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Terrific Terroir Tantalises Wine Lovers Taste Buds
Terroir is the French phrase for "soil," but when referring to wine it has a wider meaning referring to the very broad variety of conditions that apply to the growing and ripening of grapes in an exact location. Terrior is the heart and soul of what you really like about your favorite wine. Terroir is what delineates a boutique wine from a particular location or winery and gives the wine its unique taste and character. It is a combination of the soil, climate, vineyard practices and the craftmanship of the wine maker.
"Terroir determines the character of the wine, man its quality." Peter Sichel
There are some key dissimilarities in the way the term and concept of 'terroir' is used in France where it began, and how it is used in the New World - such as America and Australia.
The French definition:
A terroir is: a restricted geographic locality characterised by a human community who over their years have constructed an assembly of characteristic heritage traits, information and practices for crafting unique wines, based on a scheme of interactions between the natural environment and human factors. Applying this know-how impacts a unique and typical character to the wines produced in a locality that can be consistently recognised and trusted by consumers. Terroirs are developed from the heritage of the area, but are not fixed but are gradually evolving with the community responsible for the tradition.
In the New World (America and Australia) - the term is constrained to "all the non-human components that go into the grapes produced at a locality”
Terroir, of course, entails much more than what happens on under the surface of the soil. Properly appreciated, it entails the entire ecology of a vineyard: every facet of its surroundings from soils and bedrock, to drainage, late frosts and seasonal rainfall patterns, including the way a vineyard is tended, and the art of the vineyard manager.
The wines produced each year will be slightly different and reflect the seasonal climate and other conditions for that year. Terroir refers to the consistent year-to-year features of the grapes harvested from a locality that are imparted to the wines.
To explain the concept further the French term "terroir" when referring to wine is the unique taste of wine produced by group of vineyards from the same region, belonging to a specific appellation, and sharing the same type of soil, weather conditions, grapes and wine making savoir-faire, which contribute to give the wine its unique personality. The term can also refer to the group of vineyards, or the locality in which they occur. The French use the term as follows:
Terroir = Region + Appellation + Soil + Climate + Grapes + Wine making process + Maturing practices
The French concept of terroir is the foundation of the French wine Appellation (d'origine contrôlée) (AOC) system, which has been the model for region definitions and wine laws in Europe and around the world. At its core is the assumption that the land from which the grapes are grown imparts a unique quality that is specific to that location. Two concepts central to understanding French wines are:
- The concept of "terroir", which brings together the style of the wines and the specific locations where grape varieties are grown and the wine is made.
- The Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) system. Appellation rules closely restrict which specific grape varieties and wine crafting processes and practices are permitted in each of several hundred geographically defined appellations throughout France. These can cover entire regions, individual villages or specific localities and even specific vineyards.
In the New World the Appellation rules do not apply and the term terroir is generally restricted to the non-human factors that the soil, climate and vineyard location imparts to the wine.
Influence of the Soil and Climate on Terroir
Vines obviously grow in the ground, but it is not only the ground characteristics that effect the grape quality and the resulting wine.
Each piece of ground comes with its own climatic conditions that have a great influence over the wine's character.
The word 'terroir' covers both of these aspects, and in general reflects the 'location' where the vine grows. Terroir is what wine lovers are looking for when they find a great wine and they want to find other wines from the same area that share the same attributes. The terroir takes into account soil, slope, elevation, aspect, climate and seasonal weather patterns.
The term microclimate refers to the same thing - local, geology, soil topography and climate. The concept is based on the idea that wines from particular region should share a set of characteristics and features that are unique and consistently reflect the district in which the grapes are gown.
Terroir is the first of many other key elements contributing to a great wine. Managing the vineyard, harvesting and processing the grapes and all the skills of the wine-maker build upon the foundation of the region and local terroir.
Growing Regions in the New World Chosen to Emulate Famous French Terroirs
Many prospective wine makers in Australia began by deliberately choosing regions or districts that duplicated certain key elements of the terroir of famous French regions such as Burgundy or Bordeaux, to hopefully benefit from their success.
The prospective wine producers then chose varieties that they knew grew well under these conditions. However this duplication process can only be partially successful because of the inevitable local differences. The grapes produced in each region will feature the quintessence of the region, and will reflect the minerals of its soil, the features of the climate that affect the growing conditions, ripening and maturing of the grapes on the vine.
Websites such as www.OzWineTours.com and www.findawinery.com recognise the importance of terroir by identifying local districts and subregions within the formally defined Wine Regions in Australia.
These sites also aim to identify and describe the key terroir elements in the information that they provide about each subregion and district including: climate (seasonal temperature, sunlight and rainfall patterns), soils, aspect, topography, viticulture practices and local history.
Lets look at the elements of terroir.
Firstly soil factors contributing to Terroir:
- soil type
- soil acidity (pH)
- drainage and water holding characteristics
- mineral content and balance
- water table level
- surface water run-off pattern in and out of the site
Secondly climatic factors contributing to Terroir
- sunshine hours, cloudiness pattern
- rainfall pattern over the year
- rainfall pattern during the growing and ripening seasons
- atmospheric humidity and evaporation rate
- daily and annual temperature variations
- site aspect (slope direction, surrounding natural features such as lakes, mountains and hills).
Thirdly there are viticultural factors that are part of the 'terroir' but over which the viticulturist has at least some control over.
Some traditional viticultural techniques were largely shared throughout an area these general common techniques are included in the terroir (but individual wine making practices are excluded):
- terracing of slopes
- row direction (root shading, bunch exposure)
- surrounding trees
- fertiliser usage
- weed and pest control
- yield control
- canopy management
Does the Winemaker Contribute to Terroir?
So what about 'winemaker intervention'? Many wine tastes are drawn from essentially flavourless precursors in the grapes that are altered to aromatic and flavour features throughout fermentation and maturation.
Obviously all the major and very minor decisions made by the winemaker can alter the way the various terroir-derived tastes are expressed in the wine poured from the bottle by the consumer.
What the wine maker does to the basic raw material - the grapes produced by the viticulturalist - is not considered to be part of the terrior of the wine in Australia.
Ultimately, every individual decision a winemaker makes - such as time of picking, choice of wine making gear and processes, preservatves, maturation processes in casks and tanks, and time of racking and bottling – is an intervention.
Also, the skilled winemakers who are adept in making these decisions to enhance and develop the terroir in the raw materials will be those who get acknowledgement for their achievement and will sell their wines and prosper.
Branded Wines and Terrior
Many wine makers make brands of wine that have a very distinctive and consistent taste. For example The Casella family of the Riverina in Australia have been very successful with their 'Yellow Tail' brand which is one of Australia’s biggest export success story.
Other brands such as Jacobs Creek, Houghtons and many others have produced unique branded wines. The consistency in taste of these wines is produced by careful blending of various bulk wines.
Likewise, famous Penfold’s Grange is blended from different vineyards and different regions. It is made to a style, with significant inputs from new oak and powdered tannin. While it is made from the very best grapes, it is carefully crafted to taste like Grange, rather than expressing the character of any particular site.
It is worthwhile reviewing some definitions about wine
Appellation - The unit of a classification system based on geography, varieties, wine style, viticulture and wine making traditions (including human influences).
Terroir wine - refers to the location-specific features of local wines that are caused by non-human factors such as soil types, drainage, local micro-climate, aspect. There may be an influence from the regional grape growing practices that are common to an area, but it excludes the craft of the individual wine maker.
Commodity wine - inexpensive bulk wine purchased in most cases not for its high quality but because it is cheap and easy to drink with meals and on general occasions. It is for general consumption like milk, sugar, flour or instant coffee.
Branded wine - this refers to a wine that doesn't come from a strictly defined area of ground or location, but is produced and marketed by a brand name, ‘make’ or style. The branded wines are carefully blended to maintain a consistent taste and colour, so that consumers always get what they expect from the brand. Branded wines are typically made from grapes sourced from distant contract growers, or grapes from several local sources, which may include several vineyards owned by the same company.
Estate wine - is wine that is made from grapes from a fairly narrowly defined patch of ground, such as a handful of vineyards owned by the same estate, or sometimes several neighbouring vineyards. These wines may not strictly reflect a unique terroir because the grapes may be blended from various varieties and vineyards on the estate.
© 2010 Dr. John Anderson