Terroir is a French term that denotes that the sum of the effects of the climate, geology, and geography of a precise site bestows certain unique characteristic qualities that are specific to that region or site. It can be very loosely translated as “a sense of place.” The concept of terroir is at the base of the French wine Appellation d’origine controlee (AOC) system that has set the standards for appellation and wine laws around the world.
The major components of terroir are geology (the soil’s basic physical and chemical characteristics) and local topography (altitude, slope, and aspect) combined with the effects of the climate (measured by temperature and rainfall), sunlight, and hydrology (the soil/water relationship). An essential concept of terroir is that all of its components are natural.
Other factors that should also be considered are decisions regarding pruning, irrigation, time of harvest, use of oak, type of yeast, length of maceration, time of contact with the lees, temperature during fermentation, as well as processes like micro-oxygenation, chaptalization, clarification with fining agents, and filtration.
Terroir has been a controversial topic in the wine industry, especially when associated with the Old World versus New World approach to wine and the philosophical and commercial differences between the two.
Neal Rosenthal, one of the most highly-regarded importers of terroir-driven French and Northern Italian wine, speaks of terroir in his book “Reflections of a Wine Merchant- On a lifetime in the vineyards and cellars of France and Italy”: “I have a distinct preference for the traditional wines of western Europe and a matching skepticism about most of the wines produced in the New World as well as for those wines made in the Old World that seek to imitate the characteristics of their New World brethren. My perspective, once so common in the wine trade, is now shared by a small, probably aging, minority of the wine merchants. Nevertheless, I am content with my choices.
“To contemplate the reasons why a wine made from the chardonnay grape planted on a particular hillside in the Cote d’Or of Burgundy differs so markedly not only from its kin harvested on a slope in Australia thousands of miles and a hemisphere away but also from its sister wine made from grapes harvested by the same grower just meters away is to begin to grasp the logic of the phenomenon known as terroir. The concept that the particulars of a zone- the combination of soil, climate, grape type, and perhaps, human history- are responsible for producing very special characteristics that are unique to a quite specific spot turns the consumption and the study of wine, as well as the commerce in it, into more fascinating and ultimately more satisfying activities. It also reveals the truth about wine and anchors us to a respect for the natural world that is fundamental to our well-being. The most satisfying of wines reveal their characters slurp by slurp as they speak of their origins and their traditions. The best of wines always proudly tell you from where they come.”