Terroir, pronounced ter-wa, means earth in French. When people use the word terroir, they are referring to the environment where the grapes are grown. Terroir is the complete picture– soil type, climate, sunlight exposure, aspect of the location, how much precipitation and when, how windy the site is– everything that affects the grapevines during the growing season.
Let’s dive into how these individual components collectively create terroir!
All plants, including grapevines, need sunlight to grow. Grapevines come out of their hibernation when the days and soil grow warmer, as winter transitions to spring. It’s much easier to grow grapes in regions with lots of sunshine, such as Spain or California because the grapes awaken earlier in the growing season. But in colder areas with fewer days of sunshine, the grapevines sleep in a bit longer, and the growing season– and subsequent harvest– butts right up against the frosty days of late fall. It can be much riskier to grow grapes in regions with fewer days of sunshine and a shorter growing season.
Higher elevations, because they are often more steeply sloped, offer better drainage, and create environments where grape plants thrive. Also, as I discussed in our Wine 101: Wine terms explained, Acidity post, grapes grown at higher elevations or where there is a greater diurnal temperature shift, tend to retain more of their natural acidity. Grape growers seek out hills and slopes because they know that over the years, the rain has carried nutrients away from these soils. Fewer nutrients mean that grapevines must work harder to find food, thereby using more resources to grow their root structure rather than their canopy. A less vigorous canopy makes grape farming much easier and ensures that grapevines have a solid foundation. As you can see, there are a lot of benefits to situating vineyards on higher elevation slopes.
Windier regions produce grapes with thicker skins and more concentrated flavors. Strong winds during the flowering stage can blow away delicate grape flowers, resulting in low yields come harvest. Wind gusts after flowering and fruit set can help prevent moisture and, subsequently mildew, as well as moderate temperatures on both cool and warm days.
Oregon’s Willamette Valley has a regular wind occurrence that funnels cooler coastal winds through a gap between the mountains called the Van Duzer Corridor. In fact, it’s such a regular occurrence during summer afternoons, you can almost set your watch to it. These breezes immediately bring the temperature down, contributing to a greater diurnal shift, along with reducing moisture levels, and forcing the grapes to grow thicker skins.
Different soil types tend to bring out different characteristics, such as more red or black fruit aromas and flavors. Some soils have higher mineral contents that are drawn up through the plants’ roots and into the developing fruit. Farming practices, such as biodynamic or organic, encourage more microbial activity and harmony between the grapevines and soil they grow in. Drainage is also very important since grapevines hate soggy “feet,” or roots. Poor drainage causes root rot, eventually killing the plants, something to avoid at all costs! There are many ways in which soil type can affect the final fruit, and farmers learn with each growing season.
Strong rains during the grape flowering stage can damage or knock off the flowers, which means fewer grapes will mature on the plant. Depending on the region, some vineyards are irrigated during the warmer months if there’s no measurable precipitation. And young grapevines need regular watering since their root structure isn’t yet fully developed. If it rains during harvest, winemakers may need to pick earlier than planned or be forced to wait until the grapes and land dry out. Excess rainwater temporarily changes the grape chemistry, along with diluting sugar and flavors, something no winemaker wants.
Climate is a combination of sunlight, wind, temperature, and precipitation. It is how these individual components– collectively called weather– affect the grapevines. It’s helpful to know what the weather was like during a specific year to discern vintage variation. Warmer years tend to make wines that are higher in alcohol and more fruit-forward. Cooler vintages produce grapes with lower alcohol levels, more natural acidity and earthy notes.
In the wine industry, terroir is intrinsically tied to the wine. Skilled winemakers often say that the wine is made out in the vineyard. Without terroir, it’s nearly impossible to describe a bottle of wine. Without terroir, how does a wine lover make an educated guess when selecting a bottle of wine for dinner? Knowing the basics about terroir really offers the best means of discerning a wine’s basic characteristics.
The more you know about a region’s terroir, the more you know about the wines produced there!
If you have questions or suggestions, please leave a comment!
Don’t miss our other Wine 101 articles:
Wine 101: Wine terms explained, Acidity
Wine 101: Wine terms explained, Mouthfeel
Wine 101: Bubbles… explained, part one
Wine 101: Bubbles… explained, part two
Wine 101: Bubbles… explained, part three
Wine 101: Wine Bottle sizes and names