Terroir – An Overview
Wikipedia defines Terroir as:
“The set of all environmental factors that affect a crop’s phenotype, including unique environmental contexts, farming practices, and a crop’s specific growth habitat.”
Now, if any of you listeners out there can think back to your high school or college biology courses, you’ll recall that this word is part of a pair: phenotype and genotype. With the genotype referring to the literally cellular genetic makeup of an organism, and phenotype referring to the big-picture outcomes of each set of genetic realities. In humans, this can mean the difference between brown or blue eyes, or in the original Mendelian genetic experiments, the difference between green and yellow peas.
So, the genotype is like the code that makes things run, and the phenotype of an organism is the result of all the little changes and realities that exist at the chemical building blocks level.
If you’re thinking that this is starting to sound a lot like the age-old nature vs. nurture debate, you’re right.
Consider this: just because you have a gene that predisposes you to cancer doesn’t mean that that gene is being expressed at the moment. In many cases, there’s a set of conditions that must exist for that switch to be flipped and for that potential to become a reality. The same is true for the crops we use to make wine and spirits.
Just because a grape could taste a certain way doesn’t mean it will. What if there’s a drought? What if there’s 20% less sunlight than average this growing season? These and many other realities can affect the chemical composition of the end crop, which, in turn, will affect the flavor.
THIS is the concept of terroir. And just like the expression of a human phenotype is a specific biological reality like red hair or sickle cell anemia, the expression of a grape or barley phenotype is certain chemical flavor reality like acidity, or sweetness.
Just like you and me, that grape has DNA, and depending on how things shake out during that grape’s lifespan, it could end up turning out any number of different ways.
Some of the factors that affect a grape are relatively constant – like soil, overall climate, microbiome, and human practices. But some factors are a bit harder to control – like more specific weather events (forest fires or hail storms, for example).
This is one of the reasons why people are intrigued by terroir, especially in the wine world. Because if you put in the time, you can learn some of the easier terroir-related traits to identify, and then start working your way into the nuances. And for people who really like to nerd out and dive deep into their hobbies, there’s almost a limitless number of nuances that can be encountered. That’s why people build entire careers in this industry by developing this type of knowledge.
So. What are some of those big-picture traits that you can start to identify in your wines and spirits that will impress your friends?