Terroir is a simple seven letter word yet it is probably the single most important concept in the world of fine wine. It also has impacts in other agriculture such as coffee, chocolate, hops and tea. If you are a wine lover you have probably run across the word and “kind of-sort of” know what it is. Terroir is like the wind, you know it’s there but you can’t see it.
Very loosely translated, terroir is considered a “sense of place”. This involves several factors such as wind, rainfall, sunlight, soil…. It is the sum effects that the local environment has had in producing the grapes. The French and other Europeans have embraced this idea for hundreds of years. This is the base of the French wine Appellation d’origine controlee (AOC). AOC is also the model of just about every other countries appellation system.
Terroir is why many European wines have in the largest print on the label the area or AOC it is grown in. Such as Chablis, Margaux, Vouvray, Chianti… The reason this is in large print and the actual producer is often in tiny print is because they believe that terroir is the single most important thing to consider when buying, selecting or making a wine. The Europeans have discovered that different areas make different wines and through hundreds of years of trial and error, they have chosen specific grapes and techniques that work best in each region. Even to the extent that they impose often times very strict rules for the farmers and producers in the area. This concept is starting to take root in new world regions such as California. Napa Valley, Sonoma are just two examples. If fact, these broad regions are being broken down to small regions such as Stag’s Leap District, Howell Mountain. Even down to individual vineyards just like the top French wines do.
Terroir is why specific regions make wines that are very different even though the winemaker has used the same winery practices. Places such as Burgundy have many terroirs that can be very small. Sometimes a road, or a small hill may mean you have entered a different AOC. Some regions command massive prices because of terroir. The rare places on earth that are known to make world class wines, such as Napa Valley, certain regions in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo… have land prices that are astronomical because these specific terroirs are very rare.
Next time you try a wine, consider the terroir and history of a site and how it affected your wine. This will open up a whole new world of wine. It will help you appreciate your wine even more.