Wine 101

11. Terroir and its Effect on Wine

As we have already seen, the notion of terroir falls straight at the center of any (serious) discussion about wine. And for good reasons.

That said, many of you have shared with me that although they now appreciate knowing that terroir does matter, they’d like to be able to specify what. While keeping it simple and down to earth – yep, pun intended – here is a little overview of some basic principles relating to terroir in general and its impact on the vino it produces.

Terroir’s impact on a wine’s character

OK! Let’s start at the beginning: if you have no idea what the word terroir means, you do not have to go googling your life away for hours. Just click here to be redirected to my wine class on the subject: 6. Talking Terroir.

All done? Great. Now that everyone is at the same level, I suggest I introduce some of terroir’s effects on a wine in the form of simple “equations”. I swear to you that even the worst in math will be able to follow these though, so stay put!

1. Warm climate + lots of sun = ripe grapes = grapes with more sugar = less structured and more fruity wine

California’s Alexander Valley is known for its very hot climate. Fortunately for the wine, the nights are rather cold. – photo credit: star5112/Flickr

The formula is a little crude, but you get the idea. If you know for a fact that the region from which a wine comes is very hot day and night (yup, has to be both), then you can expect wines with the following characteristics, among others:

  • The great ripening of the grapes will cause more sugar in the juice, and therefore more material for the yeasts to turn into alcohol. We will therefore have wines with a higher percentage of alcohol;
  • The increased ripeness of the grapes caused by the extra heat will make the wine less acidic, because ripeness usually entails extra sugar and less acidity, though the variety can change this to some extent;
  • The fact that the grapes ripen to their full potential will put forward the primary characteristics of the fruit. We will therefore tend to see wines more focused on the fruit and the flavors of the variety itself. Think of how a raisin tastes compared to fresh grapes to give you an idea.
  • The heat accelerates the ripening period of the grapes on the vines, making the wine less complex and more one-dimensional since it has to be picked earlier, losing time to develop additional flavors.

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As you can tell, warm climates will not usually make the greatest wines. However, with a little expertise, many winemakers will “thwart” these adverse consequences and will make very fine wine out of even the most violently hot regions of the world.

Still, heat will always allow serviceable wine to be made, which means that most bargain stuff you can buy will be made in hot regions due to the little hassle and high return on investment they bring.

2. Cold climate + less sun = underripe grapes = less sugar in grapes = wine that is more acidic and structured

Champagne has one of the coolest and most rainy climates in the wine producing regions, which explains the vibrant acidity of its wines – photo credits: laurent/Flickr

Fortunately for your sharp sense of logic, the opposite is as true as it is in math. Everything is still linked to the ripening of the grapes, and will therefore necessarily depend on the grape variety since each type of grape will not ripen at the same speed. Here are the few basic features that can however regularly be expected from cold(er) climates:

  • Since the grapes will not have matured to their full potential, there will usually be less sugar to turn into alcohol through the fermentation process. Cold climate wines will therefore have a lower percentage of alcohol;
  • The fact that the grapes will not be completely ripe will also make them taste “greener.” This usually means less fruit flavor and a more pronounced acidity;
  • The lack of ripening will make the grapes comparatively less important in the final flavor of the wine. We will therefore have wines less dominated by pure fruit notes and generally more sensitive to winemaking methods (barrel fermentation, etc.);
  • When the vines really lack maturity at the time of harvest, they will produce wines that could be called “dead” because no truly interesting flavor has had time to develop at all.

3. Beauty’s always in the balance of compromise

All right, so at this point I believe it is worth asking the question whether it is better to buy wines from hot regions or cold regions, right? The only answer is, like your Facebook relationship status, things are more complicated than that. Indeed, the great wines of the world generally come from places that strike a perfect balance between what we want from hot regions (ie, maturity and exuberance) and cold regions (ie, acidity and finesse). To get there, the best terroirs in hot climates will usually be located high up and/or in places where the days are hot and the nights are cold (to give a break to the vines and slow down the ripening), while the best vineyards located in generally cold climates will grow on land directly exposed to the sun and/or protected by mountain ranges and/or warmed by hotter bodies of water, for example. As you can tell, beauty comes from balance – and it is in the in-between that it most often lies!

That said, you will understand that we are just starting to scratch the surface of the impact of the terroir on wine. We’ll have time to talk about it, but that’s what makes the journey so interesting, right? 🙂 In the meantime, you can practice figuring out where a wine comes from by tasting it blind. For this, ask a few friends to come over with (at least) a bottle each, and have someone pour the wines without telling you what they are. Do you taste the alcohol burn? This indicates a warm climate. Is the acidity sharp? You are probably in a colder climate. So you get apples, but how mature do they taste? The stronger the impression of ripe fruit, the more likely you are to be in a warm, sunny climate, etc.

Do you have other things to share and/or tell us all about your blind tasting exploits? Boast away in the comments, guys!

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