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Shannon Hurley
April 23, 2015 | Shannon Hurley

What is Terroir?

Many winemakers and sommeliers alike use the word “Terroir” pronounced “TARE-WHAr” lets find out the meaning behind this fancy wine word so you too can use it in everday wine conversation.

Terroir at a Glance

Terroir is how a particular region’s climate, soils and aspect (terrain) affect the taste of wine. Some regions are said to have more ‘terroir’ than others.  What is ‘terroir’ and how does it affect the taste of wine?

The basic idea is that some regions or vineyards have a quality that makes them special - so that if you took the same grape variety, followed the same winegrowing practices and winemaking practices but grew it anywhere else it would never taste quite the same. While this has somewhat to do with the 'earth' in terms of the soil composition, grade and exposure of the piece of land, terroir also encompasses the microclimate of that area and some other factors

Where Does the Word Come From?

‘Terroir’ is one of the most used but least understood wine words. A complicating factor in understanding terroir is that it is a French word (derived from “terre,” meaning land) Originally it was associated with earthy notes in many Old World wines. The recognition of terroir dates back to the ancient Greeks as they noticed wines made from the same grape variety exhibited different characteristics when grown in different regions. Over time, the more celebrated regions were held in higher acclaim based on the superiority of their wines.

The concept was eventually adopted in Burgundy by the religious orders that farmed the vineyards. It became the basis of France’s “Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée” (AOC) and subsequently all other appellation laws throughout the world including our AVA designations in the U.S.

Terroir is not what the grower and farmer do in (or to) the vineyard, but rather what the vineyard gives them in the most basic sense. In this respect a grapevine’s terroir is not unlike the geographic influences and surroundings we were exposed to in our childhood that were responsible for forming many of our individual traits and habits.

Nowadays, terroir is used to describe practically every wine region (e.g. Napa’s Terroir, Bordeaux’s Terroir etc..).

Napa’s Terroir

Great wines (and even lesser wines) are the product of their terroir. Throughout the Napa Valley we are the grateful beneficiaries of ideal climatic and soil conditions that lead to the production of world-class wines. But are all areas the same throughout the valley? Definitely not.

A closer look at the many different areas of the valley demonstrates the concept of terroir and its effect on the wines produced. We have more than 100 different soil types spanning the valley floor and surrounding hillsides. From the Mayacamas range in the west to the Vacas in the east, we can observe vastly different exposure patterns and geography that affect the entire wine growing season. From south to north on the valley floor and up to the mountain tops there are also wide variations in temperature and daylight hours.

All of these components of terroir are what makes Napa Valley unique and among the finest winegrowing areas in the world. The differences in terrior are endless and give all growers and vintners the ability to “quench their thirst” top quality fruit mirroring the vineyard to express its distinctive character in the wine, all with a broad choice of varietals and styles based on individual terroir for every occasion.


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