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What is Terroir?


“Ask Avalon” on our Facebook page asks for questions from you, our fans. A recent question, “What is Terroir?” is answered here.

Terroir, terr-what?

Terroir at its simplest is the idea that land with the right soil type will grow grapes that make the best wine.

Skeptics of terroir point out that the effects of climate—sunlight, rainfall, temperature, wind—have at least as much, if not more, to do with the ultimate quality of grape growing as does the soil in which the vine is planted.

There is a bit of a science vs. spirituality conflict here between experts because the idea of terroir has an “I talk to my plants” feel about it that science has a hard time quantifying.

The full term, gôut de terroir, generally means the total characteristics of a vineyard location that combine to create a unique “taste of place.” The idea is that each grape growing site has its own particular set of circumstances—elevation, aspect, topography, soil composition, wine, rail, sunlight hours, etc.—that combine to create a unique character that can be tasted in the wines grown from that spot. Further, terroir is neither good nor bad, but is indigenous to the spot where the grapes were grown—it is just as possible to have a terroir that is unpleasant as it is to have one that is good.

Oregon and Washington have many terroirs, based on a diverse array of distinct soil types.

At right, the soil of  “The Rocks”, Walla Walla’s most famous vineyard area on the Oregon side of the appellation. The vineyards include those of Cayuse, Washington’s most famous vineyard.

Below, the distinct terroir of Oregon winery Antica Terra – when they set up their vineyard they pulled a literal mountain of rocks out of the ground to have any soil at all for planting. The soil continues to be mostly rock and is unique to Oregon’s Willamette Valley vineyards.


Science Versus Tradition

When I was studying at UC Davis, I had entire courses about how climate and irrigation were the pinnacles of all that is important for growing grapes.  Some teachers openly laughed at the concept of terroir saying that it was pretty much an antiquated superstition invented by crazy French people.

They have a point!  (In that yes, the French are crazy just like everybody is crazy and yes, climate is very important to growing grapes.

It would be difficult indeed to declare that there is an “ideal soil” for the growing of wine grapes (Vitis vinifera)—there is almost no soil type, given proper drainage, where vinifera can’t be grown.  One can grow grapes in fields of baseball sized rocks like they do in the South of France in Chateau Neuf du Pape. The wine is delicious!

Despite the debate on soil-type, it is quite easy to define an “ideal climate” for different wine grape varietals, Indeed, vinifera grapes simply can’t be ripened (or even grown at all) under many common climate conditions. Here is a map of the latitude swath of the areas wine grapes will grow in- they will not thrive in other conditions as they need mild winters and warm dry summers.

So climate most definitely does play a pivotal role in determining the quality of wine. Just look at how Pinot noir grown in Oregon’s cool climate regions consistently delivers a different character wine from Pinot noir grown in California’s warmer climate areas.

But the importance of climate does not invalidate the importance of soil in determining the character of wine. The fact is, the full meaning of terroir encompasses both the soil and the climate (as well as, truth be told, the culture and even psychology of the winegrower and winemaker).

It is a misunderstanding of the concept of terroir that leads people into the false dichotomy of “soil is more important” or “climate is more important.” Actually, they both are more important—and the best Northwest winegrowers constantly strive to understand and use the myriad ways the weather and dirt interact with the vine!

Thank you for reading and have fun enjoying wine grown from the wonderful soils and climates found in Oregon and around the world.


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