on a trial-and-error basis, with us—as in the people that work the vines—reacting to the variability of the seasons in real time.”
In essence, man simultaneously finds and creates new terroirs.
If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Perhaps a similar question could be asked of terroir. Can there be great terroir if no winegrower has yet planted that land to grapes?
Last Updated: May 4, 2023