The notion of “Terroir” (pronounced tair-hwah).
To understand the flavours, complexity and typicity of French wines, you must understand the notion of terroir. The word “terroir” does not translate into the English language. So it needs to be explained.
The root of the word is “terre” which means earth.
Terroir is based on a geographic area, including the geological structure of the soil in any given region, however small. This is then combined with the region’s micro-climate, the traditional way the soil is cultivated, and the grape variety. These factors make up a terroir.
The structure of the soil could be sandy, or clayey, or flinty, or chalky, or even irony, or a combination of several elements. Whatever the structure, it is the soil which gives the indigenous flavour to the finished product. i.e. the wine. The vines are grown in the soil. The roots often go down as much as 20 meters or more in search of water. In France, the irrigation of vines is not allowed. The plant’s roots are totally steeped in the soil, suck up the water from deep, deep down, and pour all this flavour into the grapes.
If you have the time to visit lots of different wine producing areas in France, you will, as time goes by, understand the different flavours of the different areas.
Never be afraid to ask the grower about his terroir. He will then spend many happy hours explaining it all to you.
Take our area on the left bank of the Loire River. Our soil is clay and flint. There is a lot of flint in the soil. Therefore, the wines come up tasting very smokey, especially when they are young. Smokiness is one of the flavours of a flinty soil. It is very pleasant in the Sauvignon blanc which is our benchmark wine. (The Loire Valley probably produces the best Sauvignon blanc wines in the world.)
Now take the area about 30kms due south from us on the Cher valley. The soil is very sandy. Sandy soil makes very light wines. Therefore, the flavours of the wines are much lighter and fruitier than ours. They are extremely good “summer drinking” wines.
Then, there is the micro-climate to consider. The aspect of the vineyard has to be taken into account to get the most out of the climate. You must always plant vines so that they get as much sun from the south and south-west as possible. While driving through the South of France, you may have noticed vineyards on the tall, steep banks of rivers, facing south or south-west. This makes sure that the parcel of vines gets as much as possible out of the micro-climate. The steeper the slope, the better the aspect, as long as it gets lots of sun. There is an appellation in the south of France called Côte Rôtie where the slopes are so steep that the only way to access the vines is by helicopter. Of course, this is a very expensive way of caring for the vines but the wines are out of this world. (So are the prices!).
While we are on the subject of appellation, you need to understand that an appellation is the official name of a particular terroir. “No terroir, no appellation”.
An appellation is basically a rubber stamp (or trade mark, if you like) of a geographical region which produces products to set standards which make up the terroir, i.e. a geographical area, the micro-climate, the grape variety, local history and man’s know-how.
I was recently taken to a restaurant in the UK who only had wines on their wine list which were mass produced from somewhere in the new world. They tasted like an alcoholic version of Ribena.( I used to like Ribena when I was 9 years old.) There was no terroir in the flavour of the wines whatsoever. The grapes were probably bought in from half a dozen different countries.
When you get used to drinking terroir wines, you find the rest totally boring! But that is another story…
First published March 2008