Put two different wines of the same grape varietal side by side, and you might be surprised to see how much of a difference there is between them. How is that possible? Shouldn’t the same grape produce the same type of wine every time? Not exactly. Equal to, if not more important than the type of grape used in making the wine, is the land its grown on, and the conditions it grows in. A wine from California and a wine from France will show major differences because there are major differences between the areas they are grown in. Those differences are going to express themselves in the finished wine. The influence of the land, climate, and human production on a vineyard is known as terroir.
The concept is originally thought to have started in Burgundy, France (it’s always the French) and has become a defining feature of the wine industry and culture. Producers scour the globe looking for geographic regions that are particularly conducive to certain varietals. New growing techniques are experimented with and incorporated into wine making practice every year.
Terroir – the set of all environmental factors that affect a crop’s phenotype, including unique environmental contexts, farming practices and a crop’s specific growth habitat.
Soil type, climate, precipitation, and farming practices all go into forming the terroir for a vintage. Even when most factors are similar, changing one element of terroir can make large differences. For example, two vineyards might share the same region but one is commercially produced, and the other hand-reared. Differences between the wines of nearly identical regions will likely show up in the bottle, thanks to differences in their production.
The concept of terroir is not just limited to wine. You can see its significance in other crop’s such as San Marzano Tomatoes, grown on the volcanic hillsides of Mt. Vesuvius, Idaho potatoes (although that might be more marketing based), or local cheeses.
Winemakers have been able to isolate, through research and tradition, conditions optimal for producing certain varieties of wine. A lot of chalk in the soil is a great sign for dry white or sparkling wines. Cooler climates are more essential to the production of Pinot Noir than Cabernet Sauvignon. Still, every region of wine making has its unique attributes – its unique terroir. A Riesling from Germany is different from one in Australia, which are both different than one from Washington state. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the most popular wines around the world, and examine the differences in terroir where they are produced.
Cabernet Sauvignon is one of, if not the most popular red wine grape in the world. It is certainly the most popular Red Wine grape in the United States, thanks in part to its propensity in Napa Vineyards. The wine was originally made by French Winemakers in the 17th century in Bordeaux by an accidental breeding between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Known for its rich dark color, and full flavor notes of green pepper and dark fruit, Cabernet Sauvignon is a wine made for pairing with food. Bold, complex, and irresistible, Cabernet Sauvignon can be found across the world. Some of the most prominent regions producing the varietal are in Bordeaux, the Napa Valley of California, and the Maipu Valley of Chile.
Bordeaux, France – Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux is often times blended with other varietals like Cabernet Franc to create the iconic wines. The wines usually contain higher levels of minerality which is attributed to esters (a type of chemical compound derived from an acid), yeasts, and methods employed during the fermentation. Located right along the 45th parallel, the BOrdeaux region is in the optimal climate for wine growing. The soil is gravel rich, which provides excellent drainage, and has eroded over millions of years to mix with clay, limestone, sand and mud. Farmers optimize these conditions by plowing the land, forcing the roots of grape vines to dig deeper for nutrients, resulting in more concentrated flavors. The left bank of Bordeaux is specifically optimal for Cabernet Sauvignon. Terroir is taken so seriously here, that it is said one can taste the difference in not only Chateau to Chateau, but vineyard row to vineyard row.
Napa Valley, California – Since the infamous Judgement of Paris, California, and Napa Valley wines in particular have ascended to the very top of the wine world. Cabernet Sauvignons from Napa tend to be more fruit forward than the French versions. Bold and complex, dense, rich and often time oaky, Napa Valley Cabs show great concentration of flavor. Specific tasting notes include anise, black olive, and strong black fruit flavors. The micro-climates in the Napa Valley can produce wide variety in wines. In fact, there are 16 different AVA’s (registered sub-regions) within the Napa Valley. The soil is a complex mix of ancient marine sediments, volcanic rock, and other deposits. It’s no wonder that the Napa Valley is some of the most highly valued property in the world.
Maipu Valley, Chile – Elevation! Located in the foothills of the Andes Mountains, the Maipu Valley’s most notable landscape feature is its altitude (up to 2600 ft). The steep slopes provide some of the best locations for planting vineyards. Granite rich, and easy-draining soils irrigated with clear Andes melt water ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon. Add a Mediterranean climate and it’s no wonder why so many French winemakers invested heavily into the Maipu Valley. The potential for this region is only beginning to be realized.
Pinot Noir is the most planted varietal world-wide, not only producing wine of its namesake, but also in producing sparkling wines like Champagne. Following the movie Sideways, released in 2004, sales and consumption of Pinot Noir began to increases according to a study by Sonoma State University. It is characterized as a light to medium bodied red wine with aromas of cherry, raspberry and a nice amount of acidity. Pinot Noir ages superbly, developing complex and earthy profiles, and even “barnyard-esque” flavors. Regions renown for their Pinot Noir include Burgundy, Sonoma County, California and Marlborough, New Zealand.
Burgundy, France – No one does terroir like Burgundy does. The wine growing region in central France is famous for many different varietals, but none more so than Pinot Noir. Sub regions within Burgundy are divided into a classification system that indicates the best growing regions. On the bottom is regional wines, followed by village wines, followed by premier cru. At the top are the grand cru wines which can sell for thousands of dollars. A lot of the secrets to what makes Burgundy Pinot Noir so special can be found in the soil. Key characteristics of the soil include its abundance of clay, limestone, and fossilized marine shellfish, left over from when the region was covered in water. Pinot Noir tends to be planted in the areas rich with limestone. Burgundy has a cooler climate than Bordeaux, closer to a true continental climate than Mediterranean. Some of the tasting notes for Pinot Noir specific to Burgundy include wet leaves, mushrooms, roses, violet, and fresh raw cherries.
Sonoma, California – The Pinot Noirs hailing from this region are more fruit forward than Burgundy. Notes of black cherry, raspberry, vanilla, clove, Coca-cola and caramel all help to define a Sonoma Pinot Noir. The warm, coastal climate creates long growing seasons, perfect for the slow maturation of the grapes. Consistent marine layers provide cool flowing air through the Petaluma gap, Russian River Valley and San Pablo Bay. With 17 individual AVAs, some winemakers believe there is more soil types in Sonoma alone than in all of France. Overall, the soil is formed from ancient oceanic crust. layered with river sediments, and volcanic soil, with excellent drainage.. You can find chalky, limestone, clay rich and gravely vineyards throughout Sonoma all with varying degrees of elevation.
Marlborough, New Zealand – New Zealand has been producing world-class Pinot Noirs for some time now. In flavor they are fruit forward, similar to California Pinots, but possess a spicier tinge. New Zealand Pinots have a gamey quality to them as well, which make them particularly good for pairing with game meats like lamb and duck. Located on the coastal northen tip of New Zealands Southern Island, the Marlborough growing region has an overall moderate temperature. The surrounding mountains and influence from the sea create a wealth of micro-climates to grow in. The soil is free-draining with lots of clay, gravel and stony, sandy loam. The entire area used to be covered in ancient glaciers and their influence can still be felt in the wine made there today.
Chardonnay is one of the most widely produced and consumed wine grapes in the world. The neutral flavor of the Chardonnay makes it one of the most interesting wines in regard to terroir. In fact, much of the flavor in Chardonnay is influenced by the terroir of the grapes. Chardonnay comes in oaked and unoaked varieties. Some key flavor characteristics of Chardonnay are a buttery mineraly kind of thing with lots of balanced fruit flavors that vary depending on the regions its grown in. It is medium to light bodied wine, served most often chilled. Places producing exceptional vintages of Chardonnay in recent years include Mendoza, Argentina, the Margaret River region in Australia, and Chablis, France.
Mendoza, Argentina – Mendoza is characterized by low rainfall, so low that it is considered a desert. Luckily melt water from he nearby Andes Mountains provides more than enough water to the region. In fact, some of the irrigation still used today in Mendoza was inherited from the ancient Inca. Close proximity to the Andes also means more elevation, and with elevation comes increased diurnal temperature differences. Days can be warm to hot with night cooling off considerably, perfect for Chardonnay. The cool nights stop the ripening of the grapes ensuring that some of their acidity remains preserved in the final product. No wonder some Mendoza wineries list their altitude as a sort of bragging right on the bottle.
Margaret River, Australia – Located in one of the most geographically isolated wine regions in the world, the Margaret River produces some of the most sought after wine to come out of Australia, despite accounting for a small percentage of the total wine productions. The Chardonnays that come from the the southwestern tip of Australia are usually fruit forward with ripe pear and peach flavors. These Chardonnays also tend to be oaked less than their North American counterparts. They are a balance between the purity of French Chardonnays, and the complexity of North American Chardonnays. The Margaret River region is surrounded by ocean on three sides, producing a Mediterranean climate absolutely ideal for wine making. The Margaret River Valley has the potential to become the crown jewel for Australian wine, Chardonnay included.
Chablis, France – Chablis lies in a sedimentary basin that, much like other parts of Europe, was once covered by an ancient ocean. The resulting soil is comprised mostly of gray marl (an unconsolidated sedimentary rock or soil consisting of clay and lime), along with alternating bands of limestone and the fossilized remains of ancient oysters. Chablis is more northern than usual for wine making, and during the early spring temperatures can drop to freezing. Winemakers will sometimes place heaters near the vines to protect them from spring frosts. The region is famous for only producing chardonnay — and for good reason. The Chardonnays that come from Chablis are noted for the citrus and white fleshed fruit notes, as well as excellent minerality from the limestone deposits. Chardonnay from Chablis aslo have a characteristic salty “tang” and crystal-clear appearance. The Chardonnay is also rarely oaked, resulting in a clearer terroir expression. It’s argued by some that Chardonnay from Chablis is the purest form of the grape that can be found.
Riesling might be the most recognizable wine on the world market that originated outside of France. Hailing from the Rhine region, Riesling is considered to be part of the “big 3” of white wines along with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Similar to Chardonnay, the character of a Riesling wine is largely determined by the areas it is produced in. Rieslings can come “dry,” with very little residual sugar, or at varying stages of later harvest, with more balanced sugar and acidity levels. Typical flavor notes include honey, citrus, and often “petrol” in aged Rieslings. You can find Riesling growing all over the world but some notable regions producing the wine include Rheingau Germany, the Columbia Valley in Washington State and the Clare Valley in Australia.
Rheingau, Germany – Arguably Germany’s most renown wine growing region. Rieslings from Rheingau tend to have more residual sugar than others. Typical flavor notes include apricots, a mineral quality, and a spicy fragrance. The Rheingau has diverse soil types including chalk, sand, gravel, clay, loess, quartzite and slate. At 50 degrees northern latitude, the Rheingau is pretty far north for a wine growing region. Vineyards are all located on southern facing slopes along the Rhine River to maximize sunlight, both directly and from the river’s reflection.
Columbia Valley, Washington – North American Reisling tend to be more dry than their German counterparts, and the Columbia Valley of Washington state is no different. Although Washington state is normally associated with gloomy wet weather, the Columbia Valley actually sees plenty of sunshine (around 300 days a year, which is more than Napa). The valley’s location on the Eastern side of the Cascade mountains ensures a drier, warmer climate that is better for winemaking. The land is rich in loess soils, which are comprised of wind-blown silt and sand soils created by the Missoula Floods (immense ice age floods) thousands of years ago. The loess soil lends itself to creating richly aromatic Rieslings. The soil is still relatively young compared with others around the world. Estimates place its formation around 20,000 years ago, compared to some South African soils which have been estimated to have formed 50 million years ago.
Clare Valley, Australia – The Clare Valley landed on the map thanks to its exceptional conditions for Riesling, and it continues to be a great source for Riesling to this day. It has a mild continental climate, and relatively higher elevation (1300-1600 ft) than most Australian wine producing regions. The land scape is one of gullies and hills, and features at least 11 different soil types. This diversity in soil lends itself to a lot of variety between Rieslings grown in different areas of the vally. However, the most remarkable soil types in the Clare Valley are the red soils (terra rossa), which have particularly excellent drainage and are rich in limestone. Rieslings from the Clare Valley are known for their lime-focused character.
By Aldo Moreno