Monday, October 10, 2022

Terroir and Soil

The French say that every great wine is born in the vineyards and that is the result of good viticulture and vinification practices used to express their terroir. 

But what is terroir? And isn’t it the same as soil? And the answer is NO.

Soil is just one element in the concept of terroir, and indeed a very important one. But terroir is not just the soil, terroir is a bigger concept that includes soil, climate and their relationship with the grape varieties. Of course, this is a very simple definition of terroir, since there are many factors that must be considered; for example, climate includes not only the mesoclimate (climate patterns of the vineyard but also the microclimate, climate of the vine), and let’s not forget the weather that changes every year, and hence the importance of vintages, varying according to the amount of sun the vines receive, the amount of rain, humidity, winds, frost, etc. 

The concept of soil includes several things, among them, its texture, its capacity to hold water, its structural and mineral components of both the topsoil and subsoil, its altitude, the steepness/ inclination of the slope, its ability to retain heat and to aid ripening, and how both climate and soil relate to the grape varieties, since each variety has different needs; some do better in cooler and sunnier weather, while others need extreme heat and very little rain. 

Terroir is, in a way, how these three elements interact, which will eventually lead us to conclude that no vineyard site was created equal, and that there might be differences, even within a vineyard. Terroir is also the basis of the French Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée system, created to protect origin as well as wine typicity.

Beautiful shot of stony soils that aid ripening by reflecting the heat they receive from the sun.


In the New World, the concept of terroir is not so important, New World countries worry more about climate. Soon they realized that copying the styles of the French was not always so easy.  For example, comparing latitudes between both hemispheres didn't yield the same results, and this is because the northern hemisphere is warmer than the southern, in part because its mass of land is bigger, but also due to the influence of the gulf stream. 


New World wine growers have definitely, more freedom to choose where to plant, but they need to find the right spot and then make an effort to keep the balance. Each vine grower knows that they need to work with nature, in order to get all of the goodness that nature is capable of giving. On the other hand, in the Old World, the concept of terroir reigns, and wine growers throughout history dedicated a lot of time to find out why certain vineyards give better wines than others, and how someone could or could not duplicate this phenomenon.

Regarding soils, and specifically those dedicated to viticulture, there are some common factors that can aid the wine grower to get optimal fruit ripeness:  

  • Most vines like well drained soils and having easy access to water. Depending on the climate, vines may prefer a cold soil (to delay ripening and therefore favoring acidity in wine) or a warm soil that can speed ripening and encourage earlier budding. Now, we must be careful with the amount of water, since too much will increase vigor and excessive growth of shoots and leaves that will generate shade and therefore fungal diseases. Too little water, creates the opposite, shutting the plant out. In hot climates, soils help prevent evaporation, for example the white Albariza in Jerez, forms a crust that helps the vine, survive hot and very dry summers. This is very important in appellations where irrigation is not allowed by law.
  • The color of soils are important, dark soils are warmer and aid ripening, giving lusher fruit and flavors than light colored soils. Texture and friability are also important, dense soils are late ripening and will give more herbaceous flavors, while loose, stony soils are early ripening and will give fruit forward flavors.
  • Nitrogen content is important, too much nitrogen can be bad, since the vine will produce large amounts of leaves and shoots, instead of focusing on the fruit. Nitrogen also affects the way yeasts metabolize musts.
  • Too much potassium content must be avoided, since it can reduce precious wine acidity.  Of course, the wine grower can work the soil to keep its balance. Calcium in soils, on the other hand, increases the pH (acidity) producing fresher wines.
  • High levels of organic matter are to be avoided. Contrary to popular belief, what works for other fruits and vegetables, doesn’t work for viticulture. Too fertile soils are not something to look forward to, since they produce excess vigor in vines, and favor roots that grow sideways. Very infertile soils are better, because they encourage the vines to go deeper in search of nutrients and minerals, as well as a water table. It’s said that vines grow where nothing else grows and that some stress (always avoiding extremes) will yield very concentrated wines.

Now, every time I write about an appellation, I indicate the contribution of its soils in the style of the wine and how it affects the final product. Of course, the anti-terroirists usually would say that the wine is the result of winemaking and that nobody can taste the soil in the glass. But I disagree, certain wine flavors come from the soils, such as the smoke present in the wines of the Mosel (from slate rich soils), or minerality present in the wine of Priorat (from llicorella soils) and for this reason only, I listed some of the most important soils below and what they provide to the wines we’ve grown to love so much.

  • Limestone soils give wines with high acidity and that are very aromatic, they also retain water in dry conditions, we can find this soil in the regions of Champagne and Burgundy. 
  • Clay soils are cold soils but poorly drained and at times dense. They give wines with fuller bodies. Pomerol and St Emilion have clay soils which are good for early ripening Merlot. 
  • Granitic soils are acidic soils, warm and minerally rich, they also reflect heat and aid ripening, a sample of these are the soils in the Beaujolais Crus.
  • Gravel soils are well drained and acidic and therefore give grapes with low acidity. A better combination will be gravel with limestone giving wines with more acidity and elegance. Like those in the Left bank of Bordeaux (Pessac-Leognan, Paulliac).
  • Flint soils are soils rich in silica, they reflect heat and are good for ripening, we can find these soils in the Loire Valley. They also provide their typical goût de pierre à fusil nose.
  • Marl soils are calcareous soils that are cool and delay ripening, favoring acidity in wines. Marl soils are found in Chianti (Galestro).
  • Schist and Slate are rocky soils, they are warm soils, made of fragmented rocks, they usually drain well, retain heat and aid ripening. Mosel in Germany, known for its cool and marginal climate, is rich in slate soils. 
  • Sandy soils usually drain well and retain heat, a sample of this soils can be found in Santa Barbara, California. They are also acidic soils but yield less aromatics than granitic soils.
  • Volcanic Soils: are rich in sediments and minerals and give complex, ample and fleshy wines. We can find volcanic soils in the Canary Islands, Yarra Valley and Oregon’s Willamette valley.

Until the next one, Cheers! Silvina

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