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In Search of In Search of the Champagne Life

Daily Column

Letters to the Editor:  click for full list

Founder's Page Greeting

Passion Forum Massaging Away One's Boundaries

Arts & Sciences Terroir

Feature America Is Bubbling Up In Many New Places

Interview: Interview With The Russell Brothers

HelloGoodbye Luciano & Brown

Sparkling Wine Review Mark reviews sparkling wines "from off the beaten track"

Fiction Fate-The Tree, the Rope, & Le Provacateur Extraordinaire by Fredrik Bergström

Drinker's Poetry Olejyink, Tolstoy, & Slattery

The Marcia Reed Virtual Gallery Expressionistic Landscapes by Marcia Reed

Photo Gallery Click for Pics


Dr. Timothy Smith, PhD


In preparing to write about terroir (ter- wah ), I discovered, not a dry and analytical definition but an unsettled and embattled definition in English of the French word terroir .   Judging by the extended debates in the literature and on the web, many growers, vintners, writers and others voice strong opinions about the topic of terroir.   Maurice Constantin-Weyer once wrote:

"A secret alchemy brings out the very least virtue of the soil." He continues, ".the influences that rule to vine are so subtle that the slopes of Vosne-Romanee, Chambolle-Musigny and Clos Vougeot, planted with the same Pinot grape produce wines of such a distinct personality."

This quote from the History of Food by Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat purely exemplifies a powerful regard for terroir:

"But the soil-the cradle in which the vine lay, surrounded by fairy godmothers each bringing her own blessings-was also extremely important."

Randall Graham, in a speech on terroir on May 21 st , 2000, declared, "I am a lover of terroir and my passion burns with a white-hot geek love supreme."   At the other end of the spectrum, Joe Traynor asserted in Grape Grower Magazine, "Terroir is a bogus term and has been bogus from the get-go."  

Definitions for the meaning of terroir in English abound from the minimalistic to the very comprehensive:

Terroir: French for soil-different soils have unique flavors, flavors that will be taken up by the wine.   The French call this "gout de terroir" or taste of the soil.

The French concept of the influence of the growing environment on wine character.   Terroir is the locale where vines are grown and the interaction between temperature and rainfall, sunlight, relief (elevation and degree of slope), geology and pedology. (from vinpromrousse )

Other more lengthily definitions of terroir extend beyond the microclimate of a vineyard to include the viticulture, enology and more.   Robert Pool offered an extensive definition of terroir in his piece " Is There Terroir in New York :"

To put it simply, terroir is the result of the combined effects of a region's soil (depth, chemical composition, texture, drainage, management, etc.), the specific site characteristics (altitude, slope, exposure, prevailing winds, etc.), the viticulture (variety, rootstock, clone, training, spacing, fertilization, pruning level, amount and timing of leaf removal, etc.), the enology (type of barrel fermentation, nature of the indigenous yeast and bacteria, length of maceration, level of refinement (meaning low yield), etc.), the culture of the site (racial and religious make-up, morés, the economic and educational attainment of its peoples and the degree of annointement by the wine gods as exclusive host of knowledge and tradition regarding wine arts).

Terroir also appears to be a considerably scalable term that differentiates the conditions a vine will face on any piece of land no matter the size.   Terroir might refer to great tracts of land such as regions like Champagne or Napa Valley or to the different conditions within a vineyard, such as at the top of a hill or at the base of the hill.   Pierre A. Rovani once commented that vines planted from the same clones and planted on the same day in 1957 only six feet apart produce clearly distinguishable wines in the case of Bruno Clair's Gevry Chambertin Clos St. Jacques and G-C Cazetiers wines.   Terroir clearly has many definitions and applications; this variety of definitions also leads to disputes over the proper definition of terroir. At a mimimun most definitions of terroir contain three empirical components-geology, climate & weather, and soil.


Geology refers to the parent material that comprises the terroir.   The Finger Lakes wine region contains limestone that imparts a higher pH (this means less acidic), which vinifera likes.   The Champagne region has a thin layer of arable soil, usually no more than 20 inches (50 cms) over chalk that can be up to 600 feet thick in places.   The vineyards of Tavel have distinctive characteristics: "lauses" (white calcerous stones) and "galets" (large pebble stones) This picture (courtesy of Syndicat AOC Tavel ) show this rocky soil that has low agronomic output but produces "a wine with inimitable vivacity thanks to those efforts, which only mother nature is capable of producing."   Geology also refers to drainage.   Good drainage, which is affected by the altitude, slope, exposure, prevailing winds and soil structure, contributes to wine quality in a paradoxical manner.   The poorer the soil the larger and more complex the root system will be.   A wider root system in well-drained ground will be less susceptible to fluctuations in water and food supplies leading to more robust vines.   It appears that the old adage that the vines must suffer to produce good wine contains a grain of truth.

Climate & Weather

Climate and weather strongly influence terroir.   Climate includes temperature and number of growing days-the number of days warmer than 50 F.   Latitude greatly influences the temperature and number of growing days.   The wine producing regions of California, New Zealand, Chili, Argentina, and Australia are between 35 to 38. While Washington, France, and Germany are between 45 to 50.   These locations combine the best climactic conditions for wine production.   The higher the latitude the fewer growing days, but this is compensated to some degree with longer growing days. The temperature fluctuation within a day also influences the production of good wine.   Hot days and cool nights produce more complex wines.   Proximity to large bodies of water, altitude, and the heat retention of the soil influence the maturation of grapes.   This picture (courtesy of Shadow Canyon ) shows a mist coming in over the vines to cool them at the end of a warm day.



Grapes grow in volcanic soil, limestone, slate, shale.   Soils composed of sand, silt or clay or a combination of the three support wine production.    Soil is synonymous with the chemical solution that bathes the roots of the vine.   Calcium content among other things influences the pH (acidity) of the soil.   Soils that are too acidic will not support vinefera.   Soil amendments such as lime for acidic soil can be used to adjust soil pH to make it less acidic.


The definition of terroir in some cases also encompasses the farming practices, which strongly influence wine quality.   Such practices as variety and clonal selection, vine spacing, canopy management, pest management, irrigation and yield management profoundly affect wine quality.   This in part is why a well-managed property will produce better wine over time.  

The term terroir remains controversial because it contains subjective and objective aspects that have not been fully accepted.   Regarding the definition of terroir, "Terrain comes nearest, but has much less specific, let alone emotive connotation."(from Terroir )   Terroir contains aesthetic, artistic, metaphysical components along with the more quantifiable aspects.   Those that feel they have an exclusive vinyard feel comfortable with terroir, but others feel the divisiveness of the term.   Perhaps, the dividing line falls between what nature brings to the wine and what man brings through manipulation of the environment.   Terroir may be the intangible sense of place that a wine contains.





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