Terroir Explained

I have often remarked that my favorite wine “guru” is Hugh Johnson. I quote him prolifically in my newsletters and make every attempt to read his books and watch his videos. I credit Mr. Johnson with sparking in me a lifetime passion for wine beginning nearly 20 years ago.

Of course I’ve never met Mr. Johnson and probably never will, but that doesn’t make him any less a fine teacher. I recently read an older book of his, entitled The Vintner’s Art: How Great Wines Are Made (1992), a book he co-wrote with James Halliday.

In the opening chapters of the book, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Halliday hit upon the near perfect explanation of terroir. In the book, they describe terroir aspart of a tripod that describes the key aspects by which all fine wine is judged. The tripod consists of the following pieces:

  • Character, which is defined by Terrior.
  • Quality, which is defined by winemaking.
  • Personality, which is defined by weather (not climate).

So what does this all mean? The modern winemaker has proven that grapes can be grown just about anywhere and wine of respectable quality can usually be produced from those grapes. Witness the dramatic improvement in quality across the globe as a result of better viticulture and vinification techniques. Truly, winemaking has a strong hand in defining the quality of the wine we drink.

Why the distinction between weather and climate? Climate is the long-term averages of weather conditions in a particular region, whereas weather is the day-to-day fluctuations of those climatic averages. Weather can destroy a vintage or create the “vintage of the century,” but climate determines which grapes can be grown to maximum success in a particular region. The uniqueness of a wine’s personality from year-to-year is defined by weather, not climate.

How does character differ from personality? Character runs deep, which evokes the perfect image of the role of terroir in the making of fine wine. Personality connotes mood, which varies from moment to moment, like the effect of weather on a particular wine vintage. Character is the set of distinguishing attributes that mark the essential differences between wines made around the world. Character is like the value systems that we learn from our parents, unique lessons taught over a lifetime that create the individuals that we are. terroir is that set of elements that craft the character of wine, creating the truly distinguishing features that define the differences between Cabernet Sauvignon grown in Bordeaux versus Cabernet Sauvignon grown in California.

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