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Terroir and Taste – It’s All about Celebrating Difference

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07/01/2020 Terroir is a word that is used often and with many different expressions, to explain wines and their differences.

It’s the broad range of tastes that make wine such a fascinating subject and the job of the sommelier so interesting and rewarding.

Terroir is a shorthand term that’s far broader and more complex than the origin of the French word ‘terroir’, which, literally translated, means earth, or soil, but in wine terms clearly has a broader context that denotes ‘specificity of place’.

This more exact term encompasses not only the soil in a region, but also its climate (and, more precisely, its weather and any local ‘microclimate’), the terrain where a vineyard is located, as well as the aspect of the vineyard and anything else that can possibly differentiate one piece of land from another. The meaning of terroir also embraces the type of vines planted, the grapes produced, the way they are harvested, and the particular winemaking skills used to produce the wines in a region.

White wines made from the same Chardonnay grape can be minerally and dry or creamy and rich; and Chenin Blanc ranges from dry and minerally, to off-dry with notes of passion fruit, right through to mandarin orange sweetness; whilst Sauvignon Blanc, one of the world’s most planted grapes, can range from zesty lime to flowery peach.

What goes for white wine is also true of red: the thin-skinned, notoriously temperamental, Pinot grape can produce headily perfumed wines with wonderful red berry fruit flavours in the right soil and climate; whilst the floral flavours with hints of cherry and tobacco of Old World Cabernet Sauvignon are very different from the New World flavours of black cherry, liquorice and black pepper; Malbec, although originating in France, has found renown in the sun-soaked Argentine climate with jammy flavours of plum, black cherry and blackberry.

So, each and every element of terroir – or the more meaningful notion of a place or location – plays a part in the product that ends up as that pleasurable drink in the glass the sommelier is offering his or her guests.

Starting with soil – and there are perhaps half a dozen main soil kinds – whilst there’s no absolute scientific proof associating the taste of minerality in a soil to actual minerals in a wine, it’s also clear that something does happen taste-wise: hence taste descriptions of wines as being gravelly and flinty – sometimes even described as tasting like the smell of wet concrete! The same grapes, grown on vines of the same age, from the same location (and sometimes the same vineyard) and harvested at the same time, but grown on different soils, can produce different taste profiles, one producing wines with “very savoury aromas and flavours like fresh-picked herbs”, the other, grown 10 feet away, as “dense, dark and spicy”. Yet the only difference is the soil type.

Climate involves more than the generalities of ‘warm climate’ and ‘cold climate’, although it’s true to say that wine grapes from warmer climates tend to generate higher sugar levels (and consequently higher alcohol levels), whereas wines produced in cooler climates generally have lower sugar levels and more acidity. So, a Cabernet Sauvignon from, says, the Napa Valley will tend to have less acidity than the same wine from Bordeaux, whilst the famous German Riesling grape, for example, favours hot summers and extended cool autumn weather.

A high acidity and medium-bodied Sauvignon Blanc needs a cool climate to preserve its best qualities, though it can abide a moderate one. This is why you find examples from the cooler New World regions, and Washington and California in the US, besides those from the brisk climates of northern France. 

Looking at red wines, and the US in particular, Merlot has, for example, produced superior wines in New York, but only from the most favoured sites. It can also be grown in the milder growing areas in the northwestern part of North Carolina but has to be planted on more protected sites, whereas it grows well in the mid-Atlantic states and, in California, Merlot acreage grew faster than that of any other world-class variety in the 1990s.

The actual terrain where a vineyard is located also plays a part in the character and taste of a wine, so geological features, whether hilly or mountainous, or how far inland or how close to large areas of water (lakes and seas), and its elevation as well as other flora, such as plants and trees – and not forgetting the microbes in the soil, too – are germane.

It’s possible to taste wines grown in Australia where the influence of eucalyptus is quite pronounced and comes from the natural vegetation by the side of the vineyard. Sometimes the winemaker will make use of such features with small parcels produced from the rows of vines growing closest to this source.

You can find vineyards in the Mendoza region of Argentina at an elevation of around 4,000 feet and these produce Malbecs with greater acidity as a result of the cool night temperatures. Some Argentine wines also have particular ageing characteristics found at these high altitudes.

Scientists have recently been studying microbes in vineyard sites and their wines and have been able to prove the  existence of a unique biogeographic fingerprint – a biological indicator – based on the types and amounts of fungi and bacteria present in grape must which can pinpoint where the wine is from (and, apparently, even what year it was made). At the moment it's merely conjectured as to whether this may also have a bearing on taste but certainly links back to the pure notion of ‘terroir’.

Lastly, there’s tradition, or human interaction, which can add to the influences of climate, soil and terrain to make a ‘better wine’, so to speak.

Harvest time is key, and probably the single most important part of making a wine: picking earlier will produce wines with higher acidity and lower alcohol, whilst picking later will produce wines with lower acidity, higher alcohol (or sweetness) and more subdued tannin.

Winemakers can also alter maceration time and use cold soaking to carefully extract colour and fruit flavours from the skins without extracting bitter tannin. Conversely, and depending on the wine and the winemaker, pump-overs can also be used to extract higher amounts of tannin. Then the winemaker can use punch downs to keep skins from getting too extracted, with little to no amount of added oxygen in the fermentation.

The vessels in which a wine is made, stored and aged definitely changes a wine’s character. The use of oak does more than just add a vanilla flavour to wine: it actually increases a wine’s exposure to oxygen while it ages, as well as helping to decrease tannins, so helping a wine reach optimal fruitiness.

Steel tanks, however, are commonly, but certainly not exclusively, used for zesty white wines. Yet red wines are made in steel tanks, too, and essentially limit the oxygen exposure to wine and keep wines fresher.

Lastly, there’s the choice of cork or screwcap closures. Clearly, how to protect the quality of the wine that the winemaker has worked so hard to produce is an important topic. The screwcap perhaps suffers from an image problem and many consumers still believe that screwcaps imply a lesser quality (and cheaper) wine.

However, there’s a considerable amount of evidence today that older vintages under screw cap not only eliminates any cork taint problem but also do a better job of controlling the amount of oxygen that gets inside the bottle every year.

Cork still has a role to play and in most circumstances, there’s really no difference between wine in a bottle with a cork or a screwcap.

Terroir is all about the makers use, interaction and expression of these different environmental and practical tools to create unique taste in their wines. Individual but very definitely that’s where the pleasure is.

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