If you've been to a wine tasting, you've probably heard the word "Terroir" used. What exactly is terroir and how does it affect your wine? Read on to find out!
Terr-what now? Though this term is widely used within the wine community, few know its actual meaning. Of French origin (with a literal meaning of Soil, Region, or Land), terroir has come to encompass the complete environmental surroundings of the vine. This includes the climate, the soil, and the terrain. What effect does this have on the wine and how does it differ from region to region? Let's delve into one aspect of terroir to see its effect on our wine: Climate.
The climate of a region is one of the most influential aspects of terroir. Because of climate, two different regions growing the same varietal can produce different results. For instance, a Chardonnay from California can have extremely different characteristics from a Chardonnay made in France, and we have climate to thank for this.
Most sources will tell you climate is made up of two categories: Warm Climate and Cool Climate. The answer is actually slightly more complicated. Climate can encompass temperature, but also exposure to the elements such as wind, rain, and sun.
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Tricky TemperaturesGrapes grown in warmer regions, such as California and South Africa, see a gradual drop in temperature from the summer to the fall. Thus they have the chance to fully ripen, allowing for more natural sugars but less natural acidity. This leads to a higher amount of sugar consumption during the fermentation process which in turn produces higher alcohol content. This climate tends to produce fuller bodied wines well (think Cabernet and Syrah).
Cooler climates, i.e. Oregon and Germany, have a rapid drop in temperature which can stunt the ripening process. This produces wines with a more tart and acidic nature that tends to be lighter bodied (think Pinot Noir and Riesling). The key is to avoid extremes. A great growing climate is long moderately warm days with slightly cooler nights.
Our previous article on Terroir dicussed how the surrounding temperature, rainfall, sun exposure and humidity have an effect on wine. But now that we know how the air permeates into the vine, lets dig a little deeper and talk about the ground the vines spring from
The Secrets in the Soil
If great wine truly starts from the ground up, what kind of soil grows a great wine? The answer varies on the type of wine you'd like to produce. Soil has the ability to produce a nice stable home life for the vines, based on a variety of factors. First, it needs to be consistent. It's not uncommon for vineyards to consult with analysts to lay out the soil patterns on their land before mapping out their vines Next, consider granulometry. It's a big word for what it's describing. Basically it's the study of grain sizes in sedimentary rock. And it's a large factor in our soil. Soil texture effects water runoff and infiltration. And then you have the organic properties of the soil to consider. Its materials determines it irradiance, or how much sun and heat will be reflected
Now factor in your soil PH levels. If the soil is too nutrient rich it will overproduce grapevine vegetation and put less effort into the production of quality gropes. But too little nutrients and you'll have a lack of foliage, leading to the possibility of scorched grapes. Is your head spinning with soil specifics yet? You could devote a lifetime to the study of soil and its effects on wine, but since we all can't quit our day jobs and start a life of farming, let's break it down into some of your most common soil types
- Sandy: No were not talking about the character from Grease. This type of soil has larger particles which mean less water retention. Roots can easily dig deep between the larger particles, and the lack of organic material means less threat of disease from humidity. Sandy soils tend to produce lighter wines
- Clay: Nutrient rich with high water retention, due to its small granular structure. Smaller particles make it difficult for the vines to dig deep and can be more susceptible to diseases due to the water retention, but there's less worry during seasons of drought. Clay is famous for producing some bold wines
- Silt. The particle size lies in between the texture of soil and clay, meaning excellent water and heat retention, with some root difficulty. Tends to produce highly aromatic, less acidic wines.
- Loam: A mixture of the first three types of soil, loam is considered highly fertile. Often it contains just the right balance of water retention and drainage for excellent production. However, as we've learned too fertile of a soil produces low quality wines. This soil type requires rigorous pruning regimens for a better production of wines.
Related: Read about how the Type of Wine Grape changes the wine.
Limestone in the Limelight.
If there is a rock star of the soil world it is limestone. Limestone can be considered the calcium rich Marsha to our metaphorical Brady Bunch. Dry weather? Limestone will retain the moisture you need. Too much rainfall? Limestone has excellent drainage. But beware, this golden child can cause iron deficiencies and higher acidity levels. Guess every rose has its thorn.
A Stressful Slope
Vines, like people, can rise from adversity. A betterquality grape is produced from stressing the vines. Want a dark, rich zinfandel? Plant it on a hillside. The water runoff and lack of nutrients means a more concentrated flavor, ending in a better wine. Ever see a winery boast about their "Hillside Select"? Now you know why. Higher altitudes usually mean rockier soils (and thus less nutrient rich) and cooler climates which allow the grape to ripen slowly. A hillside will usually produce a much lower yield, but the flavor concentration is worth the effort.
In the end, all Terroir is telling us is that vines are like people. You've got some stress and trauma, mixed in with a well of inner nutrients, and some outside care along the way to produce something amazing.
The Terroirs of The World's Greatest Wine Regions
The Napa Valley
California’s Napa Valley is located just 50 miles out of San Francisco. It sits in the north bay region of the Bay area and has a Mediterranean climate. The distinctive terroir impacts the quality and quantity of the grapes grown in Napa Valley. Lower production is countered with exceptional quality. This results from less fertile soils, moderately warm summer temperatures, cooler evenings, and a long growing season. Napa is a diverse location, with 46 soil types and cooler microclimates created from the air of the San Francisco Bay. This region’s terroir produces wines with intense aromas and fruit characteristics.
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This fabled wine region of France is one of the world’s largest viticultural areas. It gets plenty of rain beside the Atlantic Ocean, which can be a challenge for varietals that prefer drier weather. The climate is warm but comfortable, and ideally, great vines would perform best on a south-facing slope. The highest point in Bordeaux is just 145 feet above sea level. Winemakers solve this problem by paying attention to the soil. The region is cut in half where two rivers meet. The left bank has more gravel in the soil, while the right has more clay and limestone. Gravel soils are warmer and provide the heat certain varietals need to thrive. Clay soils tend to be cool and well suited for grapes that ripen early.
Located in West central Italy, the region of Tuscany is considered the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance. It is almost as well known for its delectable wines. This area comprises hilly landscapes, hot sunny summers, mild autumns, and rainy winters. Exposure to the sun and wind varies, which directly impacts the wines. The soils vary; some are heavy with clay, and others have more sand. The micronutrients in Tuscan soils provide a distinctive structure to the wines from this region. The trademark varietal from Tuscany is Sangiovese, which prefers clay-rich soils and provides prominent acidity and excellent tannins.
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The Rioja region of Spain yields exceptional wines thanks to its balanced soil. The pH is neutral, ranging from 6.6 to 8.6. Other factors include open planes and hillsides. There are three types of soils in Roja. Those on the left bank of the Ebro River are more alkaline and rich in limestone. The soil on the right bank of the Ebro is deeper, with a large amount of clay. Rioja gets a significant amount of rain, but the landscape’s adequate drainage permits these clay soils to produce beautiful wines, as the grapes do not become flooded from trapped water. The last soil type is alluvial, formed by layers of silt, sand, clay, and gravel. This soil retains heat and delivers more complex grapes with high sugar levels. The Rioja climate is ideal for wine production thanks to plentiful sunlight, not too much rain, and significant temperature differences between the days and nights. Nearby mountains shield the grapevines from cold winds that could damage the heat-loving fruit, and irrigation is not permitted 30 days before harvest to maximize the flavor profile of the grapes further.