It seems that everyone is talking about “terroir”. The wine is “characterized by terroir”, as an “expression of its terroir”, the wine smells earthy or mineral. It principally sounds good, but is there any truth in that?
Much more than just “soil”
“Terroir” is derived from the French word “terre”, which means “soil”. But the term covers much more than just the soil. Terroir can be described as the combined influence of climate, soil and topography on the wine.
The climate in wine regions, which can be basically divided into warmer and cooler climate, has an influence on the sugar level and acidity of a wine. Wines in warmer regions such as the Napa Valley produce wines with a higher sugar level which is usually also associated with a higher alcoholic content. Whereas wine grapes in cooler regions like Burgundy in France or Germany have lower sugar levels and more natural acidity.
There are so many different types of soil in wine regions that might affect the flavor of a wine. But although there is no scientific evidence associating the taste of “minerals” in a wine something does happen. The soil properties have an impact on the character of a wine. Think of the slate soils along the Moselle that store the heat of the sun and make it possible to produce excellent sweet wines in one of the northernmost growing areas of Europe.
The topography or terrain, particularly the altitude on which wines grow, affects the quality of a wine. An impressive example is Mendoza in Argentina famous for its excellent, age-worthy Malbec that grows on more than 1000 meters above sea level. The high elevation leads to more acidity due to cool nighttime temperatures.
All those aspects make “Terroir”. But not only. The wine making as well as wine growing techniques characterize the taste of a wine and contribute to a wine’s terroir. Wine making techniques are at least as important for the taste of a wine as the natural circumstances. Think for example of Amarone wines. Before the grapes are pressed, the wine maker dries the grapes until there is 40% less liquid and ferments the grapes into wine over a period of more than 30 days. The result is inimitable!
Is it possible to taste the soil in the wine?
Yes, I believe you can. But it is a question of definition and interpretation. Does a wine which grows on slate soil smells like slate in the glass? Or how smells “mineral”? I asked five wine makers and got as many definitions as wine makers where in the room. Terroir definitely has an influence on taste and character of a wine but the taste might not be traced back directly to the vine.
I am curious to hear your thoughts and opinion of terroir!