It Was An Act Of Terroir!

Date December 14, 2008

Learn About Terroir

Have you ever wondered if Jesus attracted such a large following because of his ability to turn water into wine? How good could the wine have been? Water doesn’t have much body. What percentage alcohol do you think it had? Do you think he had a preference of terroir in mind when he made it? How come there’s no historical reference to Jesus anywhere but in the Bible? You’d think someone who made nearly 150 gallons of wine out of water at a wedding would have made the headlines. Which brings me back to my first question; What is terroir?

Okay, so that wasn’t my first question. But what is terroir?

Soil, slope of the land, how the sun hits, how much sun hits, elevation, rainfall, wind, fog, temperature, how many cow farts pass through the vineyard after so many poundage of cud passes through the cows; these are all parts of that French word that means everything that affects the grapevine: terroir, pronounced Tair-WAHR.

Let’s look at a few aspects of terroir.


Climate determines the very existence of grapes. If a vine can’t endure its clime, it won’t produce any berries. It won’t grow at all! Grapevines need temperate climes with long periods of warmth and little chance of frost for them to develop properly. Most of the vineyards of the wine world fall between 30-50° degrees latitude in both the northern and southern hemispheres.

learn about terroir

Within climate is a hierarchy much like the appellation system of wine classification.

Let’s go back to our map of France:

learn about terroir

Macroclimate determines appellation borders. It encompasses an entire region, like Borgogne in our map.

Mesoclimate takes into consideration elements surrounding a vineyard. Slope of the terrain, altitude, exposure to sun, surrounding vegetation, cow farts.

Microclimate is everything immediately surrounding the vine, its canopy, which is everything above ground from the trunk to its leaves, shoots, tips, tendrils, fruit, spurs, canes and its supporting structure.

Sun Exposure is important for photosynthesis, which necessitates vigor and fruitfulness. Vine vigor is the rate of growth of leaves on the vine. Leaves provide shade in hot climes and prevent overexposure to sunlight on the berries. While wine grapes can endure prolonged exposure to sunlight in temperate climes, too much sunlight in hotter climes will bake the fruit and cause vegetal and other off-flavors in wine. However, if there is not enough coverage clusters may go unchecked and the overabundance of berries will not ripen properly. This will make for weak wines.

On the contrary high-vigor vines mean too little sun. Overlapping leaves can’t convert necessary light to sugar for the grapes (photosynthesis) which will deter ripening and again make for weak wines.

So viticulturists strive for a balanced climate in the vineyard. A well distributed canopy of leaves allows airflow to prevent rot and fungus and promotes fruitfulness, or how many number of grape clusters are on the vine and the amount of berries per cluster. It also determines size of the berries which can affect ripeness levels.


As with climate, a grapevine’s water requirement needs balance. A grapevine will seek out water from whatever type of soil it is in. The dryer the land, the deeper the roots of the grapevine will burrow to find stability in times of drought.

Spring is when water is vital for flowering which is when a vine will start to produce berries. Veraison, when grapes change color-from green to yellow in white grapes and green to red for reds, is another critical moment where water is vital. The least amount of water is needed at harvest to ensure proper maturity levels. Too much water will swell the grapes and dilute them.


Viticulturists depend on a soil’s structure for proper water drainage. In fact water drainage is more important than the fertility of the soil. Soil that traps water will cause root rot and will kill a grapevine.

Six principle components of good drainage comprise a grapevine’s ideal soil:

  • Clay: holds just enough water to support a vine
  • Silt: is made of small particles that help form clays
  • Sand: holds moderate amounts of nutrients and water
  • Rocks: help aerate the soil and hold the least amount of water
  • Minerals: Non-organic elements, such as potassium, nitrogen, phosphorus, magnesium, boron, manganese, iron, copper, and zinc that provide essential nutrients for vine growth
  • Organic Matter: is material from decomposed plants and animals that leave behind a carbon trace and give the soil its fertility

Fertility of the soil is not as important as good drainage and most vineyards of the world are planted on less than desirable land, often times on land that nothing else will grow.

Composition of the soil is believed to impart the unique flavor characteristics to the wine grape and in some ways perhaps it does, but it does so indirectly. Grapevines can only take in molecules, ions and minerals from soil so it is unlikely that flavor comes from these components. The structure of the soil will determine the quality of the vineyard and thus the quality of the grapes. The answer to flavor characteristics then lies more in the overall production of the wine.


Stress refers to the lack of sun, water and/or nutrients. Grapevines require a moderate amount of stress to thrive. They are forced to adapt to the conditions that surround them; the vine is forced to concentrate its sugars which results in grapes of healthy, fuller character.


Like stress, temperature swings can create balance in the vineyard. However, vines like congruity and extreme season changes will prevent proper budding, grape development and maturation.

This is terroir. There are more factors to terroir, such as fog, frost and wind, but these are the immediate. To learn about terroir you have to remember that it includes all environmental factors governing a plant, site and region, not solely what I’ve mentioned above.

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