It is a word you have read in wine books and restaurant wine lists, but your French is a bit rusty and you are not sure about the meaning of it? Well don't panic, I've got you covered... Let's take a look at the definition of terroir.
Climate, Location & Traditions: the 3 Pillars of Great Wines
In the Old World, we believe that wine is greatly influenced by the place where it comes from, and trust me, there could be a thousand boring bits to explore there for an exact definition of the word, but at FVB, we just want to focus on the fun part of wine.
So terroir can be seen as a sort of a package, a bit like a GPS that would also give you the weather forecast. It is an ancient European belief that climate, location (including special geographical features) & traditions are the three pillars of great wines. That is to say that when you consider planting vines in a place, you would first have to know its soil types, overall climate & pick a suitable grape for a desired style of wine. And this led us to the now famous AOC system.
AOC, DO, DOC, DOCG, DOCa... The Consecration of the Terroirs of Europe
If you are used to drinking New World wines, where the grape variety is often the selling point and main feature on the label, you might feel a wee bit lost when you get to the "Old World" section of your local wine shop. To make it simple, if wine is made of grapes (I assume you know that bit), time has shown us that their place of origin would vastly influence the final style of the wine produced from these grapes.
We know that each grape has a preferred type of environment, for instance winemakers say that "Syrah likes a view" since it gives better results on hill slopes and at slightly higher altitudes, Cabernet Sauvignon thrives on hot soils, like the gravelly soils of the left bank in Bordeaux, it hates to have "wet feet", and prefers the good drainage found there. Pinot Noir is usually encountered on marl soils in cooler climate areas and so on...
Once you found a suitable combination of the three elements of terroir (climate, location & tradition/grape variety), one should be able to produce healthy fruits that express aromas from that land. On the image below, you will find the main aromas that the Terroir can bring to a wine, it should help you to identify them in the future:
A full-size version of the above chart can be found here
Going to a Wine Region on Holiday? Here is What to Look For!
If you are lucky enough to be going to a wine region for your next holiday, you can witness some elements that make this terroir unique. And once you've seen them with your own eyes, it will be way easier to perceive them in the wines too!
Some of the main influences on the wines can be:
Rivers, Oceans & Other Bodies of Water: proximity with water usually brings a certain regulation of the climate; cooling effect in the hot months; keeping the temperature above zero in the hard winters. During the ripening season of the grapes, cooler nights balance the heat of the days and slows down the ripening process. This often leads to better acidity levels, sugars & aromas, leading themselves to better wines. For the Maritime climate of Bordeaux, the Basque Country or Galicia, the Atlantic Ocean is often a major player along the coastal vineyards of Europe. Inland, lakes & rivers are also very important, the most famous one probably being the Douro in Portugal (Port & Douro) leading to the Duero in Spain (Rueda, Toro, Ribera del Duero...).
Mountains, Hills & Altitude: The idea is pretty similar to the cooling effect of water, vineyards located at higher altitudes tend to enjoy cooler temperatures even though the hours of sunshine can be great. Some grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Malbec, love big amounts of sunlight to fully ripen, however, too much heat can lead to overripe grapes that lack acidity - i.e flabby wines. The vineyards of the Ribera del Duero DO in Spain, with their altitude of up to 900m above sea level, manage to produce very elegant reds with great finesse in a super sunny Continental climate. Hills are usually sought after for their slopes, especially those with a South-Western exposure in our part of the world (Northern Hemisphere). From Burgundy to the Rhone Valley & Alsace in France, Mosel in Germany and many many more, these south-west facing slopes are home to the best Grand Cru areas...la creme de la creme!
Forests & Rainshadow Effect: The Vosges Mountains that run along the border between the Alsace region and the rest of France is a great example of a "rainshadow effect". It prevents the rain & mists from going any further inland, resulting in a wet side of the hill to the West, and a dry side of the hill to the East, with great growing conditions. With the black forest seating on the next hills attracting the evaporation of the Rhine river, it's a perfect setup! A similar effect is found in the North of Spain, where the Pyrennées Mountains protect the Rioja from Atlantic winds, or in Puglia, the "heel of the boot" for Italy, trapped between the Appennines Mountains and the Adriatic Sea.
There are a lot of other factors, the colour of the ground is often an indication of its mineral content, but that's about to become technical and half boring, so that's all for today! I hope this helped, cheers guys!
Certified Sommelier (CMS)