Terroir is defined as the complete natural environment in which a wine is produced. It includes factors like soil, climate, and topography of a vineyard, and ultimately affects the flavor characteristics of the grapes this vineyard produces. Let’s break down the concept of terroir and dive into some of its unique elements.
Soil is typically the first thing that comes to mind when people think about terroir. There are many unique types of soils on earth, but only a few are ideal for growing wine grapes. Here are a few of the most important soil types found in high-quality wine regions:
· Sand – Sandy soils are quite common in many wine regions across the globe. Thanks to its relatively coarse texture this soil allow for water to drain away from the vine’s roots which naturally limits growth and vigor. In cool climate regions soils made primarily of sand can help retain heat, which allows grapes to achieve slightly higher levels of ripeness. These infertile soils can also prevent the spread of Phylloxera, which is a nasty parasite that can kill grape vines! Sandy soils are commonly found in parts of Australia, Spain, France, and California.
· Calcareous – Some of the greatest wines in the world start from grapes grown on calcareous soils. Limestone, or calcium carbonate as it is technically known, is one of the most important types of calcareous soil for wine growing. It is a type of sedimentary rock made up of fragments of marine organisms that slowly accumulate in warm, shallow waters over time. This type of soil will absorb minerals, retain some moisture, and provide good drainage for vines. It usually results in wines that exhibit minerality, high acidity, and sometimes even a chalky texture. Limestone is predominantly found in France in some of the country’s most famous regions such as Champagne, Burgundy, and the Loire Valley.
· Clay – Vines planted in clay soils thrive in warmer regions because the water content of clay helps them to stay cooler and more hydrated than would most other soil types. Wines coming from fruit grown in clay soils are often dense and supple, and varieties such as Merlot and Cabernet Franc tend to do well here. Clay is often found in combination with other types of soil, and it is not uncommon to encounter limestone rich clay or clay loam. Clay soils can be found throughout Spain, Australia, and Bordeaux.
· Volcanic – Soils showing heavy influence from volcanic activity are known to produce many high quality wines around the world. These soils are often comprised of basalt, granite, or ash that is rich in minerals yet low in nutrients. Volcanic soils are excellent for drainage and can bring out aromatic aromas in wine. They can also provide naturally a defense against Phylloxera similar to sandy soils. Some of the most well known wines made from volcanic soils come from Sicily, Napa Valley, and Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
Climate plays a major role in shaping the wine you consume. Wine grapes can be grown in cool, warm, and even very hot climates yet the characteristics of grapes grown in each these environments can be vastly different from one another. Here is what to expect from a few of the major winegrowing climates.
· Cool Climate – Wine grapes can struggle to ripen in cool climate wine regions. Low daytime temperatures paired with fog, marine influence, or poor weather mean that these grapes usually take much longer to accumulate sugar and typically never become as sweet as those from warmer areas. Cool climate grapes are typically picked much later in the growing season, and the longer hang time can allow for the development of complex earthy flavors. High acidity is a common characteristic of cool climate wines, which occurs because lower temperatures during the season preserve natural acid levels in the grapes as they ripen. Certain grapes like Pinot Noir, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc often thrive in cool climate regions.
· Warm Climate – In warm climate winegrowing regions grapes rarely have trouble ripening. Instead the problem is that sometimes these grapes can become too ripe! When a grape gets overripe it loses its acidity and rapidly accumulates sugar, which results in heavy feeling high alcohol wines. These wines can lack complexity and can be taxing to drink, so producers in warm climate regions must be careful to pick their grapes early enough to keep their wines in balance. Some common grape varieties that grow well in warm climates are Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and Grenache.
Topography is defined as the arrangement of natural and artificial physical features of an area, and it can play a major role in the growing environment of wine grapes. Let’s break down some of the elements of topography and what to expect from them.
· Altitude – Growing conditions for wine grapes can be majorly affected by altitude. All else being equal, a vineyard at higher elevation will experience significantly cooler temperatures than if it were to sit closer to sea level. The effect of atmosphere is less at higher altitudes, which means the sun’s rays will be more intense and can result in sunburned grapes if the canopy is not managed properly. High altitude vineyards can make it possible to grow quality wine grapes in regions that might otherwise be too hot, and often some of the greatest vineyards in warm climate regions are those found at higher altitudes. Argentina, parts of Northern Italy, and California’s Sierra Foothills all benefit from high altitude vineyards
· Mountain Ranges – Mountains can play a major roll protecting or exposing a vineyard to wind, weather, or warmth. By acting as a shield from storms and currents, or conversely funneling cold ocean air into an area, mountain ranges can drastically alter what a grape vine is exposed to during a growing season. The French wine region of Alsace, although located very far north in latitude, is actually relatively dry and warm thanks to the protection of the Vosges Mountains. Santa Barbara’s Santa Rita Hills appellation on the other hand is very cool and foggy thanks to a transverse mountain range that pushes in cold air from the sea.
· Water – Water acts as a unique moderating influence on vineyards all across the world. Many of the world’s best vineyards are planted next to bodies of water including lakes, rivers, or oceans. Since water changes temperature much more slowly than air it can help a vineyard by releasing stored heat on cold nights or cooling air on hot days. Large bodies of water can even generate their own weather patterns such as fog or wind. Water can also help to reflect sunshine onto steep hillside vineyards in northern latitudes when the sun’s aspect is lower in the sky.
While at first it can seem complex or intimidating, understanding terroir can be really fun once you understand how it affects the wine you are drinking! Next time you’re sipping on a unique and delicious bottle take a second to consider where it was grown and how terroir helped shape it into wine.
Hope you enjoyed learning a little more about terroir!