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Terroir: the flavor of a place

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Terroir is a French word derived from the word for earth. It refers to a collection of characteristics that when taken together create a sort of sense of place, which manifests in the grapes grown on the land, and ultimately in the wine itself. Soil composition, rocks, water sources, elevation, the shape of the land, sunlight, rainfall, snow, and more all go into creating a distinctive terroir.

The French put a great deal of weight in the concept of terroir, and the entire French classification system is derived from the idea that specific regions have their own unique character – and that they are best suited to certain grape varieties and blends. It is for this reason that, for example, in the Condrieu region of the Northern Rhone, only wines made with 100% viognier grapes may be labelled Condrieu. It has been determined that the terroir of Condrieu is best expressed in viognier.

What exactly makes up terroir is a matter of some debate. The most basic elements are soil and climate. The soil composition of a patch of land greatly influences the final taste of the wine, as the soil imparts its mineral characteristics to the grape, and the vines grow differently depending on what type of soil they are planted in. A syrah vine will grow radically different in a very sandy soil than it will in a gravel soil, and different still in a soil with a heavy clay content.

The climate of an area also greatly impacts the taste of a wine. Grapes which are subjected to consistently high temperatures and low rainfall will have a very different character than those grown in a cool climate where fog keeps the grapes from ripening too quickly. Climate can generally be separated into three zones of descending size – and the French appellation system reflects this. At the far end is a macroclimate, which generally correlates to an appellation, such as Condrieu in France. Next is the mesoclimate, in France often a particular village or commune, such as Chavannay within Condrieu. Finally, there is a microclimate, often a specific vineyard. Even a microclimate may be further subdivided – some wineries treat different rows within a single vineyard as having their own distinct terroir, based on the angle of the slope, or the specific elevation.

There are a number of elements which impact a wine's final flavor that may or may not be considered terroir, depending on who is asked. Elements such as oak are contentious in the world of wine – some people consider the proper use of oak to highlight a wine's terroir, while others consider it a dominant force that overwhelms the natural terroir. Wild yeast is another element which may or may not be considered terroir – although yeast does not have an impact on the growth of the grapes themselves, the use of wild yeasts which are unique to a region can have a strong impact on the end product.

 

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