You’ve probably heard the word “terroir” a few times during your wine tasting adventures. Maybe the person who was pouring raved about the terroir of a vineyard. Or maybe the dork at the next table was inflicting his long-suffering friends with yet another monologue about tasting the terroir of a certain wine.
Well, “terroir” is a controversial subject, even among wine experts. Simply stated, terroir gives wine its sense of place. It’s like going to a party and spotting a chulo guy or hot muchacha who have–cliché alert–a certain je ne sais quoi. The cut of their clothes or the way they carry themselves are little clues that tell you the person may be from a different town, another state, or even another country.
And so it is with wine. Little clues like color, aroma, flavor characteristics and texture will tell you something about the origins of a particular vino. Terroir is the source of these clues.
To Spanish speakers, terroir may sound a lot like tierra, or dirt. That’s because our très chic French amigos originally coined the term, which comes from terre, the French word for earth or dirt. Soil was once given most of the credit for influencing a wine’s profile. Today, terroir can be defined as the combination of soil, climate, weather, topography (aspect, elevation, slope, proximity to bodies of water) and grape variety that define a particular vineyard.
But dónde está el controversy, you ask? Not everyone agrees on the extent to which terroir can be credited for giving wine a particular personality. Modern winemaking gives the winemaker a lot more tools to influence the taste and aromatic profile of wine.
For example, a winemaker in California can craft a Bordeaux blend wine that will display characteristics similar to a wine made in Bordeaux, France. But California and France are–obviously–two very different places. How do they do it? Everything from how the grape vines are tended to the inclusion of oak and the type of yeast used for fermentation will influence the end product.
I could go on and on about terroir, but you have places to go, people to see and vino to drink. All you need to remember about terroir is that it plays a key role in producing wine that will have a unique identity depending on where the grapes were grown. Kind of like the attractive stranger at the party. He or she may share some traits with the locals, but it’s the edgy scarf, adorable accent or exotic dance moves that hook you. Oh là là!