What Is Terroir? Understanding Important Wine Terms

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terroir and wine tasting

Learn About the Meaning of Terroir in Wine Tasting

Understanding the language of wine is a complex issue. Sommeliers and oenophiles alike spend years grappling with wine terminology. One of the most frequently used, and often misunderstood, wine terms is terroir. If you fancy yourself a wine connoisseur, read on to learn more about the history, meaning, and significance of this very important wine term.

History and Origins of Terroir

Historically, the wine term terroir was linked to the earthy notes found in varieties of Old World wines. At its inception, the word was tied to the practices of Cistercian monks in Burgundy, France. There, the monks understood terroir as a defining aspect of the vineyard’s landscape. Over time, the regional application of terroir spread to encompass other French regions, and today, many apply the term universally to other wine regions.

Understanding the Components of Terroir

If the geographical and historical meaning behind the wine term terroir has been lost, how else can we understand this important wine term? Terroir can also be understood through an analysis of its components. In Jancis Robinson’s thorough Oxford Companion to Wine, she unpacks the primary aspects of terroir stating:

Major components of terroir are soil (as the word suggests) and local topography, together with their interactions with each other and with macroclimate to determine mesoclimate and vine microclimate. The holistic combination of all these is held to give each site its own unique terroir, which is reflected in its wines more or less consistently from year to year, to some degree regardless of variations in methods of viticulture and wine-making.

From Robinson’s definition, we understanding that terroir is an amalgam of climate, terrain, soil, and, ultimately, tradition.

Breaking Down Terroir Composition

In wine terminology, terroir is first of all linked to climate. A region’s climate defines what can be grown and how it can be grown. Because of this, we can understand climate as being inextricably linked to the success of the vines. Terroir also includes the terrain, or the geology, of the region.

A vineyard’s landscape impacts how easy or difficult it may be for the vines to receive proper nutrition and water supply. Soil, too, impacts the interaction between vine and climate, thereby becoming another important component of terroir.

Reflecting on Terroir’s Significance

Yet the ultimate factor that shapes terroir is tradition. As regions and climates become more universal and bare fewer differentials, the site-specific tradition surrounding terroir becomes increasingly important. Wine critic Levi Dalton shares that “human experience is a factor in the [terroir] equation: Culture, history, tradition and idiosyncrasy also play a fundamental role in terroir and its expression.”

While soil, climate, and terrain are indisputably part of terroir, the significance of this wine term is deeply rooted in the culture surrounding site specificity. The routine of harvest, the cultural value, and the daily practice of nurturing the vines imbue the wine with value, and it’s this value that maps itself to terroir and gives the word its true meaning.

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