Taste Like A Pro - The Concept of Terroir...

Reproduced from Year 4, Issue #17 of Spirito di Vino Asia...

Until now, this series of articles has focused on the critical concepts that define wine style and quality and guide wine professionals to set their scores.  Firstly, we saw that style relates to a wine’s personality and includes the considerations of weight, structure, texture, aromatic character and other specific distinctions that give its character.  Next, we reviewed that quality, the“measure of excellence”, is a different notion associated with complexity, balance, length, and harmony.  We then discussed that wine complexity is derived from its aromas and texture while its balance relates to the “mathematical-like” perception of how “hard” it feels on the palate in comparison to its “softness”.  Finally, we examined ageing ability, which is not necessarily related to quality and depends on style as well as on structure.  From this article onwards, we will analyze various concepts that directly or indirectly affect the style and the quality of the final wine.  In this issue, we discuss a subject of much debate and controversy.

Terroir.  Perhaps it is because this French word cannot be translated directly into any other languages and that, in trying to do so, several distortions and misconceptions insert themselves in the process.  For sure, the etymology of the word is the Latin slang “terratorium”, an alteration of the word “territorium”, which itself comes from the Latin “terra”.  The latter, in French the word “terre”, has two general meanings: that of “soil where plants grow” and that of “the planet where humans interact”.  In the wine world today, it seems that much of the emphasis is on the first definition and little on the second.  All too often, the notion of soil takes a disproportionate share of the discourse. However, the concept of “Terroir” transcends such an emphasis and comprises all conditions surrounding the vine, including the interactions of humans, via its traditions and philosophy.

Optimum expression and quality is obtained when the requirements of a grape variety are ideally matched with the conditions of the site where it is planted and when humans undertake steps to enhance the quality of the fruit and mitigate its faults.  Because each grape variety has its own specific needs when it comes to sunlight, heat, water and nutrients, the best wines will invariably come from a vineyard that is most suited to meet those needs.  However, such a situation is actually the exception rather than the norm and the human hand has an important role to play.  Decisions related to planting, the management of soil, canopy and water as well as harvest timing also have a direct impact on the way the grapes ripen to achieve the targeted style and quality level.

In this way, we can say that a “Terroir” comprises the total combination of factors, natural and human, that affects the ripening of the grapes.  The best ones are those that favor a long and slow maturation of the fruit so that, during this natural process, grape acidity decreases slowly and in coordination with its sugar accumulation while aroma precursors develop in great quantities in the fruit. The wines from these sites display great complexity and balance, with plenty of fruit concentration and structure to age and develop over time. If berries ripen too quickly, the acidity drops too low and the aromas do not have time to develop. These wines are usually simple in character and often soft and lacking backbone. If grapes ripen too slowly, the acidity does not decrease low enough and the aromas will not develop. In such a situation, the wines can be tart requiring sugar to soften its bite and show limited aromas of sour fruits. The timing of the ripening process must be just right and humans must work in perfect tandem with nature to produce the best possible quality fruit for the intended style of wine.

The main conditions included in “Terroir “ are those of the atmosphere around the vines and incorporate sunlight, heat, and relative humidity including rainfalls and those of the soil around the roots consisting of organic matter, its depth and structure, as well as its humidity and nutrients.  Good quality producers work to optimize those conditions throughout the year through various techniques at various stage of fruit maturity.  Around the world, there is an infinite combination of these conditions each contributing to ripen fruit in greatly or subtlety different ways.  This is perhaps what makes wine so fascinating and exciting.

In the next issue, we will look at the issue of oak and how it can contribute to improve quality and create a specific style.