Tag Archives: terroir

Wine 201 – Terroir

I know, I know, this topic may be a bit dry (get it? dry? Wine? Dry wine?…ah, forget it), but it’s an important concept to understand when trying to figure out wines.

The concept is ‘terroir’.

Unless you’re a wine freak (and I use the term ‘freak’ here lovingly), you’re probably not familiar with it. This is due in large part to the American culture and the way we’ve approached wine development versus the way the Europeans have.

Now I’m about to brush the American wine scene with a wide generalization brush. Not every vinyard in American follows what I’m about to say, but enough do that it allows me to make these observations.

We love process here in the States. We believe that in order to make a better wine, we should make a better process. Specific processes are used to get a specific kind of wine. To abuse a metaphor, think of the processes as formulas, with variables in place for the variety of grapes, the amount of time grown, the time of year when the grape is harvested, whether the grape is peeled or not, whether the grape is fermented in oak or a steel vat, etc, etc. All of these variables are put into an equation (usually by an enologist) to determine what makes the best wine. One formula may be used to make Pinot Gris, another may be used to make Merlot. What these processes allow, is for one varietal of wine to be grown in different areas of the country. Hence, Rieslings can be made in New York, Oregon, even Idaho.

To the majority of Europeans, this is a bunch of hooey. To them ‘terroir’ is what helps determine what makes the better wines. Terroir is the term used to describe all the ecological factors that make a particular type of wine special to the region of its origin. To some in Europe, it is unfathomable to make a Chianti in France, regardless if they only used the Sangiovese grape and the same Chianti making process. To them, if you take the grapevines out of the Chianti region and plant them somewhere else, it ceases to be Chianti.

That’s not to say that the American winemakers don’t take these variables into account…they do, under the variable of ‘microclimate’. But Americans’ tend to think that different areas of the country can replicate microclimate and any slight differences will only lead to a slight variation of taste.

This difference is why Europeans label their wines based off of an appellation. An appellation a designated growing area governed by the rules and regulations established by its federal government and/or local governing body. Champagne comes from the Champage region of France, and Orvieto comes from the Orvieto region of Italy. Why? Because the local or federal governments of France and Italy say so.

I should note that not all European countries approach wines this way, but enough do that if you are into wines (or wish to be into wines), you should be aware of it.

I bring this up, as if one is to learn about reading labels on wine, one must understand these different approaches to classifying wines.