Terroir:  Fact or Fiction?

(Reflection of Place, a reflection of the place where the wine is grown. Or "It Tastes Like The Dirt It's Grown In" or "A strong connection between the land and the wine")

What is Terroir (pronounced tehr/wahr)?  Terroir is the notion that the growing site defines a wine's character.

Say the word "terroir" to a wine lover, and you're likely to see that the debate over the importance of terroir, or the lack of importance, is in high gear; particularly now that so-called "New World" winemakers (particularly those in California & Oregon) have decided that terroir is "where it's at" in the scheme of modern winegrowing. 

"Where it's at" is precisely the point of terroir.  This very French concept purports that the place where the grapes are grown is what gives a particular wine its style and flavor (its "typicity", as wine professionals call it). And that place is very specific, usually a single vineyard or parcel of land, or in a larger sense, the AVA (American Viticulture Area) or an appellation if you're in the "Old World" (an area delimited by the government as being recognized for its specific type of terroir). 

There are 4 basic elements of terroir:

  1. Climate

    Wine regions can be basically divided into two types of climates: cool climate and warm climate. Wine grapes from warmer climates generate higher sugar levels (which produce higher alcohol wines), whereas cooler climate wine grapes generally have lower sugar levels and retain more acidity.
    For instance;
    The Eola-Amity Hills AVA receives just a touch more nighttime coolness because of the Van Duzer Corridor in the Coastal Mountain range than the Dundee Hills AVA for example. While both regions produce Pinot Noir, the Eola-Hills produces Pinot wines with greater natural acidity because of the weather.

  2. Soil

    There are hundreds of different types of soil, rock and mineral deposits in the world’s vineyards. Most vineyard soils can be sorted into about 5 to 6 different types of soil that affect the flavor of wine. While there is no scientific proof associating the taste of ‘minerality’ to actual minerals in a wine, something does happen. It’s almost as though some types of soils act like a tea-bag for water as it passes through to the vine’s roots.
    For instance; The Willamette Valley is marked by 16 million year old volcanic soils.
    Jory (volcanic) soil series are very deep, well drained soils developed from materials that have been transported from higher slopes (colluvium) and weathered from basic igneous (basalt) bedrock (residuum).

  3. Terrain

    Believe it or not, altitude is an increasingly important focus for quality vineyards. Besides elevation, things like geological features (mountains, valleys, being located far inland), other flora (plants, microbes and trees) and large bodies of water affect how a wine from a particular region tastes.
    For instance The Willamette Valley has vineyards up to 1,000 feet above sea level and corridors allowing cool marine winds to flow in. The high elevation & corridors gives Pinot heightened acidity due to cool nighttime temperatures. Within the Valley, the Eola Hills & Dundee Hills sub regions are famous for its high quality age-worthy Pinot.

  4. Tradition*

    (*only in areas entrenched with a particular winemaking tradition) Traditional winemaking (and vineyard growing) techniques can also contribute to a wine’s terroir. Even though tradition is a human interaction, ancient winemaking methods tend to be highly dependent on the region’s climate, soil and terrain.

    For instance;

    Additionally, the Willamette Valley vineyards are typically dry-farmed as part of the terroir. Through dry-farming, the deep growing plants interact with the microbes in the soil, absorbing nutrients and minerals that contribute to the complexity and structure in the wine.

So far, so good - not too many people would argue with the idea that wines from the France have a different character than those from Oregon.  But it's when you ask for a more specific definition of terroir that ideas start to diverge. Many people think that the word terroir, which has no exact English translation (the closest term would be "territory" or AVA), refers to the type of soil present in a particular vineyard.  They would therefore assert that grapes grown in a clay sedimentary soil, for example, have a different character than those grown in a volcanic soil.  In the Dundee Hills, for example, winemakers will swear that it's the particular type of black silt loam of volcanic soil, that give the wines their characteristic complexity and aromatics.  It's what the French call the "gout du terroir" (the taste of the terroir).  And indeed, when you taste the wines, you'd swear it were true.  But no scientific test to date has been able to establish any direct relationship between the soil type and the character of the wines made from grapes grown in that soil.  One of the mysteries of wine perhaps? 

Learn more about Terroir.




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