The concept of ‘terroir’ is central to an understanding of natural wine. It is a word with no exact English equivalent, often roughly translated as 'sense of place'.
A wine, like a person, is shaped by its experiences: in the vineyard, in the winery, and in the bottle. Where, when, and how it was made will all affect what it tastes like.
Terroir is the word given to that part of a wine’s experience which is determined by place.
It is the fingerprint of the earth in the grapes that have grown there and the wine they become.
What makes terroir ?
Exactly what constitutes terroir, and the relative importance of the several factors, is controversial.
Some or all of the following are involved :
Temperature, rainfall and sunlight all affect the vine's growth.
The altitude, slope and aspect of particular location determine its exposure to the weather, hours of sunlight and ability to drain.
The physical properties of the soil and the rocks from which it is made. Particularly important with regard to water supply and drainage.
- Soil chemistry
The availability of the various nutrients that the vine needs, and the micro-organisms that help it to fix them.
The yeasts indigenous to any particular area will have a significant effect on the taste of the wines made there.
Why does it matter ?
Terroir is what gives wines their character. It is the reason all chardonnays or all burgundies do not taste the same.
The aim of the natural winemaker is to allow his wines to express their terroir as purely and as honestly as possible. Any attempt manipulate or interfere with this expression is a falsification, even if the result is likely to be more popular in the marketplace, or to get higher scores from influential wine critics.
Natural wines are as diverse as the places they are made. Natural wine lovers are people who celebrate this diversity.
Conventional wines have little or no sense of terroir, because it is all but destroyed by conventional winemaking practices. This does not stop them from using the term enthusiastically.