Actually, this post is about terroir, not terriers (French for “earth dog” because they chase rodents into burrows). As you can tell, they share the same root – terra, which means earth or land.
That is essentially what terroir is – a sense of place expressed in wine. It also applies to coffee and tea. Say it with me. “Ter-whah”. Good, now you speak French.
This is a much-discussed word and no precise English equivalent exists. Major components of terroir include: Climate – sunshine, temperature and rainfall – all these will determine how the grapes will ripen and therefore how the wine will taste. Wines from warmer climates tend to be juicier because the grapes get more ripe. You can break this down further, too, to include the enviornment right around the canopy (the part of the vine above the ground) and it’s called microclimate. Take it another step and you have mesoclimate, which refers to the environment of the particular vineyard – its aspect, elevation, slope, distance to water, soil types, etc. The local grape varieties play an important role, too. Some grapes simply perfom better than others in certain areas. Other human decisions, such as selecting yeast cultures and certain winemaking practices will also affect the terroir. Some winemakers may choose to use ambient or wild yeasts in their winemaking to enhance the terroir. The use of oak has the potential to downplay the impact of terroir.
The idea of terroir has formed the backbone of the appellation system in France – the idea that wines from particular areas are unique. Winemakers in Burgundy do not believe they are making Pinot Noir that happens to be grown in Burgundy, but rather, that they are producing Burgundian wines that happen to be made from Pinot Noir. They consider themselves wine growers as opposed to wine makers. This idea spread to the rest of the Europe, so that winemakers outside of Tuscany can’t make a wine from Sangiovese and call it Chianti.
Terroir also plays into the debate over Old World vs. New World wines. Do mass-produced wines adjusted to American palates reflect any particular terroir? If you have a super-ripe Cabernet Sauvignon in your glass, would you be able to tell if it’s from California, South Africa, Chile or Australia?
Let’s practice using it in a sentence or two, so you’ll never be intimidated by the word again. “I prefer Old World wines because they reflect a greater sense of terroir” or “The blue slate soils of the Mosel valley in Germany are partially responsible for the unique terroir of the region, imparting a strong mineral character to the wines.”