Welcome to the first edition on Wine WTFs! In this new series we’ll explore wine terms and ideas and try to figure out what the fuss is all about.
This installment is all about a wine term with some controversial baggage. For professional winos it’s a revered term that is, ultimately, what all winemakers aim to pay homage to. For more casual drinkers it’s almost completely avoided and when it is used it’s usually to make fun of the more pretentious wine types.
Have and idea of what we’re talking about today?
So, what is terroir exactly?
In short, terroir is everything.
I know! That sounds so glib, but hear me out.
Terroir encompasses everything in a vine’s environment. The soil, the climate, the weather, the water source (and quality!), even things like how steep the vineyard is and how that affects how the sun hits the vines. All these things affect how the grapes grow and taste.
See what I mean? EVERYTHING.
Why terroir is special
Terroir is special because when it comes down to it wine is a product of its surroundings.
Terroir is talked about as a sense of place, which is the holy grail in wine-land. I think this is where things start to sound snobby. It’s not like people expect to sip a glass of red Burgundy and be able to taste the dirt it grew in, but it is pretty special to be able to taste one and immediately recognize it for what it is. This is what the pro winos mean when they talk about terroir – what is it that makes this wine distinctive? What is it about the combination of place, grape and winemaker that makes this wine unique? In some ways the best wines are the ones where the winemakers were the best at just getting out of the way and letting the wine shine through. Not all wines exhibit distinct terroir, but the ones that do are pretty beloved and (surprise!) tend to garner higher prices.
So yeah, it’s a snobby term, but it’s a useful one too.
Terroir in the real world
You can probably find the clearest example of terroir worldwide in chardonnay.
First of all, chardonnay is grown in every single wine region. Hot, cold, mountainous, flat, rainy, dry, it grows everywhere. It’s like a blank canvas for winemakers to paint terroir all over.
For example, there’s Chablis. Hanging out in North East France, the soil in the region of Chablis is called alluvial. This basically means that eons ago (like, actual eons) the region used to be a river bed, and once the river dried up it left alluvial soil in its wake. Alluvial soils often give a minerality to their wines, and that’s exactly what the soil in Chablis gives. Chablis wines (and most white Burgundies) have a steely minerality that is distinct to this region.
Or, you know, terroir.
Then there’s California. Have you ever been to California? It’s HOT. Like, hot even in January hot. This heat means that the grapes grown there have the ability to get really ripe, giving them unique flavours specific to their growing region. Fruit on the palate start to taste more ripe, even a little jammy or stewed or baked, and you start to get flavours like orange, peach and papaya as opposed to lemon and lime. And all because of what?
Say it with me now – terroir.
And we can’t forget about my wine backyard, Niagara. Being close to Lake Ontario, Niagara’s growing season is extended from that of places nearby. The lake also helps protect vines from frost and often delays budburst in the spring. This means Chardonnay grapes have a shorter growing season that, say, California, even though summer temps in Niagara can get pretty hot. All of this means Chardonnay from Niagara comes bursting with citrus and a lovely purity in the fruit character. And can you guess why?
You know it – terroir!
See what I mean? Terroir really is a thing, and it’s pretty cool. Don’t get the wrong, the grapes and the winemaker both play integral parts too, but they both work in tandem with the uncontrollable, sometimes intangible terroir.