Wine Pressings: Terroir

Editor’s Note: This week, the Press is pleased to introduce a new column, Wine Pressings, by Harvard-based wine merchant Charles Oliver. Let us know what you think. Have an idea for a column of your own? Write us at editor@harvardpress.net.

For this initial column, I had planned to discuss the proper assessment of a wine and the various terms used to describe it. I have since thought better of it, mainly because that stuff is pretty boring. The goal of this occasional feature is to present interesting aspects of wine grape growing, winemaking, and new trends in winemaking technology. So, with that goal in mind, and given that this is the first in the series, I’ve switched to a discussion of terroir.

Terroir is a French word that doesn’t have a single-word equivalent in English. It is the starting point in the conversation about fine wine production. The closest approximation could be “place,” but in the broadest possible meaning. The word comes from the French word “terre,” meaning land, and indirectly from the Latin word “terratorium.” While land or soil is a significant part of a vineyard’s terroir, it is only a piece of it.

As mentioned above, a possible English word for terroir is place. As opposed to defining that as a pin on a map, it is the sum total of all of that place’s characteristics. The Oxford Dictionary definition of terroir is: the complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate. I find that definition a little lacking, even though “complete natural environment” is pretty all-encompassing. This is primarily because of the lack of emotion in that definition. Speaking to winemakers about their terroir is inspiring. They have such reverence for it, including the seemingly inconsequential aspects.

To delve a little deeper into the concept requires defining the scope of terroir—what it includes and what it does not. A good list of attributes is location, climate, aspect, and soil.

Each of these makes a significant impact on the totality of terroir and the wine produced there. I am sure that in a community like Harvard, with many farmers and gardeners, much of the following will not be new information.

The first component of terroir is location. Most fine wine production comes from the temperate zones of the earth, between 30º and 50º in the Northern and Southern hemispheres. Exceptions to this are located in high-altitude tropical zones like the Andes Mountains (Bolivia and Peru), and increasingly in areas like England and southern Canada, where average temperatures have increased to a point that fine wine can be produced. Within these bands temperature range is huge and is one of the most significant factors in grape variety, as well as the style of wine that can be made.

Climate and temperature

The second part of terroir is climate. Largely due to location, climate includes heat, number of sunny days., and total hours of sunshine and rainfall.

Temperature is a key factor in terroir and wine quality. Average temperature in summer should be no less than 66ºF, with a large difference between daytime high and evening low providing the best conditions for maintaining freshness and acidity in eventual wine. A measurement called growing degree days (GDD) is used to measure total temperature throughout the growing season. Wine regions are classified into five groups by the number of GDDs, called the Winkler index. Also quite important is wintertime temperature. Persistent, extreme cold will kill or damage vines, so a moderate winter climate is necessary for fine wine production. Sorry, aspiring Harvard winegrowers.

Sunshine is another important aspect of climate. Photosynthesis will continue on cloudy days, so sunshine is most needed to maintain the appropriate average temperature during the growing season.

Rainfall is critical for vine health and grape production, but the timing and intensity can have consequences for the vintage. Ideally rain comes gently in the winter and spring, and to some extent in the summer. Summer rain can provide vines a quenching drink and perhaps a respite from high temperatures. Extended wet periods during the warm months can promote rot and destroy large parts of a crop.

Aspect

Aspect is the total of the vineyard’s physical attributes, including elevation, slope (direction faced and steepness), and drainage. In the Northern Hemisphere, unless in a hot growing area, south-facing slopes are preferred. This allows the grapes to get the full effect of the sun’s light and warmth. A sloping vineyard also allows better drainage of excess rainfall. The most prized vineyard sites are generally located in the middle of the slope. The last part of aspect is elevation. To a certain point, higher elevation is beneficial to vines. This stems from lower temperatures, allowing long hangtime and better phenolic ripeness, and lower absolute humidity, allowing for greater day-to-night temperature difference.

The final major component of terroir is soil. As a vineyard owner and winemaker, you can have all of the above in good measure, but if you don’t have the proper soil, you are likely to produce insipid and unremarkable wine. The keyword for soil is “poor.” Undifferentiated, rich soil, while good for maximizing crop, produces wine that lacks character, wine that doesn’t speak the name of the place where it’s from. The example that I often use is Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Typically Grenache-based, the best wines from here taste and smell like crushed rocks, along with fruit and spice, of course. This is because the vines are grown on piles of rocks! As the sun and wind and rain degrade these stones, the mineral water that is produced is taken up by the roots and expressed in the fruit.

That is the essence of terroir: the ability to visualize the place just by having a smell and a taste of a wine.

Please let me know if you have any questions about terroir, or any other wine-related subject. I look forward to continuing the conversation. Email coliver6285@gmail.com.

Charles Oliver is a Harvard resident, father of two energetic boys, and wine lover. He has worked for a small French and Italian wine importer for 11 years.

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