What the Heck does Terroir Mean at Wineries and Vineyards Anyway?

I don’t know about you, but I hear more and more Virginia Wineries dropping the word, “Terroir” left and right.  It’s the new trendy thing to say when describing the uniqueness of one’s wine.  If you haven’t figured it out, Terroir is French and literally means earth and soil, but it’s evolved to include:

Wineries want to be unique and what makes them that?  Their unique combination of the five words listed above.  The Terroir of a winery in Loudoun County is much different than that of the Charlottesville region.  One might think the climates are the same, but there’s a bit of a difference that the grapes will feel, but let’s jump into these terms one-by-one.

Climate

We all know what climate is, but just for your scholars, Wikipedia defines it as, “the statistics of weather over long periods. It is measured by assessing the patterns of variation in temperature, humidity, atmospheric pressure, wind, precipitation, atmospheric particle count and other meteorological variables in a given region over long periods.”  To the point, I made above about climates being the same within a region… for grapes, it gets far more granular.  Even at the same vineyard, microclimates can exist.  These are small variations in specific climate characteristics.  Average wind speed, slight differences in temperature, etc.  It may seem insignificant, but to particular grape varietals, these minor differences can make an impact.  Grapes varietals will be planted in different locations of the vineyard for this very reason.

Soil

For anyone in the Northern Virginia area that has dug a hole in your yard, you’ll know what a pain it is because it’s very rocky and full of clay.  Soil plays a huge role in growing grapes.  The quicker the soil can dissipate water, the better.  That’s why you often see grapes growing on hillsides.  Northern Virginia is particularly challenged as clay acts like a sponge and holds onto water longer than traditional soil.  Additionally, various naturally occurring minerals and nutrients play a role in how the grapes grow, thrive, and the flavors they throw out.

From speaking to a few local winery staff, the variation of the soil across the property can often be significant.  One winery told me that they have a very rocky region that is low in clay and it is where they grow the Cab Sav, but then another part of the winery is nearly all clay and a lot of the white wines are there.

Terrain

I hinted a little on terrain above when I talked about planting grapes on a hillside so water can dissipate.  There is more about the terrain that can impact the growth and properties of grapes and ultimately the wine.  The elevation is one that immediately comes to mind.  Many people attribute Malbec wine to the Mendoza region of Argentina, and rightfully so.  At those high altitudes and dryness, it grows exceptionally well.  What many people don’t know is that the Malbec grape is one of the original Bordeaux varietals from France and was transplanted to Argentina.  Other terrain features that impact wine are geological features, water bodies, and vegetation.

Microbes

Just like naturally occurring soil define regions, there are specific microbes that do as well.  We’re talking bacteria, yeast, etc.  I’m not going to get into the science on this or go into much detail.  I will say that one blog, Wine Folly, that I really enjoy reading has a good article on the subject, “Are Bacteria What Makes “Terroir” in Wine?”

Tradition

OK… I’m not talking about traditions in the sense of wearing specific clothing while harvesting wine, drinking a bottle at a particular time, or how you open your first bottle of a vintage.  I’m talking about specific traditions that can impact the wine itself.  Techniques, methodologies, etc.

Well… that’s about it.  Short and Sweet.  Now when you hear a pourer at any of Virginia’s wineries state something about their “Terroir,” you’ll understand that they are merely using that word to describe the uniqueness of what their vineyard/winery offers… in a fancy