I recently participated in a Zoom meeting 1 sponsored by the Texas Hill Country Wineries (THCW) that included several sommeliers working for Texas wineries and moderated by David Kuhlken, a proprietor and wine director at Pedernales Cellars and current THCW President. The other participants were Erin Green, Fiesta Winery, Erika Fritz, Solaro Estate, and Jennifer Beckmann, Slate Mill Wine Collective. In preparation for this session, questions that could be addressed during the Zoom meeting were posed for consideration. One question for the group was “Which clichés would you like to banish from the wine world forever?”
This question was not directly discussed during the meeting, but when thinking about it, I came up with a concern over the term terroir. I’m not sure that terroir is actually a cliché, but I do feel it is used far too often, and without proper explanation. When using terroir in describing a wine, most people are attempting to convey that characteristics in the wine relate to where it was grown, or that the wine exhibits a “sense of place.” Saying a wine exhibits its terroir frustrates me if the person hearing that term doesn’t know what it means, and the person saying it doesn’t or can’t explain it. Further, far too often, I hear terrior used in describing a wine blended from several different vineyards or grape sources, even regions, and that usually doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. As Harvey Steiman of Wine Spectator says, “Terroir is a useful and meaningful idea. Let’s just try to be clear about what we intend to say when we wield it.” 2
So, here are my opinions on the term terroir, and an attempt to add two additional terms that might help growers, winemakers, marketers, sommeliers, etc., explain three different, but ever-so-integrated segments involved in creating wine. Before going further, let me propose the terms, and some initial definitions, that I think would enhance a technical, nerdy, geeky discussion of terroir and wine.
Terroir – Typically, terroir [tear wahr] is defined 3 4 5 as the set of environmental factors that affect the quality of grapes, and therefore wine made from them. Although every factor influences the others to some extent to form a whole (THE terroir), it is most often broken down into four main components controlled by nature: climate, soil, topography, and surrounding vegetation (biosphere).
Farmoir – [farm wahr]. This suggested term relates to what is done by the farmer or grower to vines in the vineyard that influence the final wine, in a different way than terroir. The initial choice of where to plant a vineyard, density of planting, trellising system, if one is used, irrigation protocol, if used, fertilizer or soil treatments, how the soil is worked, pest control methods, and plants grown in and around the vineyard are essential factors of this term. Farmoir then relates to components of viticulture primarily controlled by the grower, not by nature.
Wineroir – [wine ehr wahr] This additional suggested term relates to viniculture – what is done to the grapes after harvest that influences the final wine. This is the winemaking part of the equation. There are many different winemaking techniques, steps, procedures, processes, additives (or not), and aging protocols that can and will impact final wine quality and character.
Some of you may be thinking that I have either lost my mind, or simply bitten off more than I can chew by taking on this subject of terroir, and you may be right. However, it seemed like a fun challenge with the potential to advance the discussion of this subject in a more meaningful way.
First, let’s take a look at the “natural” factors that are typically included in the definition of terroir – climate, soil, topography, and surrounding vegetation (biosphere). I will follow the lead of an excellent reference 3 that addressed each of these factors.
The term climate relates to the general environment in which grape vines are planted. Climate will include average weather patterns, temperature, sunlight, water (rain), humidity, length of growing season, and elevation (nearness to sunlight that impacts photosynthesis). All of these factors influence the way grapes grow, how grapes taste, and what quality and characteristics these grapes will provide to the wine produced.
There are generally three types of climates considered in major wine regions of the world – continental with significant seasonal changes, coastal where oceans or large bodies of water have significant influence (cooling effect or humidity), and Mediterranean which typically is used to describe warm, arid areas with lots of sun and limited precipitation. These general climate types are normally called macroclimates – relating to larger areas or regions. Focusing in on a smaller region, like where vineyards or local wine growing areas are located may be called mesoclimates and may relate to a hilly area, a river valley, the side of a mountain, proximity to a body of water, etc. Another way to think about mesoclimates would be related to appellations, like Texas High Plains, Texas Hill Country, Napa Valley, Paso Robles, etc. Closing in further would lead to a microclimate, the location of a particular vineyard, portion, or block of a vineyard, or even a grouping of vines within a vineyard.
Soil provides water, nutrients, and overall support for the roots of vines. Soils can be rich or poor in organic matter, and that will influence the need for composting or fertilization. Various nutrients and minerals in soils will certainly influence the health of vines, and the overall quantity and quality of fruit they produce. The ability of a soil to provide good water drainage (grapevines do not like wet feet) or moisture retention, depending on the conditions, is critical. Key types of soils include sand, gravel, loam, limestone, and clay, all types found in various Texas winegrowing regions. If you ever want to discuss the value of and differences in soils, I suggest you sit down with Soil Scientist, Dr. Travis Conley, of Brennan Vineyards, lovingly referred to as Dr. Dirt. Just make sure to bring along several bottles of wine and allow plenty of time. LOL
Topography is another key factor in terroir. Topography mostly refers to where a vineyard is planted relative to its surroundings. Vineyards can be planted on a large, flat area, such as a river valley, plateau, or a plain (like the Texas High Plains). Vineyards may also be planted on hillsides, either with gentle or steep slope, which will certainly influence precipitation runoff or retention. Further, slopes can position a vineyard to receive a greater or lesser degree of sunlight (and heat), important to photosynthesis and ripening of fruit.
In some areas of the world, it is critical to position vineyards on slopes to maximize their sun exposure (think Germany), and in other regions one may need to position a vineyard on an incline facing away from the sun to minimize exposure, possibly due to prevent excessive heat for the types of grapes being grown. Another key topographical factor relates to wind. When vines and developing grape clusters get wet from rain or high humidity conditions, disease pressure from mildew and fungi can set in damaging vines and fruit. With the appropriate juxtaposition, the prevailing wind flow, up or down the rows of a vineyard, can help dry the vineyard and mitigate disease pressure.
Vegetation (or biosphere) near a vineyard can influence wind, humidity, pests (such as birds or insects), pollinators (like bees), and even aromas and flavors that may be transferred to grapes. Trees can protect vines from strong winds, like the Landes Forest that protects key appellations of Bordeaux in France from strong Atlantic storms. However, birds and some insects, like sharpshooters that spread Pierce’s disease, can take haven in trees and vegetation near vineyards, and ultimately cause damage to fruit and vines. Finally, there have been studies that suggest grapes can actually incorporate aromas and flavors from nearby plants like eucalyptus trees and Provençal herbs (thyme and rosemary).
After terroir comes the first new term proposed, farmoir [farm wahr]. This term relates to viticulture, those things done by the grower or farmer to the vineyard that influence the quantity and quality of grapes, and thus have an impact on the final wine. Farmoir would include factors like density of planting, or how many vines per acre, including the vine spacing (like 8 ft between rows and 5 ft between vines in the rows). If vines are to be supported by a trellis system, what type should be used? Most Texas vineyards use vertical shoot positioning, or VSP, but there are a number of alternative types used around the world. Many vineyards support the concept of free-standing or head-trained vines that look more like small grape trees. In arid regions, especially those prone to drought conditions, irrigation may be necessary, and how this irrigation is installed and applied can vary.
Other farmoir factors relate to the soil in which the vineyard is planted. Various fertilizer or nutrient treatments may be needed to keep vines healthy and grow sound fruit. There are different methods used to work the vineyard soil such as tilling to manage weeds and grasses. And, many growers select cover crops to grow in and around the vineyard to control unwanted plant growth and either promote or minimize vine vigor. Cover crops also help manage water availability in regions that receive more rainfall than vines may actually require.
There are many types of pest control involved in farmoir. Vine disease pressure from mildew and fungi usually need to be controlled by various fungicide treatments (sprays). Control of insects may require insecticides. Grape berry moths can cause serious damage to fruit as it begins to ripen, and leafhoppers or sharpshooters carry the dreaded Pierce’s disease which is fatal to most vines. Some growers even opt to release beneficial insects in their vineyards to help control harmful ones. Birds love ripe grapes and can devastate a crop, so many vineyards use bird netting to keep the feathered poachers at bay. Deer and raccoons also love ripe grapes, so steps must be taken to control these critters.
Other vineyard pests include weeds and grasses that tend to grow under the vines and can reach up into the fruiting zone to cause problems with grape development and eventual harvest. Also, these unwanted plants will usurp nutrients and moisture needed by the vines themselves. Methods to manage these unwanted plants include herbicide sprays to prevent growth or physical removal, either manually by pulling or hoeing or mechanically using specially developed rotary tools designed to snag weeds without damaging vine trunks.
A final farmoir factor, which may well overlap into the next section involves the decision of when to harvest. Often, growers and vintners collaborate to determine the best time to harvest grapes. Decisions are based on degree of ripeness, including sugar levels (sugar is fermented into alcohol) and phenolic compound development (phenolics impact flavors in the wine). Retention of natural acids can be important, particularly in warm, arid regions like Texas, and time of harvest will influence how much acid remains in the grapes versus how much acid adjustment may be needed in the winery. Predictions of future weather will influence harvest decisions. If stormy, wet weather is predicted, picking earlier to avoid the storms may be the best option. If good weather is expected, longer hang time in the vineyard can be a blessing. Another factor to consider is harvest by hand or mechanical harvesters which do not always give equivalent results. Nobody ever said it was easy to grow grapes!
The third term proposed is wineroir [wine ehr wahr] that relates to viniculture. This is the winemaking part of the equation. There are many different winemaking techniques, steps, procedures, processes, additives (or not), and aging protocols that can and will impact final wine quality and character. It is really beyond the scope of this blog post to catalog and comment on all of these winemaking issues. However, a couple are worth mentioning.
The use of natural yeasts indigenous to the grapes & surroundings or commercial yeasts for fermentation is becoming a significant discussion topic in the world of wine including here in Texas. Some winemakers appreciate the aromas and flavors in their wines using natural yeast fermentation. Many other winemakers prefer aromas and flavors plus the added level of control during fermentation available when using commercial yeasts.
Aging protocols have a significant impact on the aromas and flavors of the final wine. Choosing to age a wine in stainless steel tanks or barrels will tend to emphasize the fruit-driven character of a wine. Aging the wine on its lees, or expended yeast cells, can add a creamy softness to the mouthfeel of a wine. Aging with oak wood contact in oak containers (barrels, foudres, etc.) or with oak alternatives (chips, staves, etc.) will definitely influence the aromas and flavors of a wine. Strong impact from new oak barrels may be the winemaker’s choice, or minimum flavoring from used or so-called neutral oak barrels may be preferred. The use of cost-effective oak alternatives is gaining in popularity and combining this with controlled oxidation (micro-ox technique) can mimic aroma and flavor profiles obtained in more expensive barrel aging efforts. Finally, there has been a recent surge in popularity of concrete aging vessels that a number of vintners, including some Texas winemakers, seem to prefer to give their wines a somewhat different character, something in-between aging in stainless steel versus that obtained from aging with oak contact.
Summary: After discussions with friends in the wine business, and much thought (over many glasses of wine), it seems that some new terms, other than terroir, may be useful when describing what is important in creating a wine. The humble proposal presented here involves three different, but ever-so-integrated components. First, there is the oft-mentioned terroir which can be defined as the environmental factors that affect the quality of grapes, and therefore wine made from them. These terroir factors that help determine “sense of place” for a wine include four main components: climate, soil, topography, and surrounding vegetation (biosphere). Then there is the viticulture part of the equation that relates to what the grower does in the vineyard, and I’ll call that farmoir. Farmoir includes things controlled by the grower, not by nature, such as the decision where to plant the vineyard, density of planting, trellising system, irrigation protocol, soil treatments, and pest control methods. And, don’t forget the important harvest decision issue. The third term is wineroir, the viniculture or winemaking part of the equation, that includes many different techniques, steps, procedures, processes, additives (or not), and aging protocols that can and will impact final wine quality and character. And this, collectively, brings us fine Texas wine to enjoy.
1 This virtual THCW Happy Hour Zoom meeting was held on Thursday, May 21, 2020, 6:00 – 7:00 p.m. It was hosted by Lindsey Felty, Operations Coordinator for THCW.
(by Harvey Steiman, 7-Apr-2014)
3 The following is a good article on terroir and what it means relative to wine.
(by Julien Miquel, 12-Jul-2016)
4 https://vinepair.com/wine-geekly/what-is-terroir/ (by Keith Beavers, 8-Jun-2016)