I have many opportunities to chat with Customers throughout the work day in my capacity as a Wine Specialist. This is undoubtedly the most pleasurable part of my job! I love the myriad of wine-related discussions upon which we touch. Of the topics that frequently arise is that pertaining to the differences in wines made from the same grape variety when it is grown in different places. As a “for instance”, consider the difference in taste between a Sauvignon Blanc from California versus the same wine from Washington. These distinctions always comes down to “place”. It matters a great deal where the grapes are grown, as the resultant wine will reflect the characteristics of that place. The French refer to the characteristics that place causes and imparts upon a wine as terroir (pronounced terˈwär).
There are no words in the English language that are analogous to terroir. The “terre” in “terroir” comes from the French word for “land”. The traditional definition of terroir is “the complete natural environmental conditions in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate in which grapes are grown and that give a wine its unique flavor and aroma.” Notice that this definition refers to the “natural” environmental conditions of the place in which the grapes are grown. In other words, anything that is not a manmade characteristic is natural. Irrigation is a good example of a manmade intervention that is not included as a component of terroir. Trellising is another example of manmade influence upon the conditions under which grapes are grown. On the other hand, aspects such as soil composition, climate and weather (two separate things), degree days, annual rainfall, drainage characteristics, wind, elevation, proximity to a body of water, and exposure as it relates to the sun (both facing or orientation, as well as the degree of slope of the land) all comprise terroir. One begins to appreciate the importance of vineyard site selection after taking into account all of these natural variables!
So, when you next taste a California grown Sauvignon Blanc (and, again, depending on where the grapes were grown in California), you may taste a drier, somewhat “grassy” wine as opposed to, say, a fruitier, more aromatic Sauvignon Blanc from Washington. The same grape variety, but grown in two very distinct terroir, will result in two vastly different wines.