Terroir is one of the most disputed, yet most exciting concepts in the wine industry. A French term meaning “a sense of place”, it practically can be defined as the set of all environmental factors influencing the final profile of a wine, from climate and soil where the vine grows, to feature enhancement through human intervention.
In a broad sense, “terroir” can identify the overall style of a certain region. At the same time, it can also explain the reason why crops of the same grape varietal sitting next to each other can produce significantly different wines.
Burgundy reflects this variety in a mosaic of different styles and flavours, further classified over the years into a vineyard-based system that, stemming from the Napoleonic era, has led to the formation of a high number of tiny plots, sometimes consisting of just few rows in a shared cru.
The way in which elements that influence and define a specific terroir are combined ultimately determines the distinctiveness of character one always hopes to find in a bottle of wine.
Climate can affect wine in several ways. It determines whether an area of land is suitable for viticulture, besides influencing the choice of grape varietals to grow: some grapes cannot withstand cold or hot temperatures during the growing season.
The ripeness of grapes is linked to the amount of sunlight received as that affects the amount of sugar contained in the pulp and its levels of alcohol. Hence, wines from the same grape grown in different climates show different power and intensity.
Interestingly enough, significant differences in temperature between seasons or between day and night have a striking effect in terms of complexity: this kind of dynamics normally occurs in continental climates such as Burgundy and Piedmont.
Mineral elements are often passed from the soil to the vines, depending, to varying degrees, on the characteristics of the soil itself. Besides, the type of soil determines the way nutrients reach the grapes.
Together with climate, the way specific soils are able to retain and drain water, as well as retain and reflect heat, makes for a smoother or harsher wine profile, by imparting power and elegance.
The impact of geomorphology works in combination with both climate and soil, helping growers and producers make the best decision when it comes to vineyard architecture.
A slope can present advantages in terms of sunlight availability as well as drainage potential. It can offer protection from or be exposed to wind. All these variables are to be taken in consideration when it comes to what the grapes need, for a smooth and successful interaction among soil, climate and fruit.
In a similar way, proximity to large bodies of water or mountains can have an impact on how similar climates interact differently in different regions.
Given that the main fruit aromas and flavours that can be detected in a wine depend on the grape variety itself, these can be altered and enhanced by external organisms growing in or around the vine plots. Microflora and microbial population in vineyards, in fact, have been described as a quantifiable aspect of the overall terroir.
Some like to include the human factor in the broader concept of terroir, and so do we. Ploughing with horses rather than tractors can have a different impact on the soil surface, for example.
Furthermore, hand picking grapes rather than mechanical harvesting, or the use of bigger or smaller containers can expose the grapes to varying degrees of stress with related effects on the following vintages.
Winemaking itself comprises a set of human activities that significantly influence style, starting from whether to keep the stems before the grapes are crushed and pressed, to deciding the amount of fermentation stages required.
However, one of the most significant examples is represented by oak ageing of wine. Depending on the the type of barrels used – new or old – oxidation brings about character and round flavours due to the softening of tannins.