Fine Wine and Terroir

Decanter recently reported on the ‘uneven’ nature of the 2014 wines from Bordeaux’s Right bank, compared to the relatively consistent fine wines of the Left bank, suggesting that soil type played a key role in the region’s fortunes.

a hand holding grapes
There is a relationship between particular grapes and the soil

Grapes, soil, climate and weather

For the French winemakers, soil type is just the beginning – the concept of ‘terroir’ is an important one for any French wine enthusiast to understand. Terroir is the relationship between the soil, climate and weather within the region and the grapes that grow in them, and it’s absolutely key to the success of French wines. It’s the reason why Bordeaux’s left bank is dependent on the Cabernets (Cabernet Sauvignon and, to a lesser extent, Cabernet Franc) while growers on the right bank favour Merlot – the soils and conditions are different, and early ripening Merlot performs better on the right bank.

Vineyard to vineyard

If any proof is required as to the importance of terroir, one need only look as far as Burgundy, where wines from the most prestigious vineyards are the most expensive on earth, and yet wines made just acres away are worth substantially less. This isn’t just on account of their reputation, although reputation plays a part. These are the most hallowed plots of land wherein the importance of terroir is demonstrated at its most critical. Microclimates can vary from vineyard to vineyard, and the composition of soil can be slightly different as well. All of these factors, together with the age and variety of the vines come together to make wines that display their terroir perfectly. Terroir is also one of the reasons why laws remain so strict in France – it’s the recognition that there is a relationship between particular grapes and the soil and ensures that winemakers are encouraged to stay true to the history of the region.

An old world concept

Terroir is considered as highly important in other parts of Europe as well, but has historically been disregarded by winemakers in the new world, where irrigation is more common and within large scale vineyards there are less significant variations in soil and microclimate. Many boutique producers are beginning to embrace the notion of terroir though, and it is worth keeping an eye out for new world wines made in this way.

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