This episode of Wine 101 is sponsored by E&J Gallo Winery. At Gallo, we exist to serve enjoyment in moments that matter. The hallmark of our company has always been an unwavering commitment to making quality wines and spirits. Whether it’s getting Barefoot and having a great time, making every day sparkle with La Marca Prosecco, or continuing our legacy with Louis Martini in Napa. We want to welcome new friends to wine and share in all of life’s moments. Cheers! And all the best.

Welcome to Season 2 of Wine 101. VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers kicks the season off with a discussion about “terroir,” a concept even he has trouble defining. While the term can refer to a number of different factors, terroir essentially connotes a sense of place.

Beavers works his way through different AVAs — from macro to microclimates — to explain how two identical vines growing side by side can still produce different wines. He says terroir is ultimately the process by which soil composition, sun, and climate come together to produce a specific wine. He perhaps sums it up best by saying “it’s a way for winemakers to express to you that what they’re doing is unique within their area.”

He also goes on to explain which wines are the most influenced by terroir, and when it makes sense to splurge on a “single-vineyard” wine. At the end of the day, he emphasizes that “terroir” is an ongoing conversation, and encourages listeners to discuss it with friends — hopefully over a glass of wine.

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My name is Keith Beavers, and oh, hi. How have you been? Welcome to Season 2 of Wine 101. Let’s do this.

What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to Season 2 of VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast. My name is Keith Beavers. I’m the tastings director of VinePair, but you already knew that. So Season 2. It’s because of you guys that we have a Season 2. And I got to say, we’re going to start this off right. We’re going to get down into the dirt. We’re going to go up into the sky. We’re gonna go all around the vineyard. And we’re going to talk about terroir. What is terroir?

Wow. Season 2. Thank you guys so much. You love what we’re doing here, and now I get to talk to you about wine for another 30 episodes. Yes! So I guess the best way to start Season 2 is to really get nice with this thing called terroir. Let’s just get it out of the way so we can understand it and move into some really cool stuff. Because terroir, the idea, the concept of terroir will help us going forward — in life, in wine, and in this season. But I don’t want to decode terroir. I just wanna discuss. Because the thing about terroir is terroir is a discussion. There’s no actual definition. There’s no actual concrete definition for what this word is. There’s actually no English translation.

So let’s get into terroir. I mean, just the thought of, OK, I’m about to talk about terroir. I’ve got to take a breath. Because “terroir,” the word, it’s not odd but what’s odd is how our industry — the wine industry — has attached itself to this word so much that we use it in marketing. The thing is, in my comeuppance in the wine industry, I was a wine buyer, I had a restaurant, I had a wine shop. So I bought wine for a long time. And when you’re buying wine, and the person is talking to you about the wine they want to sell you, they’re giving you the attributes, and the characteristics and “it’s made in this area.” All the things you need to know in your brain to make the decision beyond how awesome the wine is or not is. What I found very interesting is the organic movement — because when I had my businesses, it was right when the organic movement started hitting the country. It started in California and worked its way to the East Coast, and oh my gosh, it was everywhere at one point, like in the early 2000s. And I was buying wine before the organic movement hit. And I was buying wine after the organic movement hit. And after the organic movement hit, people started really getting into like, “oh my God, how is this wine made? Are there any sulfites?” All that stuff. And that’s when people that were selling wine to me started using the word “terroir.” It was just every wine that came my way was like, “oh, you have to understand the terroir here is blah, blah, blah.”

And what’s interesting is — is this interesting? I don’t know, you tell me what it is. But when we in the wine industry, we sort of latch on to certain buzzwords and terms. And sometimes those terms and buzzwords don’t really have a definition. One of them being terroir, another one being a term called “natural wine.” They become a popular parlance in the wine industry, and at some point, that injects itself into the mainstream. And now, you have people marketing to consumers with a word like “terroir” with no real definition as to what terroir is. People have a general idea maybe of what terroir means, but they just assume, “well, if it says terroir, that means something about it is good.” And that’s actually true. I mean, the word terroir connotes this idea of purity, and that is what we want in our products — wine or otherwise these days anyway. Right? But if the word terroir connotes this sense of purity, but how does it? What is terroir? What is it about terroir that’s attractive to wine buyers, wine sellers, and eventually the consumer? Let’s talk about what it actually means, and then get a sense of it, and also learn not to completely let it rule your life. And then knowing about terroir is just fun. It’s a nice thing to know while you’re drinking wine. So let’s get into it.

And as I’ve been known to do, I want to start with a quote from the Jedi wine master, Jancis Robinson, about terroir. In the “Oxford Wine Companion,” it says, “Terroir is a much discussed term for the total natural environment of a viticultural site.” That’s the definition in one of the foremost primary sources of wine information in the galaxy. You know what I mean? And you notice the word “discussed” is in there — “much discussed.” Because that’s what terroir really is. It’s a discussion, as I said before. Because the word terroir and gosh, I mean, hey, listeners that speak French, I’m very sorry. But the thing is, it’s a French word. “Terroir,” it’s probably stupid, but the word is not new. It’s a very old word. And as we discussed in Season 1 in the Burgundy episode, it’s a word that was developed around the Middle Ages when the Cistercian monks were running around Europe, documenting their winemaking, documenting all kinds of soils and all the stuff. They were the first to really do it in a very organized, funded way. And in doing so, in Burgundy, we talked about how crazy the soil is in Burgundy. The monks started noticing things that were very bizarre, but also joyful, if you will, in that one row of vines produces a different wine than another row of vines next to it. But those two rows of vines have the same grape, and they freaked out. So this was an ongoing thing in Burgundy, and then eventually moved its way around Europe because of the Cistercian monks.

And the word that they came up with to describe all this was terroir. Now, this is all legend. There’s no documentation about this. But this is sort of what everyone talks about because that’s what terroir is. And it’s a discussion, right? And I feel like it’s a word that was developed to explain something that was almost inexplicable. And it’s a French word. It’s such a French word that it has no translation in any other language. The “Merriam-Webster Dictionary” attempts to define it, saying it’s “the combination of factors, including soil, climate, and sunlight that gives wine grapes their distinctive character.” But that’s about as general as general can get. “A distinctive character?” What’s that?

OK, this is how I see it. Vines grow in vineyards, but they’re not naturally part of the ecosystem of where vineyards are planted. There were never vines in Napa Valley until humans put vines into Napa Valley. So this idea of terroir is this combination of natural factors that affect the way a vine grows. Because you’ll remember all the way back in Sseason 1 from the first episode, what we do is we put vines into certain areas that we know are going to stress the vine out so we can sort of recreate its natural ability to survive and produce the fruit that we need to make wine. So throughout history, humans have figured out a way to plant these vines — these foreign plants — into different areas with the surrounding conditions that benefit the way this vine grows, produces, and then we harvest.

And of course, now with modern science and GPS mapping and soil testing and all this, we can actually find a great place to plant vines based on the vine we want to plant and all this stuff. But back in the day, they didn’t have that kind of science. And actually the word terroir was, like I said, it comes about during the Middle Ages. But the idea of “sense of place” has been around since antiquity. The Roman Empire would stamp their amphorae with specific places that wines are from because they were known to be good from certain areas. So this idea is just nature. It’s been happening for a long time.

But the monks, of course, had all the funding and they had all the time. And they were the ones that really kind of organized this idea and then came up with the word terroir to sort of define what they were experiencing. The natural effects of terroir can be understood in three categories, really. You have a macroclimate, and then within the macroclimate, you have a mesoclimate and within a mesoclimate, you have a microclimate. And these three categories interact with each other in many, many, many different ways in many different parts of the world to create a specific kind of wine.

For example, let’s see if I can do this here. So in California, you have the Central Coast AVA. It is huge. Now that could be considered a macroclimate, because that was demarcated for a reason. There’s a general climactic thing going on in the Central Coast that is advantageous to wine — whether it’s the influence from the ocean or the general daily temperatures. That’s why it’s called the Central Coast AVA. Within the Central Coast AVA, there is a large wine region in itself called Paso Robles. We can call this a mesoclimate. The reason why Paso Robles was demarcated within the Central Coast AVA is because it has something special to offer, even more so from the larger Central Coast in that it has a lot of limestone in the soil. It has very unique fluctuations of wind and sun and all that. And it just creates these big wines that have nice acidity. And just within itself, it’s pretty awesome. Within the Paso Robles AVA are 14 even more focused, sub-appellations or districts that are demarcated because of their special, unique soil and compositions and wind and sun.

That could be considered a microclimate, but this is where it’s crazy. You could even call Paso Robles a macroclimate. You could call one of the districts within Paso Robles a mesoclimate like the Adelaida District. And then you could call a vineyard or group of vineyards within the Adelaida District a microclimate. So you can go further and further and further until you get down to the actual vine itself. That’s originally what the Burgundians were doing. The monks in Burgundy were thinking, “oh my gosh, this one row of Pinot Noir is different from this row of Pinot Noir right next to it. And we harvest it and we produce it the same way.” And the reason why there are 14 unique districts within Paso Robles alone is because of terroir. Winemakers have found out that there are certain areas that get better wind, certain areas that get better sun, certain areas that benefit from certain soil composition, certain elevations. And they know they get a specific style out of these areas, so they want to go ahead and draw a circle around it and go, “this is Adelaida wine.” I mean, you can see the same thing in New York State. You have the Finger Lakes, you have all these lakes. And there are plans currently of trying to develop the appellation system in New York. People are like, “well, I make wine on Cayuga Lake, I make wine on Seneca Lake.” Because it’s different from the other one, they want you to know that. This is all what terroir is. It’s a way for winemakers to express to you that what they’re doing is unique within their area.

But nature is crazy, and it’s always being studied. To this day, the idea of terroir, sense of place, and natural factors affecting a vine are always being studied. But what it comes down to is how much sun is the vine getting? What kind of soil is the vine in? What kind of topography is around this vineyard? And how is the climate of the area affected by those things and vice versa?

And all of these conditions also factor into what’s going on even deeper into the idea of terroir, which some people call “microbial terroir.” And it’s important, because you have this vine that’s not used to this area, and all these conditions can create certain things like, is the temperature in this area conducive to a population of pests that messes with the vine, or not? Are there natural plants growing around that produce too much nitrogen and mess with the vineyard? What kind of potassium in nutrients are in the actual soil to help the vine grow? All of these factors are part of the overall terroir. So it’s kind of an insane, intense idea that started out — again, we’re going back to the monks — started out with this sort of simple idea of, “oh, this is different than this.” Now, we have science to basically understand terroir down to the actual microbes.

And in addition to that, what happens when we irrigate? That’s not natural. But when you irrigate, you are affecting the terroir because you’re actually putting another influence into the natural things. So you see what I’m saying here? Terroir is just all these factors in nature coming together to help this foreign thing grow in soil so that we can enjoy a bottle of wine. And it just so happens that sometimes, in the most microcosmic part of a vineyard, there are these absolute differences from row to row. And sometimes, we understand it and sometimes we don’t. We? I don’t make wine. Sometimes they understand it and sometimes they don’t. So this idea is just mind-boggling, right? Oh my God, terroir. I didn’t realize it was that crazy. And it is!

And the thing is, it’s an Old-World idea because the Old World in Europe is where all of the more focused vineyards were. The appellation system was created in Europe and France, specifically, and other countries took that on within Europe. And that appellation system was built off the idea of sense of place or terroir, those different climatic categories. In the New World, it’s a little bit different. We’ve had, in the United States alone, we have hundreds of AVAs, American Viticultural Areas. And not all of them were created specifically because of terroir. They were created because of just sometimes political reasons. And sometimes like, “hey, we used to do wine here. We can one day do it again.” And for us — more in modern times, actually sort of post-Prohibition, 1960s and beyond — our idea of terroir in America started to emerge when we started bottling single-vineyard wines, which should be considered a microclimate.

But here’s the thing: Nature is fragile and forceful at the same time. The fragile-ness of terroir is a thing, and the idea of a vine or vines being able to express themselves in a certain way, in a certain place, every factor has to be happening all at once. And part of that is how much of a harvest there is. We talked in the Burgundy episode, we talked about how Pinot Noir is known to express its terroir, because that’s where it all began. But in that episode, I talked about the yield of Pinot Noir. I talked about how over a certain yield, like 50 hectoliters per liter, you’re making a Pinot Noir, but you’re losing the subtleties of it. Pinot Noir needs under 50 hectoliters per liter — actually 30 hectoliters per liter — you really see the subtleties of a Pinot Noir.

So the idea of terroir is really for the wines that are made with a specific kind of care. The more large-production wines out there that sometimes you don’t know what the wine grapes are in the wine or if it’s just a mass-produced wine, you’re not always going to get terroir out of that. Usually when you get a wine that’s going to be like $8 and it says Pinot Noir and it’s from California but it could also have Syrah because of the 75 percent rule, you’re not going to get terroir. Terroir comes into play when a winemaker is trying to express to you how special their place in the world is and how special the wine is that comes from there. That’s why when you see a single-vineyard wine, they’re trying to tell you, “look, this vineyard is special because it’s a specific kind of terroir.”

So there you have it, a sort of general roundabout idea of a word that is used a lot that doesn’t have a concrete definition, but has ideas and concepts around it. Terroir. And for you as a consumer, for a wine consumer, terroir is as important as you want it to be. I mean, if you have the cash, and you want to buy two bottles of wine from a specific grand cru in Burgundy that were harvested next to each other in different rows and has a completely different flavor or aroma to it, it’s a really awesome experience. It is an awesome experience. And it’s just as fun to experience different Pinot Noirs from the 18 different AVAs of Sonoma County. That’s fun, too. So now you have a little bit of information about terroir, so you can actually have your own discussion with people, because it’s going to be interesting when you talk to people about terroir. Everybody has their own idea about it. So I hope that this episode helped you get started.

@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcast from. It really helps get the word out there. And now, for some totally awesome credits.

Wine 101 was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. And I mean, big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also Darby Cici for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week. See? Totally awesome credits.

This episode of Wine 101 is sponsored by E&J Gallo Winery. At Gallo, we exist to serve enjoyment in moments that matter. The hallmark of our company has always been an unwavering commitment to making quality wines and spirits. Whether it’s getting Barefoot and having a great time, making every day sparkle with La Marca Prosecco, or continuing our legacy with Louis Martini in Napa. We want to welcome new friends to wine and share in all of life’s moments. Cheers! And all the best.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.