Like scads of other wine terms, ‘terroir’ (tare-WAAAH) has taken on the identity of a rather wanky buzzword. But unlike many other wine terms (got ‘legs,’ anyone?), terroir’s actually vitally important — and once you know what it means, it can tell you a lot about a wine.
French for ‘earth,’ terroir encompasses aspects of winegrowing such as climate, soil type, terrain, and altitude, and it’s an umbrella term used to describe how all of those factors (together with winemaker influence) affect the wine in the bottle.
So how do they affect said wine?
Climate affects how the fruit ripens and, in turn, the residual sugar and alcohol levels in the resulting wines. Warmer places tend to produce vino with correspondingly ripe fruit flavours and with higher ABVs (think of those big, jammy reds from Australia and especially California, where zinfandels frequently reach alcoholic heights of 15% or more), while cooler climates are more moderated, with subtler flavour profiles and typically brighter acidity (French syrah, oui?).
Limestone, granite, loam, schist — there are tons of different soil and earth types in which vines can grow, and they each play a big part in the aromas and flavours of a wine. Limestone, for example, tends to take a cue from its name and create wines with marked minerality and vibrant, mouth-puckering acidity, whereas volcanic soil (like that of the vineyards on the slopes of Sicily’s Mt. Etna) results in hyper-concentrated wines that often exhibit notes of actual ash and smoke.
And then there’s terrain. Is the vineyard at a higher altitude, which will often beget tightly focused wines with clean purity of flavour (over here, Central Otago pinot noir!)? Or perhaps the grapes are grown close to the ocean or another large body of water, where cooling breezes take the temperature down at night and produce wines beautifully balanced between acidity and ripeness.
Et voilà: now you’re a terroir expert!