All about terroir & its impact on wine

I confess I have long been a great fan of terroir. I use the expression quite liberally in my unique tasting notes but there are many who think the term over-used and the concept over-rated, little more than a marketing ploy. So what exactly is terroir and why is it such a topic of hot debate?

What is terroir?

Terroir determines the quality of the grapes grown and therefore is a significant contributor to the character of a wine. Terroir is not as many think only about the soil in the vineyard; soil is just one component. It is in fact the whole 'natural' environment in which the grapes are grown and therefore comprises:

  • the soil

  • the general regional climate

  • the vineyard's meso-climate

  • the vine's micro-climate

  • the topography of the land - aspect, elevation, incline, proximity to water etc

  • the surrounding vegetation which can affect not only the local climate but also the taste of the wine e.g. the taste of eucalyptus often detected in Australian wine

  • plus the combination and interaction of all these components for example in governing how much direct sunshine the grapes see and in dictating how much water is available to the vines etc.


Note: Contrary to popular belief, it is not well-watered vines on fertile soils that produce the best fruit but the vines on well-drained soils that have to struggle to find water

Therefore each vineyard (or each plot within a vineyard) has its own unique terroir and this is what makes each well-made wine unique.

Some argue that the wine-making process is also part of terroir but for most people in the wine world 'natural' is the key word and terroir is just about the naturally-occurring elements that affect the wine. Though of course some elements of terroir can be affected by human intervention such as the addition of fertilisers and pesticides, how densely the vines are planted, which training system is used for the vines etc.


Old World vs. New World

It is not as some have suggested pretension that dictates the use of the French word "terroir" in the English-speaking world; there is simply no one word that can describe the concept in English. It originated in wine's Old World such that many regional wine classifications in Europe are based upon terroir, for example all the small 'parcel' vineyards of Burgundy.

There has been much snobbery around the New World being devoid of or ignoring terroir and it could be argued that that was why cheaper, more commercially-produced wines were the focus for New World exports to Europe from the 1980s to the 2000s. It could however just be that they wanted to do something different from the Old World or, as was the case with South Africa, that they had to meet strict quotas and regulations that encouraged bulk wine production.


Note: The more generic the wine classification on the label e.g. Wines of South Africa or South Australia vs. Stellenbosch or Adelaide Hills, the more entry-level or commercially-produced the wine is likely to be. This is also likely to be reflected in the price!


Globalisation vs. regionality in wine

In the 2000s as techniques improved in the vineyards and in the wineries so did wine quality in general. You might think that the differences in wine from their unique terroir would have become more evident as a result but what in fact happened was that wine became increasingly standardised as similar growing and production techniques were adopted across the wine world. This meant rather ironically that differences in terroir became masked.

Now, luckily for us all, there is a real return to making wine that reflects its terroir certainly at the premium end of the market, the main driver being producers wanting to make their wine stand out in a crowded market place.

The New World is now reducing the size of many of its previously industrial-sized vineyards, moving out of the hotter, often lower sites into higher altitude, cooler climate areas, considering the best sites for specific grape varieties and developing single-vineyard wines.

Even some Old World areas that were less concerned with terroir are now joining the trend. For example Austria and Germany are adopting a Burgundy-style classification for its top sites. And in Rioja they now allow sub-regional designations like village and single vineyard names in addition to the existing generic Rioja DOCa. Previously any reference to a village or vineyard could only be on the label if in smaller font than the word "Rioja".

In an area where most winemakers blend wine originating from several vineyards, this is causing some controversy. The main rebel, described as "Rioja's number one terroirist" by Robert Parker is Telmo Rodriguez whose terroir-focused Rioja Lanzaga we stock as it was his "Matador Manifesto" that demanded the changes.

The growing importance of terroir in Spain has been recognised by the Wine Spectator magazine which wrote “Spain is probably the most dynamic wine country in Europe right now, thanks to people like Rodriguez and Eguzkiza and a younger generation that is following their example. They want to prove that Spain is not just a source for value, but a land with incredible terroirs.”

The terroir revival - here to stay?

So terroir is back in fashion but is it becoming a truly global wine concept?

Not quite... Some consumers - and some markets in general - are more brand-driven and they are unlikely to change their tastes quickly or easily. Each to their own as they say - but it is generally the branded, more commercially produced wines that lack complexity and remain consistent year on year.

For those like me terroir never went out of fashion since terroir is after all responsible for producing the individual character of a well-made wine. Such wines are typical in general of their terroir and differ each year according to the vintage conditions and therefore show originality. Producers of these wines also tend to interfere less with their wine in the winery; minimal intervention is something else of which I approve.

So if you like to see more character and complex aromas and flavours in your wine, join the terroiristas!


© Wines With Attitude Limited,

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Lindsay Cornelissen DipWSET is passionate about good quality wine and set up Wines With Attitude to share that passion with other wine lovers.

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