Wine Words: What is Terroir?

Defining a Region

©Roger de la Harpe
The Western Cape's terrior is defined by a warm climate, granite-like soil and ocean breezes.

You might have heard the word ‘terroir’ used by wine geeks who like to discuss the origins of wines and their ‘unique terroir’ - whatever that means, right? It’s an overused but hardly understood word, in the wine community. But here’s the thing: terroir is just a fancy collective word for all the elements that affect a wine’s taste. It’s simple, really. Terroir describes how a particular region’s climate, soils and terrain, will influence the vineyards and in turn, the wine produced. 

Originally, terroir was used to define the earthy notes of Old World wines. In context, someone would mention ‘terroir-driven wines,’ which meant wines were affected by external elements, such as wild yeast growth. More recently, the meaning has changed to describe a particular wine region’s components, for example, Western Cape’s terroir in South Africa and Napa Valley’s terroir in the USA. It’s quite useful to fully understand the word, as it will help you identify certain region’s wines better. 

Traits of Terroir

©Chris Daly
Terrior is defined by the climate of a wine region; if it's warmer, the grapes will have a higher level of sugar and lower acidity.

Terroir consists of various traits, including climate, soil, terrain, and in some regions, tradition. If a grape is ‘terroir sensitive,’ it means it can only grow in a specific area, with a specific climate, soil and terrain.

Climate plays an important role in developing the sugar levels of grapes; vineyards from warmer climates produce grapes with high amounts of sugars, while cooler climate vineyards have grapes with a lower level of sugar and more acidity (sourness). For example, Stellenbosch vineyards in the Western Cape, receives a touch more sun and year-round heat, than that of the Hermanus’ vineyards. While both produce Pinot Noir, Hermanus produces Pinot’s with greater natural acidity, due to the weather.  

There is a wide range of soils ideal for wine grape growing throughout South Africa, consisting of various elements suited to specific grapes. Most vineyard soils almost act like a tea-bag for water as it passes through to the vine’s roots, resulting in varied grapes. For example, SA is known for its 50 million-year-old granitic soils, and wine experts have declared that the country’s red wines taste different to that of other wine countries, and because of granite’s heat retention properties, the wines are more graphite-like and gravely.

The terrain of vineyards has a defining impact on the growth of grapes. Altitude plays a role in defining the quality of the grape, and other geological factors like mountains, valleys, being located far inland, flora like plants, microbes and trees and large bodies of water, affect how the wines of the region will taste. For example, Durbanville vineyards are located at a higher altitude above sea level on hills, while inland areas like the Orange River have vineyards planted close to a large body of water - both produce excellent white wines, but they taste different based on their terrain. 

Some areas are entrenched with particular winemaking traditions, but this occurs more with Old World vineyards, dating back to the 17th century. Traditional winemaking techniques also contribute to the taste of wine, as ancient winemaking is much different from that of modern, innovative production. For example, some regions traditionally stop fermentation early and fortify the wine by adding brandy, and some producers mature wine in oak barrels. 

By Carla Lottering