Misconceptions about Terroir
Many consumers and industry service professionals mistakenly believe that “terroir” is a reference to flavors imparted directly from specific components within vineyard soils. I see all sorts of articles on terroir and soil influence driven by uninformed scientific perspective, OR some romantic version of French artistic sensibility. Both are wrong. Chalky soil does not impart “minerality” to a Chardonnay flavor profile, etc… There is no solid science that even suggests this. The only real impact of soil composition on flavors is the percentage of decomposed organic material and whether the soil drains well, or not. Fertile soils that hold too much water, tend to produce grape-juice-tasting wine that has very little structure. Rocky, sandy, and/or chalky soils drain well, causing the vines to “stress” and produce smaller berries, concentrated/complex flavors and varied wine textures.
How do Terroir Influences Actually Affect Flavors?
Terroir is a holistic view of environmental influences that impact flavors in wine. There are many very real examples:
- More sunshine produces riper grapes. Less sunshine produces less-ripe grapes. Riper fruit drives lower acidity, but more developed phenolics (complex flavors). Less-ripe grapes have more acid, but also less developed phenolics. This helps to explain why some varietals produce fantastic wine from vineyards planted on angled terrain, facing south, in cooler climates. This terroir influence adds increased sun exposure, with cooler evenings and great water drainage, adding acidity and structure with phenolic development – all good characteristics in the production of quality red wines. Although… stop and think for a second. A wine grower has significant influence over this equation. What if a vineyard is planted on flat, rocky land with a shaded southern exposure in a HOT climate? Some reds can grow well in these conditions, especially if the varietal selected has a relatively short growing season. In this scenario, grapes requiring a longer growing season would not deliver enough phenolic development to make premium quality wines. So, the simple decision of which grape varietal to plant at a specific vineyard location can affect the flavors in the wine.
- Cool evenings, or especially foggy mornings can play interesting games with wine grapes. Consistent fog in the mornings during growing season in a warm climate can produce surprisingly interesting wine from Pinot Noir. If there is enough total sunshine to at least minimally ripen the grapes, these vineyards often produce wildly varying flavors and very high acidity. Bold red varietals in particular enjoy consistent warm days, cool nights and low rainfall. The perfect conditions to produce highly developed flavors and high acidity.
- The winemaking styles in the region (component of Terrior) can also significantly affect the wine. Some areas promote non-interventionist winemaking. Taking this idea as far as allowing natural fermentation versus controlling the yeast additive. Controlling the yeast delivers a more consistent product with less vintage variation year to year. There are many other examples of winemaking influence. Some areas prefer Pergola, or Gobelet style vine trellising, versus the more common Guyot. This changes the shading coefficient of the grapes, affecting the ripeness and phenolic development of the fruit.
Why is Terroir Important to the Wine Drinker?
There are specific characteristics derived from unique terroir. In general, I am not a huge fan of the kind of variation you will see in French Bordeaux wines in general, BUT I do enjoy wines from specific vintages in particular Bordeaux wine regions. The better Saint Estephe producers tend to have a middle palate of graphite and tobacco flavors which I enjoy. Quality Margaux producers tend to be a touch more fruit forward and highly textured. Pomerol produces the best Merlot in the world, hands down. Merlot based wines, when grown in regions that can produce acidic and tannic structure, produce some of the best wines in the world… and the most expensive. Chateau Petrus is the example here at $2,000+ per bottle.
Why should you care about this topic? This gets back to the idea of following the fruit… The suggestion that tracking wines from a particular vineyard, or designated AVA/AOC area can be an effective tool in selecting wines you will enjoy. Following producers that source their fruit from these vineyards/regions can be an effective method for finding wines to purchase, without wasting a lot of money trying wines that do not match your palate.
Terroir IS a Legitimate Concept
Is Terroir some hokey idea introduced by the French to romanticize wine tourism? NO! Unfortunately, there has been a rampant misunderstanding of what Terroir represents. The feeling of “Place” when tasting a wine is very real. Invest in some formal training and find out for yourself…