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Inside Knowledge: what is terroir and how does it affect the taste of your wine?

What is terroir and how does it affect the taste of your wine?

In Short:
The term ‘terroir’ encompasses the many geographical, climatic and ecological qualities of a vineyard, all of which shape the character of a wine.

What does terroir mean?

Why does Pinot Noir from Burgundy taste so great? Or Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley? It’s not only down to the talented local winemakers. These regions have ideal ‘terroir’ for growing those grape varieties.

The French word ‘terroir’ doesn’t have an exact English translation. But the best way to think of it is as a ‘sense of place’. It refers to the vineyard situation in which wine grapes grow – the soil type, climate, terrain, elevation and even the local flora and fauna.

All these factors influence how grapes develop flavour. And, in turn, that shapes the character of the finished wine. That’s why a Sauvignon Blanc grown in New Zealand, for example, will never taste exactly like one made in Sancerre, even if the winemaking style is the same. Every single vineyard in the world has its own unique terroir.

How does this affect my wine?

Just as the definition of terroir is complex, so is its impact on wine. With so many elements at play, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly which flavour characteristics come from the vineyard’s terroir, and which come from the vinification process. 

But in broad terms, there are certain elements of terroir that typically shine through in a finished wine. One is soil: grapes grown on chalk, for example in Chablis, often are said to have a mineral note. Wines produced from limestone or clay may be very structured. In parts of France’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape, unique rounded stones – known as galets roulés – radiate heat that ripens dark-fruit-scented Grenache, more commonly grown in warmer Spain.


Altitude is another key element of terroir. Wines from very high altitudes where the air is cool – for example in Mendoza, Argentina – are often more delicate than those from low-lying areas, like Bordeaux’s Médoc. 

Often within a short distance you can find strikingly different terroirs. Australia’s sun-drenched Barossa Valley, for example, is ideal for powerful, rich red wines such as Shiraz. But next door the Eden Valley – at a higher altitude – produces fresh, elegant whites.


What terroir should you choose?

Some grape varieties are better suited to certain terroirs than others. For example, Pinot Noir does very well in Burgundy, due to the cool climate and clay-limestone soils. But really, there’s no such thing as good or bad terroir. 

The whole point is that each one is unique. The choices made by a winery during the grape growing and winemaking processes have an impact on how terroir is expressed in the finished wine. So if you are looking for a bottle that strongly expresses its place of origin, it can be helpful to look at its production methods as well as where it comes from.

The wines that most strongly showcase their terroir are those bottled from a single vineyard. Blended wines, especially those containing multiple varieties, include grapes harvested from different sites, so terroir is harder to pinpoint.

Burgundy is a great resource: wines listed as Premier Cru or Grand Cru are sourced from a single site. Secondly, consider buying an organic wine. As chemical pesticides and fertilisers aren’t used in the vineyards, there is a greater chance of unique local biodiversity. And, theoretically at least, that biodiversity may put a distinct local stamp on the finished wine.

Try these wines to get a true taste of terroir:

Montes Single Vineyard Chardonnay

Kangarilla Road 'Devil's Whiskers' Single Vineyard Shiraz

Doudet Naudin Chablis Grand Cru