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On Wine: Terroir is the key


Terroir is a French word of Latin origin that means “soil,” “land” or “earth.” The French pronounce it “tair WAH” (sort of) and in the wine world it has a related but different meaning of significant importance. For we oenophiles, it’s the environmental conditions, particularly the soil and climate, where wine grapes are grown.

Exposure to sunlight, how much rainfall, the drainage of the rain, the diurnal temperature (how much the temperature fluctuates in one day) and much more, give the grapes definitive characteristics that change from one terroir to another.

The ability for any wine to consistently reflect its terroir is a very desirable thing. One of the best wines to represent this is Sauvignon Blanc. It’s successfully grown all over the world and, not surprisingly, those grown in New Zealand are quite different from those grown in France. So much so, that an experienced wine drinker may be able to tell them apart just from a sniff.

The most famous sources for Sauvignon Blanc are New Zealand, California and two places in France; Bordeaux and the Loire Valley. The key difference between them is their varying terroir, though the wine making process is certainly impactful as well.

Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand are famously pungent, aromatic and zesty, and they also put New Zealand on the world’s wine map. They are, in fact, so pungent that they take considerable getting used to. When I taught wine appreciation classes to an inexperienced group, I always left out these wines as they usually yielded scrunchy faces and furrowed brows.

Sauvignon Blanc from France’s Loire Valley (the grapes’ ancestral birthplace) is quite the opposite. Europeans put the name of the place a wine is from on the label, rather than the name of the grape. Thus, look for “Sancerre” (a town in Loire). Sancerres have a flinty, lean character with flavors of apple, gooseberry, grapefruit and tropical fruits. And they’re not nearly as pungent.

Those from France’s Bordeaux region are more heavily bodied, a bit richer and creamier, with flavors of honey or honeysuckle, along with the tropical fruit flavors all Sauvignon Blancs offer. Keep in mind Bordeaux is about 330 miles south of Sancerre, making their Sauvignon Blancs quite different. That’s 330 miles closer to the equator, so the temperature, sun exposure, and more (i.e., the different terroir) is very consequential.

Interestingly, California Sauvignon Blancs fall comfortably between these two extremes from New Zealand and France. Flavors include those tropical nuances along with fig, melon and an herbaceous note.

The difference terroir provides applies to every and any grape grown anywhere. If you try a grape new to you and aren’t pleased, try the same thing from another part of the world … you may even think it’s not the same grape!

Ernest Valtri of Buckingham is a sculptor, painter, graphic designer, and a former member of the PLCB’s Wine Advisory Council. Please contact Erno at

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