Delving Into the Intriguing Concept of Terroir

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GrapevineThere are many wine terms tossed around that are useful to describe wine. I’ve referred to a number of them in previous columns.

Some of the terms describe style: austere, fruit-forward, bold, flabby. Some describe the inherent components of a particular grape varietal: tannic, acidic, complex, bitter. Others describe characteristics: soft, dry, sweet, alcoholic. Still others describe taste and aroma: blackberries, chocolate, smoky, citrus.

This week we are going to explore a term that is all encompassing in defining the distinction of one wine over the next. It is a term that has become popular in wine circles in the last few decades and is increasingly referred to in the lexicon of mainstream wine lovers. The term is terroir (tair-wahr).

For centuries wine producers have been seeking the perfect combination of grape variety and growing conditions to achieve the best wine suited for their locale. To understand the meaning of terroir is to understand the region from which a wine is produced. Each vineyard in a region has its own unique combination of soil, atmosphere, humidity, wind, altitude and exposure to the sun. The unique combination of these factors produces unique bottlings.

Nature is the overriding influence on wine, while winemakers add the nurturing aspect. The planting and cultivation in particular vineyards, coupled with a winemaker’s influencing hand in the winery, have a significant impact on the end product in the bottle.

A fundamental example of this concept of terroir is the Napa Valley winemaking region. When we taste a Cabernet Sauvignon, we discern a difference in one produced in California compared to another from South Africa, Chile or nearby Washington state.

Here are several of the many components of terroir that distinguish Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from other regions.

First, geology’s role. Grapevines produce the most suitable grapes when they are stressed. Give them rich, loamy soil that is full of nutrients and retains moisture and they live a life of ease and luxury, producing large quantities of foliage and fruit.

However, give them rocky soil with clay or volcanic components that are fast draining and nutrient deprived and they fight a battle every day to perpetuate their species, so to speak. Thus, the crop is typically smaller, but the grapes are more concentrated and dense, with juice and skins that are more flavorful. This type of soil produces intense wines with complex flavors and deep tannins – the secret to Napa Valley’s success with Cabernet Sauvignon.

Second, geography’s role. Let’s focus on three of the many factors affected by geography.

One, climate. Napa Valley is close to the Pacific Ocean and benefits from morning fog and afternoon sea breezes. The moisture in the morning nourishes the grapevines and the breezes keep the vines cool from the intense sun in the afternoon. The closer to the ocean, the richer and more supple the Cabernet.

Two, altitude. On the valley floor, the growing conditions are ideal (less stress). The higher the elevation, the greater the variation in soil due to erosion and rock formations (more stress). The result: rich, supple Cabernets from the valley floor and rich, more complex, tannic Cabernets from the slopes.

Three, sun. The valley floor receives the benefits of the sun all day long, while the vines grown on the east- or west-facing slopes surrounding the valley only receive sun in the morning or the afternoon, depending on their location. Result: Cabernets from the valley floor tend to be richer and simpler (less stress), while on the hillsides the Cabernets tend to be more complex (more stress).

California winemakers have adopted their own term in place of terroir. For them, this unique combination of factors is a function of microclimate. But, regardless of the terminology, winemakers worldwide recognize the interaction of nature and man and attempt to harmonize the varying components of our planet to produce wines of distinction for their locale.

Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and Program Director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at or on Twitter @sharingwine.

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