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What Is Terroir Anyway?

Let's start this article with a definition of the word terroir (pronounced tare-wah, or tare-wahr depending on how French you want to be). I was extremely surprised when I found that no such simple definition exists. It is a French loanword that when translated literally refers to “soil” but can also mean “local”. I did find one apt translation that interpreted it as “a sense of place”. As it has entered the English lexicon it has taken on the denotation used by the international wine community: Terroir refers to, in this case, the unique convergence of every minute environmental factor that the vines are exposed to. You can think of the grape as the sum of all those parts and all of those parts combined are terroir – the concept is that the harvested grape is  a crystal-clear reflection of the environment that produced it. The composition and drainage of the soil, the temperature throughout the day, the slope of the hill and the amount of direct sunlight it receives, the amount and timing of rainfall. Anything, however miniscule, that in some way impacts the development of the fruit can be said to be an aspect of terroir. These are components of terroir but so too is a lone eucalyptus tree in the vineyard, or a particularly crafty murder of crows. A skilled winemaker makes wine with respect to the terroir, capturing the flavor of the vineyard. It struck me as I watched Deerfield's vines beginning to bud in late April that certain blocks of grapes seemed to be on a slightly different schedule than those adjacent to them. There is a great deal of talk in the wine industry about micro-climates, those tiny pockets of geography where there are significantly different environmental factors that can have a dramatic impact on the grapes. It is possible for there to even be several different terroirs in one vineyard. Maybe one part of the vineyard receives early morning sunlight while the rest does not. Therein lies the winemaker’s challenge, to perceive these differences and create a wine that embodies them. I think that is why tasting wines at the winery is such an amazing experience – it connects you to the land. Every time I open a bottle of Deerfield's estate syrah I am transported to the vineyard, with the black soil beneath my feet and the smell of freshly cut straw and the warmth of the sun on my neck.

Not only is every place that grapes are grown unique, but each year offers new variables that can change the equation. That is why wine is beloved like no other food or drink - because each bottle is a reflection of a specific time and place. Next week I’ll talk about why each vintage is unique.