One of the big impediments to people engaging with the wine community is the terminology. It can get complicated keeping track of some of the terms used in the industry, and it’s off-putting to listen in on a conversation that includes a ton of vernacular.
However, there’s a lot going on with wine, and some of those terms are essential to properly describe what’s happening. That’s why I like to periodically introduce some of these terms (for example, when I talked about what “dry” wine is all about).
Today I’d like to talk about another important wine term. The word is “terroir”, and no, it’s not terrifying! In fact, understanding terroir will help you understand why your wine tastes the way it does.
When you talk about the terroir of a wine, all you’re talking about is the unique set of characteristics imparted to the wine by the circumstances of its place of origin. The way the grapes are grown, the proximity to water sources such as the ocean or a river, the soil they grow in, the amount of sun they get – everything about the climate and geography of the vineyard has an impact on the ultimate taste.
Those impacts reflect themselves in more subtle notes of flavor that complement the broader taste of the wine, and the variation can be huge! A wine grown in Monterey could have hints of lemon-lime, whereas a wine from Santa Maria will tend to have more tropical flavors. In some regions, the variation can get so powerful that you’ll see a difference from the top of the slope to the bottom.
In Snake River Valley Idaho, our climate is a few weeks behind California’s in terms of when we harvest, because the cooler temperatures mean it takes longer to get to the right levels of sugar. In some ways, that’s a plus because it gives us more precise control over the alcohol content and the flavor of the fruit without having to manipulate the final product as much. The cooler temperatures also allow our vines to “go dormant” periodically, giving them a rest that makes them stronger in the long run and further modifies the flavor.
The soil here is also unique, and provides a good example of how earth plays a role in shaping the terroir of a wine. Our soil was created by two major floods and significant volcanic activity, leaving us with a loose, well-drained, high pH soil that’s great for bringing out the flavor in grapes. As an added bonus, its sandy nature leaves the region immune to Phylloxera, an otherwise-common parasite for grapes. While this doesn’t directly impact the flavor and so is not part of the terroir, it sure is handy for grape farmers in the area – over 95% of the world’s grape growing regions suffer from Phylloxera!
When wine experts are tasting wine and trying to ascertain the region it comes from, it is these hints of additional flavor that have been imparted by the terroir that they are looking for. And when growers are looking to start a new vineyard, they closely study the climate and geography of the region to get a feel for how that will impact their end product. The terroir plays a crucial role in understanding and appreciating good wine – and now you have an idea what it’s about!