Terroir is a word that is thrown around a lot among wine tasters, but is very
difficult to define. Borrowed from the French language, there is no equivalent word in English - so
what exactly does it mean? And what does it mean for wine tasting? We tackle both
Definition of Terroir
The root of the word 'terroir' is 'terre' - which in French means 'land' or 'earth'. I
define terroir as the expression of a unique parcel of land or region through an agricultural,
artisanal product, such as wine. The term is most frequently applied to wine but can also be used
to describe the impact of regional typicity in other products such as cheese or even beef (think
Kobe or Wagyu).
The basic idea is that some regions or vineyard plots have a quality that makes them special - so
that if you took the same grape variety, followed the same winegrowing practices and winemaking
practices but grew it anywhere else it would never taste quite the same. While this has somewhat to
do with the 'earth' in terms of the soil composition, grade and exposure of the piece of land,
terroir also encompasses the microclimate of that area and other factors.
What it Means for Wine
TastingIn my view, the most
amazing wine tasting feat is the qualification to become a Master of Wine. There
are only 272 people in the entire world who have passed this exam with only 26 in the U.S.
Following a two-year program, applicants must successfully complete four papers on theory
as well as pass three blind tastings. With nothing other than a memory bank of tens or
hundreds of thousands of wines and the power of their own palate, they must identify
the wines tasted by region, appellation, producer, varietal, vineyard designate if applicable,
as well as vintage.
Many more people take the test than pass it, and often it takes future Masters several attempts
before they succeed. Yet, the fact of the matter is 272 people have been able to
pass these blind tastings. It seems mind-boggling, but the trick is that their truly is a
'stamp' of terroir - each vintage will also carry the variations of that growing season, but a
thoughtfully crafted wine from a great vineyard or area will have a consistent
character that separates it from all other wines.
As one becomes more versed in wine tasting through experience, terroir is
one of the most magical and transcendental parts of wine. For those of you just starting
to learn about wine tasting, I hope there is something reassuring in knowing that a great
wine is ultimately a matter of Nature - and the best winegrowers and winemakers understand
that their role is as a steward, not a creator.
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