Terroir is one of the most popular words in the wine world.
You’ve probably heard it many times before. But, whether it was in a trendy magazine article or by a sommelier at a fancy restaurant, you probably heard it used incorrectly.
The truth is, terroir has been lost over the years. Today, it’s more of a marketing tool by big wine companies than a beautiful aspect of wine’s great mystique.
So What Really Is Terroir?
Well, 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 the natural yeast ferment the grape juice.
It’s an old and delicate art using simple, honest ingredients. 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 the most important aspect of natural wine. Terroir doesn’t really have a direct translation into English, but at the most simple 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.
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 canonly 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. This means you won’t be able to taste real terroir in your average glass of commercial wine. Instead, you’re tasting what the company wants you to taste: sugar, artificial flavorings, and genetically modified extracts. That’s one of the reasons we prefer natural wine. Since there are no industrial additives or pesticides ever used, the wine will actually follow nature’s logic. The grapes are free to express themselves as they wish.
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.