When it comes to flavor, the vineyard environment matters just as much as the grape varietal.
Whether you’re a newbie or a certified wine-o, you should know how to talk about terroir with confidence! Not only is it a fun word (from the French terre, which means land), it’s also fascinating. In order to appreciate all the factors that make every bottle of wine unique and special, you need to know about terroir. Let’s get into it.
What Is Terroir?
Terroir is a French term that refers to the natural environment where a vineyard grows. Terroir includes numerous factors such as soil type, climate, flora and fauna, topography, and grape variety. All of these factors can affect a vineyard's grape production, and they matter when it comes to grape size and taste. Vineyards are very sensitive to their environment; having nutrient rich or poor soil, a hot or cold climate, and a seaside or mountainous terrain can all affect the taste of wine.
When sommeliers say that a wine has terroir, they mean that wine tastes the way wine grown in the region that it’s from should taste. They mean it has a sense of place. Wines from Russian River Valley taste how wines from Russian River Valley should taste, because those wines come from a unique microclimate.
Some would argue that a wine’s terroir is solely affected by natural elements like soil type and topography, whereas others say that human actions can affect a wine’s terroir too. Humans can trim, fertilize, and use herbicides on vines. Humans can even blend different types of grapes together to make blended wines. All of these practices can contribute to a wine’s terroir.
Does Terroir Affect the Taste of Wine?
Terroir is the characteristic taste and flavor imparted to a wine by the environment where it’s grown and produced. Critics may say that terroir doesn’t affect the taste of wine nearly as much as it’s acclaimed to, but the proof lies in corked bottles. Terroir is often described as an “earthy” or “mineral” flavor, but can manifest in a wine’s texture, finish, smell, and alcohol content.
Let’s use California to help explain how terroir affects the taste of wine. Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley receives fog formed from cool moist air being blown along the coast. This creates grapes that are best for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In the east where there are mountain slopes, warmer temperatures and less fog create grapes that are best for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Put simply, wines taste different because of the different grape varietals in them, but also because of where those grapes grow. Any sommelier will be able to tell the difference between a Sonoma Chardonnay and a French Chardonnay—and with a little practice and observation, you can learn too!
How to Taste Terroir
You don’t have to be a sommelier to understand or appreciate a wine’s terroir, you just need a little awareness. Tasting wines from a certain region will help you identify aromas and flavors that are specific to that region because of its terroir. You can then compare those to the aromas and flavors of wines from a different region. This is a great way to experience terroir in action.
If your bottles are produced from different areas or you only have one bottle on hand, here are some factors to look out for:
- Production region
- Look at the bottle to see where the wine is from. Is it from France? California? Where in California? Which region? Having an idea of the wine’s terroir before you sip it will give you some insight into what you’re about to taste. Wines from hot climates tend to be more full bodied and lower in acidity compared to wines from cooler climates which are drier, crisper, and leaner.
- Alcohol content
- Wines with a higher alcohol content may come from a hotter area. Heat encourages sugar development and sugar turns to alcohol.
- Lighter wines tend to come from lighter, free draining soils, whereas highly concentrated wines come from denser soils.
- Complex wines have a lot of aromas. These types of wines often come from vineyards with good soil drainage and nutrient-poor soil, where vines have to struggle harder to survive—think mountain wines!
Where Are Teneral Cellars Wines From?
All of our vineyards are located in Northern California and we also bring in some fruit from other vineyard in Northern California and Central Coast. Here’s a list of our wines from different places within Northern California and Central Coast:
- El Dorado
- Russian River Valley
Each of these microclimates produces subtly different flavors in our wines. If you want to try your hand at tasting terroir, compare bottles from different microclimates. For example, contrast our 2020 Pinot Noir, made from grapes grown in Russian River Valley, with our 2016 Pinot Noir, made from Monterey County grapes. Not only does the year (the vintage) affect the taste, but the terroir is different as well. Hone in on every sip and allow yourself to be surprised!
Fostering a Sustainable Terroir
The way we treat our soils, air, and water directly affects the flavors detected in our wines, so we make sure to be as gentle as possible. In our vineyards, we use sustainable practices to ensure the best growing environment for our grapes—and the best possible terroir. We practice dry farming and regulated deficit irrigation to conserve water. Dry farming requires crops to rely on the moisture held in soil from winter rains—it’s about conserving and retaining soil moisture to support vines without supplemental irrigation. We don’t use pesticides, and opt for naturally-occurring fertilizers instead of synthetics, because natural fertilizers stimulate microbial activity and improve soil structure, and provide valuable sources of micronutrients to plants. The terroir of our wines is affected by these practices—they make our wines taste even better, and they’re better for the planet.