This week’s question comes via email from Aaron in San Jose, CA.
What is terroir?
Not to be confused with terror or terrier dogs, the term “terroir” is something special in its own right. You may have heard this term used among “winos” and wondered what in the world it meant.
The word was first coined by the French and is used to describe a sense of place. It’s derived from the Latin word terra meaning earth or land, and there is no English equivalent for this word. It’s common to hear someone say, “this wine really shows the terroir,” meaning the wine reveals the place it came from. This can be tasted as minerality, earthiness, funk, vegetal qualities, and more.
If you taste or smell a lot of chalkiness and minerality in a wine from Chablis, you could say that the wine is expressive of its terroir because it’s expressing the chalky, Kimmeridgian clay present in the soils of Chablis. Even within a single vineyard there is varying terroir from one block to the next. Two different winemakers can source fruit from the same vineyard and the same block but the resulting wines will have different terroir.
Terroir is not limited to the vineyard where the grapes came from but the sum of all the factors contributing to the wines unique taste. This includes the soil, macro/meso/microclimates, weather, topography, farming practices, region, winemaking process, and the people involved.
The French so strongly believe in the idea of terroir that they say the mood of the people who work with the grapes and wine have an effect on the wine. If a person is angry while they work on the vines, the plant can sense that energy and it will have a negative effect on the vine’s health and growth. Some wineries in the Old World won’t even remove the mold or natural flora found in their wine caves because it contributes to the distinct character of the wine.
Terroir is as unique as an individual; you cannot copy or recreate a sense of place. Napa Valley will never be Bordeaux. Instead of trying to manipulate the environment to mimic another place, these differences should be celebrated. Each region and site has its own character that distinguishes it from any other. This is what makes wine special!