If you participate in social circles that throw out a lot of wine speak, terroir ,pronounced tear-war (rhymes with car), often comes up as either an insignificant contribution to wine making or a major influence on how the wine is going to turn out. How can both opposing viewpoints be correct? Strange as it may seem they both may have validity, but an awful lot of which side you choose depends on where your wine grapes start, and who the winemaker is.
So lets start with what the actual word means. It is a "catch all", in as much as it lumps together the influences of soil, climate, and terrain on the growing vine. It is often said that the quality of the wine starts in the vineyard. Certainly there is a lot of truth to that. Garbage fruit almost always leads to crappy tasting wine. The wine maker can be a genius but there is just so much that can be done if the fruit isn't of an acceptable quality. But lets go a little further with each of these elements.
Soil has 3 purposes. First, it is there to support the vine. It holds the roots in place and provides some capability to vertically hold the vine up. Second, it is a skeletal network of particles that holds water, from which the roots are able to soak up the water which is a major carrier for nutrients. And lastly, due to its make-up, in time mineral and elements are released by the solids that eventually make their way to the plant via the water. Now some soils are better at water and nutrient transfer than others, and much like what we say about humans, i.e. you are what you eat, some of this is true for grapevines too. Some variance in soils can be addressed by choosing rootstocks that perform better in particular soils. Soils that provide adequate water drainage are better for vines than those that hold water in high amounts. There is an "old" saying that grape vines don't like wet feet. The fact is, that most plants don't like unduly wet soils because the water replaces the oxygen normally caught in the nooks and crannies found in granular soils, hence drowning the plant from the bottom up. But another downside occurs from too much water just prior to harvest, where it then will be pulled up into the vine and eventually get its way into the fruit, which dilutes the sugars.
Climate may seem like an easily understood term, and for the most part it is. A longer growing season is good for the grapes to accumulate the sugars required. Seasonal average rains provide the waters needed for nutrient transfer and healthy growth. Winds dry off leaves to reduce fungus growth or promote transpiration. Sometimes choosing a particular cold hearty vine is a way to counter the occasional late season frost, but to second guess those once every hundred years occurrences may be a futile effort if it counters with the desire to make specific wines from specific grapes.
Thirdly, it is of common agreement that planting on the southerly side of a hill allows greater sun exposure, and a slightly sloping plot provides the water drainage from severe rains or snow accumulation.
If one studies France regarding their declaring certain regions to be of Grand Cru or Premier Cru quality, vs. Village, they are taking these three aspects of terroir into consideration. Of course there may have been some politics involved a few hundred years ago, since one theoretically can charge more for their wines from a defined better piece of land, but through the years the quality of the wines from specific plots support the regional classifications. This brings us back to the contribution the winemaker has in making the wine.
Let's face it, if you are a fifth or sixth (or more) generation winemaker in Burgundy France, which covers about 1/4 the size of Virginia, you pretty much know how to make wine as good as the next guy. Given exactly the same soils and climate and terrain, your wines should be every bit as good as your neighbors. For the every day wine drinker, they probably couldn't tell much quality difference between these various Chateau wines. It's like being able to describe in fine detail the sound quality differences between Harman Kardon speakers and those from Radio Shack if you're a casual every day listener. But certainly minute differences in these terroir features, and maybe a little bit better wine making skills may lead one to achieve a slightly better wine.
Why have I gone in great length to discuss terroir? Because I have finally recognized how difficult it is to make good wines in Surry, Virginia. The soils are adequate at best, having been beaten up by decades upon decades of row crops that have depleted the soils of organic matter and nutrients, and have experienced erosion leaving soils empty of nutrients with acid imbalances. The weather is a major challenge, with its very hot and humid summers, either too little or too much rain, late season frosts or season-ending hurricanes. And lets not overlook the terrain. Lands that are flat as a pancake that promote standing water and high water tables.
So I find it amazing in retrospect that our 1st generation wine maker here can do as well as she is doing under less than ideal circumstances.