UNCOVERING THE ROOTS OF WINE
Terroir Is One of The Most Popular Words In The Wine World.
You’ve probably heard it many times before. It’s used to capture a wine’s soul, encompassing the history of a wine’s homeland and the journey the grapes took from vine to bottle. Every wine region in the world – and every vineyard within – has a unique terroir.
Real terroir has been lost over the years. It’s overcomplicated by showy sommeliers and used as a marketing tool by big wine companies.
In truth, terroir is a wonderfully simple idea. You can get a sense of it in every natural wine you drink, regardless of whether you’ve been tasting wines for decades or you’re trying a bottle for the first time.
So What Really Is Terroir?
Let’s go back to wine’s roots (literally). Wine comes from grapes grown all over the world in countless different climates and conditions. Historically, wine growers pick the grapes, crush them, and then let natural native yeasts ferment the grape juice.
At its core, winemaking is a simple practice with natural, honest ingredients. It brings together the measured guidance of artisans with the unpredictability of nature, and lets both shine through in the final product. A wine hand crafted this way allows the grapes to “express their terroir.” We call this natural wine.
Terroir (pronounced tear – wah), which loosely translates to “earth” in French, is one of the most beautiful aspects of natural wine. Terroir doesn’t really have a direct translation into English, but at the simplest level, it refers to the distinct place where a wine comes from.
The idea is this: not every wine comes from the same soil. The rocky, granular clay in Spain is different from the fertile, volcanic soil of Croatia. Both can produce amazingly clean wines from their grapes – the essence of each will just be different.
More Than Just Soil
But terroir is more than just soil. At its core, terroir encompasses all the factors that make the birthplace of a wine unique. This includes the soil composition, sun exposure, angle to sun, climate, altitude, rainfall, slope of the hill, and so on.
Grapes that grow on the Italian coast will reflect a certain terroir of bright sunlight, misty air from the Mediterranean Sea, and a temperate climate.
In contrast, grapes grown in the Loire Valley reflect their own terroir of luscious greenery, consistent rainfall, and cooler temperatures.
A different terroir will produce a different grape and therefore a different wine profile. When you taste the coastal Italian wine, you’ll notice a salty minerality. The wine from the Loire may have a burst of fruit instead.
So, when you smell and taste a wine, look for signs that point to terroir. Is the wine very fruity and fresh? It could be from a more fertile landscape with good rainfall. Do you taste more earthiness, like dried leaves? That could be a sign of dry, sunny growing conditions and low elevation.
The Secret About Terroir
But here’s the thing: you can’t do this with most wines. In fact, you can only taste terroir in natural wines.
Unfortunately, the contemporary wine market is flooded with industrialized wines. These are filled with synthetic chemicals and commercial yeast strains to keep a consistent shelf taste.
Industrial wine companies carefully manipulate conditions at every step of the winemaking process. They use pesticides and irrigation to keep grapes growing on the same timetable from year to year, regardless of nature. They use lab made yeast strains to keep wine fermenting the same way. They pick and choose from 76 different additives, including coloring agents and artificial flavorings, to keep tight control of the wine they make. Their goal is consistency – they want every one of their bottles to taste identical, so when you reach for that bottle on the wine store shelf, you know exactly what you’ll get.
The downside to all that control is that you won’t taste the natural variations in climate, soil, altitude, and season that make wine unique. There are no surprises with commercial wine. They don’t take you on a journey through the land they grew on and the seasons they weathered. With commercial wines, experience is the same, bottle after bottle.
That’s one of the reasons we prefer natural wine. With no industrial additives, no pesticides, no filtering, and no sterilization, natural wines capture the beautiful logic of nature. The grapes are free to express themselves as they wish, true to their place of origin that cannot be replicated anywhere else.
Terroir reminds us that wine is not manmade; it’s nature’s art. The less intervention from the winemaker, the better. Terroir tells a wine’s story, and the best way to experience it is to listen closely.