Erik Neilson on January 6, 2017 0 Comments The vernacular associated with the wine industry can be one of the greatest challenges to those who are attempting to broaden their understanding of wine in general. Some terms, confusing as they may be, serve an important purpose and deserve a place in conversation, and terroir finds itself squarely on the list. It’s something you’ve probably seen listed on wine labels or have heard in passing from your favorite restaurant’s sommelier, but what exactly does it mean? Terroir may be a point of confusion for many, but it plays a crucial role in how wines are crafted and discussed. If you’re new to the term, here are a handful of things to know about terroir and its influence on modern wine. A Sense of Place A French term, terroir can literally be translated as “a sense of place.” In other words, the term is used to describe wines that taste as if they were produced in a specific region of the world. Napa Valley wines that are said to “exhibit beautiful terroir” are discussed in such a way because they are characterized by flavors and aromas that have come to be representative of this particular region. At face value, it might seem as if people who make these determinations are stretching things a bit, but terroir is more than just a phenomenon — it’s just as real as any other aspect of a wine. At its core, a wine’s terroir is affected by the soil the grapes are grown in. Consider tomatoes that are grown in Florida, compared with those grown in Maine. Clearly, they’re both tomatoes, but the overall texture and flavor of each will be unique and mutually exclusive from one another. This is in large part due to the soil and growing conditions, which are much different up in Maine than they are down in Florida. If you haven’t guessed it yet, this is an exceptional example of how terroir works. The Origin of Terroir While terroir is a natural element of how and where a grape is grown and thus was isn’t something that any one culture invented, the term itself can be traced back to French winemakers attempting to understand the differences between wines produced in certain regions of the country. As one might expect, they found that the soil in which grapes are grown can have a huge impact on the resulting wine, thus marking the first time that terroir — from terre, the French word for “earth” — made it into the wine vernacular. As time passed and the wine world become more and more intertwined, the term terroir quickly found itself spreading to many other parts of the world. Today, it has come to take into consideration not just the region in which a wine is produced, but the many factors which affect the soil the grapes are grown in. Climate, slope, elevation and makeup of the soil (flinty, for example) can all play major roles in influencing the flavor of a grape, thus affecting the wine that ends up getting produced. This is why many wines that are produced from the same grape in different parts of the world don’t taste anything like one another — the soil can often mean more in the end than the grape being utilized. Additional Influencers It’s not just the terrain or soil that can affect the terroir of a wine, but also how the wine is made. Many producers pride themselves on biodynamic farming and make it a point to not intervene unless absolutely necessary. Some wines are certified organic, taking things just one step further. Because chemicals and pesticides can change the look, feel, taste and aroma of a wine, they are considered to have a marked influence on terroir. Sunlight can also influence wines to a large degree. If the area in which grapes are grown tends to get a lot of sun, those same grapes are going to produce an entirely different wine than grapes grown in a valley with only limited sun. Many winemakers experiment with different planting strategies so as to influence terroir themselves, which can result in some very interested wines. There’s even a classification system that is used worldwide to highlight terroir and its influence on modern wines, which has been adapted to some degree or another by all of the major production regions. Noticing Terroir Yourself It’s easy to get confused about the finer points of terroir when listening to self-proclaimed experts discuss it at length, but this isn’t how the term needs to be approached. Rather, you can get a lot of mileage out of taking the time to learn how to spot terroir in the wines you bring home, and it doesn’t have to be as difficult as you might think. Ready to see how terroir affects the wine firsthand? Here are a few tips to point you in the right direction. Note the Production Region: Start by taking a moment to clearly consider where the wine you’re drinking was produced. Were the grapes grown on the rocky hillsides of Sicily? Did they soak up the sun in beautiful Napa Valley? Bearing this information in mind before tasting a wine will give you an idea of what to look forward to, even if your expectations end up being shattered. Take Careful Note of Flavor Profiles: What flavors or aromas characterize your wine? Is it minerally? Chalky? Do you notice flavors of stone fruit or perhaps even aromas of forest floor? These are all clues that can lead to a more thorough understanding of terroir. A mineral-laden wine was likely produced from grapes grown in volcanic or similar soil, for example, and the way these characteristics come out in the end product can be truly unique. Taste With Friends: There’s no better way to get to know a wine than to bounce your ideas off of other people who are drinking it next to you. One fun way to learn more about terroir is schedule a tasting with a few friends, during which the main goal is to determine the terroir of each wine and what characteristics are present. Terroir can be confusing at first, but in the end, it’s really quite a simple concept. So get tasting, and don’t forget to consider the source of each and every wine you drink!