If you ask anyone in France, “What’s terroir all about?” not only will that person tell you in words, but his hands… and even his entire body… will go into action.  A word created by French vignerons, you can bet your bippy that it means something, and it’s worth writing about it for the uninitiated. If you’re still skeptical after this, go fight with the French… on their own turf, in their own vineyards, under their own blue (or gray) skies. It exists, take it from someone who’s got some French in her (Bernier and Ouellette; Bernier pronounced like Viognier, and Ouellette pronounced like Willette) to know it’s for real.

I marvel at those who would love to just dismiss it. It’s like telling someone in the deepest regions of New Guinea, for instance, that Facebook exists and they challenge you on it. Ignorance is bliss, but it’s only ignorance of facts. When someone’s light bulb goes on, it’s like a Christmas tree just lit for the first time of that season.

I wrote this one a long time ago, in my wine blogging land, but I haven’t published it yet. I don’t know why… holding it back as I’ve seen other try to take it on, for good, better, or best… I’ve just let it rest right here, but now is the time.

Terroir beginning with Earth

Let’s see, which end begins the definition? Do I start at the top with the skies; or do I start with the bottom, the earth.

Let’s begin with earth, which is always referred to as Mother Nature, by those who worship the ground that we walk upon for giving us all things naturally great. For me to understand Pangaea, I decided to study geology. I spent five months reading everything I could get my eyes on, both on and off line. It began with the earth churning and turning and eventually pushing up a land mass. That super continent, called Pangaea, formed approximately 300 million years ago; and then, it began to break apart forming seven continents, after approximately 100 million years.

University of Wisconsin-Madison: In 2001, scientists reported that tiny zircon crystals had been found in Western Australia, and are the oldest known materials formed on Earth, some 4.4 billion years ago. In a more recent study, which appeared in the journal Nature Geoscience, geochemist Jack Valley (University of Wisconsin, Madison) and his colleagues have further reiterated that the crystals are indeed as old as was first theorized, in 2001.

Consider earth now in each region. The climate of each is going to vary, depending on latitude and longitude. What happened next, once continents existed, were life forms taking shape. What those life forms left behind, including any inland seas, rivers, lakes, etc., will become future life, based on all climatic conditions. When life forms die, they return to the earth as nitrogenous waste. What a tree, flower, and/or an animal (including the human species) leave behind will break down and return to the earth, nourishing those soils. This is all relative to what that earth will ultimately become. What you find in the soil of Maine, for instance, for minerals, will greatly vary from those found in California. If you think that this is incorrect, then I must draw you to an important manifestation. When the North American plate occurred, it was aligned with another oceanic plate to the west called the Farallon plate. (Scientists concur that the Farallon Islands remain as part of that plate.)

San Joaquin Valley Geology: [The] Farallon plate (which preceded the Pacific Plate) and the North American plate were moving towards each other; with dense oceanic crust (basalt) of the Farallon plate diving beneath the more buoyant continental crust (granite) of North America. This process, which is called subduction…

  • Farallon = Basalt
  • North America = Granite
  • Pacific = Sandy loam topsoil + Sandstone = moderate clay layer

The Pacific plate, submerged by the Pacific Ocean for most of its life, acquired numerous limestone deposits from the decay of marine organisms in this region. It is today one of the few places where granite and limestone are co-located, providing a well drained and mineral rich soil well suited to viticulture. [Michaud Vineyard]

This is the evidence of why the Pacific Coast, born of the Pacific Plate that subducted the Farallon Plate, provides a completely different soil type than any other viticultural region in the United States. Even within the western coastline of viticultural regions, there are even more breakdowns of soils.

Terroir, how complicated are your soils?

As winemaker Joe Freeman of The Rubin Family of Wines said to me in an interview, when discussing Green Valley’s soil types:

As different aspects work together, you can put Goldridge soil in Wisconsin, and you’re not going to grow premium wine grapes. You can move this Mediterranean climate to Georgia, and with their humidity and everything else, you’re still going to get a completely different game.

Moving on to Climate in Terroir

Since Joe Freeman also brought up “climate,” let’s explore this one, too.

Temperatures, fog, sunshine, rain, wind, storms, sea breezes (where applicable) all contribute to terroir. Simple terroir 101: The differences between a Maine McIntosh apple and a Sebastopol one… Just taste one of each, and you’ll come away from the tasting saying… Wow!” Regionalism clearly defines terroir, if you can just buy into that “word” given to us by our French heritage. It’s a really easy sell for terroir, when you immediately taste a comparative difference. Terroir is not just about grapes, either, although it’s mainly applied to winemaking. It’s about everything that has to do with a region and growing a crop within that region. The terroir of lilacs… Grow them in Maine, forget them in California. They struggle there, while they proliferate in Maine. The same can be said for blueberries. Have you ever picked and eaten a wild Maine blueberry on the spot, then tasted the huge ones that grow in Oregon?

  • Give me a handful of wild Maine ones any day of the week.
  • If I want a Pinot Noir grape, though, I won’t find a single one in Maine.
  • If I eat a Pinot Noir grape from California, with our lack of moisture, they’re going to taste completely differently from those grown in Oregon
  • … and still more differently than those grown in Washington State.
  • Some other indigenous, agricultural examples:
    • Massachusetts cranberries
    • Idaho potatoes
    • Grains in the Midwest

Why? Terroir, and in every case… Climate and soils.

According to climatologist Dr. Mark Greenspan of Advanced Viticulture:

Climate often gets neglected in discussions about “terroir.” People think “soil,” and soil is definitely important. When they think about “terroir, it’s definitely important. Grapes grow in an environment, and the flavors and all the ripening characteristics of the fruit are really linked to the environment; specifically and most importantly it’s about temperature. It’s as simple as that. There are a lot of nuances in temperature. It’s more than what’s the temperature right now? It’s what are the day time and night time differences? How cold does it get at night, how warm does it get during the daytime? And different varieties respond differently to different climates, that’s why different varieties are grown in different regions due to climate and soil.

People Who Work the Vineyards

Vineyard managers get it. They work with vines each and every day. It’s like the Little Red Hen story. They do all of the following:

  • Select the vines
  • Plant them
  • Nurture them
  • Irrigate them
  • Train them
  • Trellis them
  • Prune and thin them
  • Net them from birds just before harvest
  • Harvest them
  • And get them to the winery for wine production

According to Jim Pratt of Cornerstone Certified Vineyards:

Hundreds of thousands of years ago it [California] was under the sea as part of the Pacific Ocean. When the Pacific receded, it left great soil: sandstone, down about anywhere from about five to nine feet, with a sandy loam soil on top. So what we have is a moderate clay layer that’s permeable to water. This gives us outstanding drainage, with the sandy loam on top. This is good nutrient content, but not so much that it dictates the vigor of the vine. This way the wine maker and grape grower can actually work together with the soil, take what it gives, and then add this Russian River area climate. We have the best of both worlds; we have great soil and outstanding climate. This gives us a perfect terroir…

More to Consider for Terroir ~ Aesthetics

Like those crazy commercials… But wait… there’s more…

Earth, climate, and people are huge components for terroir. They’re tangible objects. But what about the intangible?

What about the feeling you get when you’re walking through a vineyard… the natural buzz you get from the spirit energy of the region?

Many First Nation Americans get the mythology of the spirit that Earth delivers. Mythology, too, is part of terroir. Each original tribe that crossed the Bering Straight, when the ocean was lower and allowed people to migrate to the North American Plate created their own stories; However each one, as a common thread, refers back to a universal and omniscient Great Spirit, a connection to their Earth.

Today, perhaps it’s because those who work the vineyards are having a firsthand experience each day with what nature delivers. It’s also seen on the faces of those that you encounter in the vineyards and ask them about their experiences… They light up when they talk about being among the vines. They have energy for delivering even more of what the earth has to offer, which deeply connects them to their roots, literally and figuratively. Their body language is saying, terroir. It’s the screech of the owl, cleaning the vineyards of pests. It’s the fog that seemingly rolls in. It’s… most important to this entire subject…  The unique flavors delivered by everything and everyone along this chain of happenstance. It’s terroir.

If viticulturists, winemakers, and climatologist all get it, then it is what it is… Terroir

Perhaps this introduction will begin a journey for you to understand the most complex part of grape growing… terroir.