What exactly is terroir?
Terroir is a French term that translates as “territory” or “sense of place,” and refers more specifically to how that sense of place is reflected in a wine. (More rigorously, terroir refers to the environmental factors that influence the way a grape’s genetic potential, or phenotype, is expressed in the final product.)
While terroir is today applied to many different agricultural products such as coffee, tobacco, tea, and olive oil, the term originated in wine production, and it’s in that context that we’ll be considering it in this article.
There are many different ways of categorizing the different aspects of terroir, but you can generally think of them as a combination of:
Climate (sun, temperature, rainfall, etc.)
Soil (composition, fertility, drainage, heat retention)
Terrain (mountains, valleys, elevation, slope, facing, bodies of water, and other organisms)
Many include a fourth aspect to terroir, which is:
Tradition (pruning, irrigation, harvesting practices, the use of cultivated yeasts, fermentation practices, etc.)
But you can think of this as an expanded definition as its inclusion is still debated among wine experts. This is because producer practices, unlike the other three elements, in principle fall under the control of winemakers, so it’s difficult to make the case that these are strictly “environmental” factors.
True as that may be, different wine regions around the world have different winemaking cultures. While some parts of the world give winemakers complete discretion as to how they make their wine (for example, including additives such as oak chips, sugar, or alcohol, which can in fact mask any sense of terroir), other regions have very strict regulations regarding the growing of the grapes and the pressing of the wine, and it these places it often makes sense to include local tradition as part of terroir.
For example, some regions don’t allow growers to water or irrigate their vines (known as dry farming), which has a noticeable effect on the resulting wine. As Burgundy is one of these regions with a very strong winemaking tradition, we include tradition as an essential part of its terroir.
France as a whole is very terroir-driven, distinguishing wines based on region or vineyard, rather than producer or grape variety. France’s official labeling system, known as the Appellation d’Origine Controlé or AOC (classification of controlled origin) is based on this principle and stands in stark contrast to winemaking regions like California where producer and variety are front and center.
Within France, Burgundy is the region most closely associated with terroir, only natural as Burgundy is where the concept originated. During the Middle Ages, Benedictine and Cistercian monks noticed that the same grapes would produce different wines depending on where they were planted, and began to subdivide their vineyards accordingly. Many of Burgundy’s vineyards are divided along the same lines today, with some still separated by the same ancient stone walls (clos).
In Burgundy, the prevailing belief is that wine should embody the unique features of its birthplace, and winemakers prepare their wine following this philosophy. When you buy Burgundy from different vineyards, you’re not only getting wonderful bottles of wine to store in your cellar or enjoy with friends, you’re getting, quite literally, a unique taste of Burgundy and the regions that compose it.