The Terrain of Terroir

What is Terroir - (Teh wah)

The most discussed aspect of wine and winemaking is the notion of terroir. A French word with the meaning ‘soil’ or ‘Earth’.As time and winemaking have evolved the word itself is expanding beyond any one interpretation. Terroir now includes soil in a specific region, the climate, local weather

As time and winemaking have evolved, the word itself has expanded beyond any one interpretation. Terroir now includes soil in a specific region, the climate, local weather behavior, the vineyard design and the level of human intervention. Simply put the devil is in the details.

Here are the four basic steps that inform our idea of Terroir.

 

Soil is the lifeblood

The most common subject when talking about terroir is the soil. There are seemingly endless types of soil all with their own makeup of clay, gravel, limestone, granite, slate etc. Many winemakers attribute their wines’ characteristics to the soil their vines grow in.

An obvious example of the role soil can have on taste is in Chablis. Chablis is often described as having tastes of oyster shell and has a pearlescent effect to the colour. These effects are suggested to be as a result of the fossilised seabed in the soil beneath many of the vines in the Chablis region.

 

Climate makes the difference

Reduced down to a basic level - hot and cold climates have drastic influences on wine. A warmer climate causes the grapes to produce more sugar and therefore more alcohol. Colder climate regions where the same grape varietal is grown will produce wines with lower sugar which helps them retain their acidity.

South Australia’s scorching Barossa Valley produces Shiraz that is big, bold and fruity. Whereas temperate French Rhone Valley Syrahs express more savoury and peppery notes.

Cellar hand strolling through the vineyard at Eden Road Wines.

The terrain of terroir

Many believe an elevated vineyard is necessary to produce quality premium wines. The belief is higher altitude vineyards benefit from elements such as cooler night temperatures and natural drainage from excess rainfall. Winemakers in The Rhône Valley plant their Syrah vines on the highest incline in the estate to ensure that no water pools beneath the vines causing them to root deeper. This technique also helps to protect against damaging winds that may buffer vines and grapes.

 

Tradition and human intervention

This last step is arguably only for those vineyards who have established a tradition. Something which, by definition, can only be achieved over time. To put it simply, viticulture and winemaking are a partnership. Premium winemakers always strive to achieve a hands-off approach. The reason for this is a cautionary one. The more you intervene the higher the chance for the vine to have a negative reaction. It takes great insight to know when to leave the vines alone. Terroir is nuanced and the wine produced is an expression of that terroir.

The next time you see a wine label using words like ‘single vineyard’, ‘Hilltops’ or highlighting specific regions like ‘Gundagai’ you know it’s because the winemaker is highlighting the exceptional terroir.