Rambling Vines, Take 7

Text by Gene Betz • Photography by Jim Wells

Geography, Climate, Soil or Yeast… or a Combination of all Four?

So, I says to my wife, I says, “Ralph? What do you think I should write about for the next Signature MT column?” And she says, “I don’t know…it’s YOUR column.” So there ya have it…no help at all. But I kind of get it. Wine speak can get pretty snooty and boring to most people. There’s only so much a person wants to know beyond, “is it good or not?” In spite of that, I’ve decided to talk about a rather deep wine subject; one that can make your eye balls roll into the back of their sockets. So, take this with a grain of terroir and don’t miss that last paragraph.


Where does great wine come from? Why are there so many variances in quality and style? And, why does one wine leave you breathless while the next is just so so? The French use the all-encompassing term “terroir” [teh-RWAHR] to define what makes each wine unique. Quite literally, terroir means “soil”. But in the wine world this term comes to mean so much more. It is used to denote the special characteristics of geography that make each wine different. The term not only includes reference to the type of soil (chalky, claylike, gravelly, sandy), but also to other geographic factors that might influence the quality of the finished wine like altitude, vineyard position relative to the sun, angle of incline, and water drainage. And, although this is a French term, French wine makers are not alone in their belief that wine is made in the vineyards, not the winery.

Terroir can be loosely translated as “a sense of place” and how this affects the resulting wine. The contemporary meaning of the term clearly goes beyond mere geography. Some insist terroir is distinct from the characteristics imparted by the plant variety, the vintage and production methods, and is the product of a range of local influences that are transmitted into the character of the product.

Then there are those who place minimal emphasis on terroir. They agree that many aspects of terroir are important to wine quality but dispute that the combination creates something truly unique and better. Some argue that perceived local characteristics of wine come predominantly from factors such as local wild yeasts, rather than from factors such as soil and microclimate.

In the middle are those who agree that terroir causes wines to be different, but believe it has no impact on the overall quality.

Is terroir important or not? You decide. As always, you are the ultimate judge of what you like or don’t like. I remain steadfast in my belief that the only person’s opinion that counts is yours. Salute!