Wine 101: What does the term "terroir" mean?

Wine 101: What does the term "terroir" mean?
Author: Apriena Pummer
Date created: 2014/06/04

What does the term "terroir" mean?


The word “terroir” is a French word that goes hand in hand with boutique wines. The word is basically is a summation of three concepts: aspect, soil and weather and any other environmental conditions that directly affect vineyards. Now some people may argue with me about this, but this informal wine course is about simplifying wine concepts, not complicating them.




Climatic wine styles are divided in two, warm climate and cool climate wines. The warmer climates will allow for more sugar development, a more fruit-forward style and higher alcohol. The cool climates, generally, offer more feminine aspects like higher acidity, crispness and lower alcohol. An example would be Seven Springs Vineyards’ Sauvignon Blanc 2012.


Vineyard soils exist in many compositions and they all have their own effect on the vineyard and the resulting wine. Some soils allow the water to pass more freely and thus affect how the vine absorbs water, others are more clay-like and will affect how  one decides to irrigate or not. “Minerality” is a wine-speak term that assumes that vineyards somehow develop mineral –like flavours by being planted in certain soils. Although a direct link has not been proven by science, there is certainly a common flavour trait in wines planted in rich mineral soils.


The Mischa Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, for instance, is grown in 50 million year old granitic soils – some of the most ancient on Earth. Granitic soils have heat retaining properties and an acid reducing effect in higher acidity red wines, very evident in the Mischa Cabernet Sauvignon 2010.


Galileo Galalei said “wine is sunlight held together by water”. The aspect of a vineyard will affect how the vineyard is exposed to sunlight. Sunlight affects all plant life that relies on photosynthesis and plays a fundamental role in the ripening of the fruit. Logically, sunlight exposure will certainly have a great impact on the wine’s flavour profile.


Every wine reflects its terroir in some way. Whether it has a eucalyptus-like flavour because the vineyard was surrounded by blue-gum trees, fantastic minerality like the Trizanne Sauvignon Blanc from the soils of Elim or deep fruit from the cooling sea-breezes of False Bay, there is a common flavour profile of the region. There is a growing belief that 80 % of a boutique wine is created in the vineyard!


The best way to discover terroir is to taste the same varietal from varying regions such as tasting a Sauvingon Blanc from the Hemel en Aarde Vallei and a Sauvignon Blanc from Stellenbosch. Sommeliers use their knowledge of terroir to trace a wine’s origin in blind tastings.