There’s a lot that goes into great wine.
From the ripeness of the grapes at harvest time to the length and type of storage until maturation, there’s a lot that winemakers can do to influence the outcome of the final product.
But producers can’t control everything. The weather, the soil, the ecosystems, and the geography of the land are all factors largely determined by the location and landscape of the vineyard, and these elements also play an enormous role in shaping the wine that’s ultimately poured into your glass.
In this article, we cover the concept of terroir to give you a better understanding of why it matters and how it shapes the wine that’s ultimately poured into your glass.
What is Terroir?
The basic idea of terroir is pretty straightforward. Translated literally from the original French, terroir basically means earth or soil.
As a concept more generally, it refers to all the elements of viticulture that fall outside of human control. Things like the type of soil, the weather, the shape of the terrain, and all the other environmental factors that make up a region.
Like much of French wine tradition, the concept of terroir originated in Burgundy, where Benedictine and Cistercian monks in charge of wine production during the middle ages noticed that the same grapes grown even a few miles apart would produce wines of a remarkably different character.
Over centuries of testing, tasting, and experimentation, the vineyards were gradually subdivided to capture the essence of these different flavors, and terroir was born.
Why does terroir matter?
For one, terroir acts kind of like a fingerprint. Every region has its own unique combination of environmental features that will subtly (or not-so-subtly) influence the wine.
For instance, Burgundy and Washington state are roughly parallel and therefore receive similar amounts of sun. But with completely different soil composition, rainfall, and topography, a Burgundy grape grower would be hard-pressed (pun intended) to replicate a Burgundy red if they tried to grow the same Pinot Noir in Washington’s Columbia Valley.
Another reason terroir matters is that some grapes are better suited to certain regions and growing conditions, producing more or less interesting wines depending on where they’re grown.
While Pinot Noir and Chardonnay can be grown across the world, the climate of their native Burgundy is perfectly suited to producing delicate and enticing fruit aromas without falling into overpowering juiciness. This leaves room for the refreshing acidity, mineral, savory, saline, and other nuances that Burgundy wines are known for.
The Burgundy Terroir
Extending across a distance of about 120 miles north to south (with vines covering about 115 square miles), the Burgundy region displays a remarkable variety in the makeup of its terroir.
Latitude and Climate
Cool continental in the north and warm continental in the south, the entire region experiences cold winters, warm summers, and year-round precipitation. That said, the northern regions around Chablis and Dijon are a little cooler than the southern regions around Lyon. No wonder then that the most prized wines are grown in the middle (the Côte d’Or), just north and south of the city of Beaune.
As grapes in cooler regions grow and ripen more slowly, they tend to be dryer (less sweet) than their southerly counterparts, with brighter acidity and lighter, more refined, and elegant flavors.
In white wines, expect notes of green and white fruit with hints of citrus and white flower. For their part, reds will exhibit delicate red berry and cherry notes, as well as earthier, muskier, and more floral aromas. Since the grapes have less sugar, wines from cooler climates will also be lower in alcohol content.
Moving further south, where grapes are riper at harvest, you’ll find bolder and juicier fruit flavors, relaxed acidity, and higher alcohol content. White wines will express tropical flavors reminiscent of pear, pineapple, and honeydew melon, whereas reds exhibit richer and darker notes of blackberry, strawberry, plum, and other dark fruit.
Hotter southern regions like Spain or California, produce intensely fruity, high-alcohol wines, but Burgundies tend to be on the lighter side, striking a beautiful balance between refreshingly tart acidity and delicate fruit flavors. This light touch leaves room for all sorts of subtle aromas to shine through, like those of citrus, spice, floral, earth, and clean minerality.
Most of Burgundy is covered by a type of soil known as ‘marl’, a mix of minerals, limestone, clay and silt. This is great for growing wine, as silt promotes drainage to keep vines from flooding, while clay retains the moisture that sees vines through the drier months, as well as maintaining cool and consistent temperatures. Clay is also rich in nutrients, which helps with strong vines, bud formation and healthy fruit.
This mix varies across Burgundy, resulting in a wide range of different soils depending on where the vineyard lies. In addition, vines planted in thin soil on more rocky slopes need to work harder to gain nutrients. Stressed vines tend to produce fewer but more concentrated grapes, giving more signature to the wines from that location.
While experts debate whether a specific soil can actually be tasted in the final wine, the presence or absence of certain minerals is a deciding factor in the health of the grapevine and the final taste of the wine, in addition to the other factors mentioned above.
The last major element of terroir is topography - the rise and fall of the land, the hills and valleys, the rivers and peaks.
Elevation influences the minimum and maximum temperature of a vineyard, as well as the amount of sunlight the grapes get. While the air tends to be cooler, grapes cultivated at higher elevations receive more direct and concentrated sunlight, producing darker skins with greater tannins and pigmentation.
Relative elevation plays a role as well. Grapes that are grown on a hillside experience more even temperatures due to wind, as well as good soil drainage, low-lying valleys get much cooler at night as cold, damp air settles into them, and can absorb the water that collects below them.
South-facing slopes receive more sun than those facing north (at least in the northern hemisphere), leading to riper grapes.
The slope of a vineyard plays a role as well. Gentle slopes result in water run-off, forcing vines to develop deeper roots and put more energy into generating fruit. They also promote better air flow, keeping plants dry and mold-free while allowing cold air to drain away into nearby low-lying regions, reducing the chance of damage during a spring frost.
The End Result
Thanks to unique weather patterns, a mild climate, excellent geography, and numerous other factors, the soils of Burgundy are ground zero for creating remarkable wines with a tangible sense of place.
Whether it’s the famous Chablis in the north, the beautifully balanced reds and whites from the Cote d’Or, or the less known gems from the south, for over a thousand years the Burgundy terroir has been celebrated for the wines it can produce, and is justifiably regarded as the winemaking region most closely associated with terror itself.