Terroir: A Definition of Wine's Unique Character
You've probably heard this word from a winemaking producer, or read it in a magazine. Terroir also appears frequently on the back labels of wine bottles.
But what is the true definition of terroir? It's one of the questions I get asked the most in wine courses and on social media. The answer is not short. Terroir is one of the most complex concepts in the wine world.
Originating from the word “terre”, it means much more than land, soil or terrain. In a first approach, it can be said that terroir encompasses soil, climate, weather, flora (plants) and (fauna) animals that exist in the ecosystem.
But the people who make the wine, the decisions they make in the vineyard and techniques used in the winery, plus tradition, are also present in the concept and influence of terroir.
One way to understand terroir is to think about the soda you typically drink. No matter what factory it was made in, or where that factory is located, this refrigerant always tastes the same.
The same happens with “branded” wines sometimes produced on a large scale, no matter the year or origin, they invariably taste the same, just like your favorite soft drink.
Terroir is a French word, but even if you learn French at school, it's not enough. Terroir does not simply mean – terrain. There are no other words or languages, Portuguese, Italian, English for that matter, that accurately translates wine's terroir. The word brings together several real concepts and more “philosophical” ones. Let's take an in depth look at “translating" it.
Terroir is a term and concept that relates to the conditions where the vine is planted and with the sensory attributes of the wine - color, aroma and flavor. Its study, on a scientific basis, becomes complex because there are many factors involved.
Terroir is terrain elevation, sun exposure, soil, subsoil, water drainage and climate.
These are factors that, for example, the producer must know and consider when deciding which varieties to plant in that location. That's why it is often used when referring to the location of its vineyards where the wine grapes are grown.
The concept of terroir includes the idea that each terrain area has distinctive characteristics that no one else in the country nor in the world can produce. Therefore, the wines are equally unique and express the terroir through differentiating aromas and flavors.
What's more, imagine a wine producer planting a vineyard with your favorite grape variety on the south-facing hillside, and planting the same grape variety on the north side of the valley. In the end you will have two significantly different wines.
Grapes to ripen need two things – sun and water. The amount you get and when, will make the producer and you in your glass, have two very different wine experiences. Even though the grapes come from the same farm.
Going deeper, talking about terroir is talking about a set of factors such as topography, geology, pedology, drainage, climate, microclimate, grape varieties, human intervention, culture, history and tradition.
Humankind also plays an important role, because without it the vine would not have been domesticated nor would there be immense areas of planted vine today. Human beings have also selected the best varieties for producing quality wine throughout history.
In ancient times, the most fertile land was reserved for crops such as cereals and vines planted in the poor, rocky soils. But it didn't take long to realize that the vine was a plant with little need for water resources or nutrients.
As the wine quickly lost its quality with transport, there was a need to plant vineyards where access and distribution of wine was easy and fast.
The vines grew in a first phase, with the Romans, along navigable rivers. Later with merchants and traders at export ports and populous centers. Currently, they survive in regions (and varieties) that have proven to make quality wines.
Terroir is not regionalism
When we talk about the characteristics that each region gives to its wines, we base this on the same factors that you can easily understand and identify with that certain style of wine according to its origin.
Although you must not claim “the terroir of the region”. Do not confuse terroir with regionality or terrain typicality.
However, once you know the characteristics of each wine region, you will easily understand and identify the style of the wine and its region's origin.
For example, in Portugal when you choose a red wine from a region along the Atlantic like Lisbon, you'll enjoy different sensations in your mouth (acidity, freshness) instead of drinking a wine from Trás-os-Montes (structured body, alcohol), even though both wines are made from the same variety of wine grapes.
Conclusions about terroir
It's important to understand that most wines do not have terroir.
The grapes that make a wine with terroir come from a specific location, be it a farm or a particular section of a vineyard. Therefore, the amount of wine produced cannot be increased.
Curiously though, let me state that there is a farm in the Douro region with 28 hectares of vineyards in which eight terroirs were distinctly identified!
On the contrary, “branded” wines are produced from grapes from various locations, which can vary from year to year. The volume of production also increases (or decreases) according to market demand.
Terroir can only be understood when the soil, climate and vine are taken into account simultaneously. It's the best of nature with the best of mankind. That's why terroir is the most complex concept in the wine world.
By understanding the assumptions that underlie the terroir concept, you are already more informed than most wine consumers and I believe that you will now pay more attention to the origin of the wine you drink.
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