Terroir is a word that sounds horribly like Terror – but I am glad to say that there is no link!
This French word translated literally means “land”. But that is just the beginning of what it is in the wine trade. It implies all the characteristics affecting grapes grown there. The quality of the soil and the underlying geology. The regional climate and the microclimate of the specific site. The slope of the land, affecting both draining and exposure to the sun. Even nearby hills and cliffs changing winds and fogs. There is the belief that grapes and wine gain a unique quality from their terroir, and the terroir should identify the wine.
Terroir is not a new idea. Three thousand years ago, ancient Egyptian producers inscribed the source of their wine on pottery storage jars. In France, where so many ideas about wine developed, the belief in terroir is strong. Cross a road between two apparently similar pieces of land. One side may be worth twice as much per acre as the other because they are identified as different terroirs. Woe betide the winemaker who tries to buck the system and produce wine that is not true to its terroir.
In USA, labelling rules for wine to identify origin (state, county and even district) are more flexible than in France. Many of the big name brands you see in the shops do not come from anywhere specific. Instead, the winemaker blends grape juice or wine from anywhere at all in a factory to achieve a consistent tasting wine without any local pedigree.
I recently visited a small vineyard with a huge winery near Asheville. The bottles carry comforting words like “Estate” and “Reserve”. It produces 46 different wines made from 18 different grapes. But only three were from grapes grown in North Carolina, let alone on the property. Tons of grapes and juice were trucked in from California. It may be a triumph of marketing, but the wines do not have much to do with the locality.
It happens in Georgia too. California grapes are used for most expensive wine produced in Georgia. There is even a wine mixing Georgia grown with imported French wine.
So, if you want a wine which really reflects to place where it was born, don’t just grab any bottle at a grocery or package store. Go to a boutique winery like Cavender Creek or many of the other Georgia wineries, and ask the winemaker where the grapes, all of them, come from and what makes this wine special.
It’s all to do with the terroir.