Terroir is one of the most commonly used and least understood words in the vocabulary of wine. And that’s unfortunate because it is universally considered by wine professionals, collectors and authors alike as the most important force in making distinct wines that speak of their place of origin.

A complicating factor in understanding terroir is that it is a French word (derived from “terre,” meaning land) with no precise translation to English. Rather it’s more of a conceptual model expressing the grapevine’s total environment in a specific area. It takes into consideration soils, sub-soils, topography, exposure and all aspects of temperature along with seasonal rainfall, fog and other climatic conditions.

The recognition of terroir dates back to the ancient Greeks as they noticed wines made from the same grape variety exhibited different characteristics when grown in different regions. Over time, the more celebrated regions were held in higher acclaim based on the superiority of their wines.

The concept was eventually adopted in Burgundy by the religious orders that farmed the vineyards. It became the basis of France’s “appellation d’origine contrôlée” (AOC) and subsequently all other appellation laws throughout the world including our AVA designations in the U.S.

Terroir is not what the grower and farmer do in (or to) the vineyard, but rather what the vineyard gives them in the most basic sense. In this respect a grapevine’s terroir is not unlike the geographic influences and surroundings we were exposed to in our childhood that were responsible for forming many of our individual traits and habits.

Michel Chapoutier, the world renowned and highly respected head of M. Chapoutier in France’s Rhone Valley, has said, “Varietal wines can be the ‘rock music’ that gets people into the subject (but) ‘classical music’ can be provided by wines of terroir.”

Great wines (and even lesser wines) are the product of their terroir. Throughout the Napa Valley we are the grateful beneficiaries of idyllic climatic and soil conditions that lead to the production of world-class wines. But are all areas the same throughout the valley? Absolutely not.

A closer look at the many different areas of the valley demonstrates the concept of terroir and its effect on the wines produced. We have more than 100 different soil types spanning the valley floor and surrounding hillsides. From the Mayacamas range in the west to the Vaca range in the east, we can observe a myriad of vastly different exposure patterns and topography that affect the entire growing season. From south to north on the valley floor and up to the mountain tops we observe wide variations in temperature and daylight hours.

All of these components of terroir are what makes our valley unique and among the finest winegrowing areas in the world. The combinations are endless and afford all growers and vintners the ability to “quench our thirst” with a broad choice of varietals and styles based on individual terroir for every occasion.

By contrast, the long hot days and nights of the Central Valley coupled with monochromatic soils and baking overhead sunshine are the characteristics of that area’s terroir. The resulting wines are typically lesser in quality and merit than those emanating from winegrowing areas exhibiting a more diverse and compatible terroir.

Early visionaries in the Napa Valley appreciated the value of terroir even though it was not a well understood term in their day. Al Brounstein, founder of Diamond Creek Vineyards in Calistoga, defied conventional wisdom when noticing the extreme differences in soil type and exposure on his vineyard. To capitalize on this divergence he decided to vinify, bottle and label the wines of each area of the vineyard separately rather than blend them together. This form of vineyard designation was a definite departure from the way things were done here in the mid 1970s and set a path for the future.

Dan Duckhorn realized the full potential of the Three Palms Vineyard for his famed merlot. The same was true of Joe Heitz and Martha’s Vineyard, Robert Mondavi with To Kalon Vineyard, Warren Winiarski with Fay Vineyard and many others who understood the unique character of various vineyard sites. Their quest was the same: top quality fruit mirroring the vineyard to express its distinctive character in the wine (i.e. the expression of terroir).

I believe the expression of terroir (e.g. a sense of place) is the true barometer of a great wine’s allure. But it also remains the responsibility of the winemaker to preserve these qualities.

The Greeks observed terroir and the Burgundians willingly adopted and promoted it centuries later. Thankfully, countless others have followed in their footsteps over time to bring us wines we can all enjoy for their unique qualities and noble pedigrees.

Questions and comments

My July 6 column, “Alcohol — part II,” attracted several comments on the discussion of the range of readers’ experiences with alcohol. The comments are best summed up by the example below.

I found the discussion format of this article very interesting as it incorporated an interchange on a variety of thoughts and experiences on alcohol. What I don’t understand is why there is such a variety of opinions on a subject that seems straightforward to me.

Alcohol levels in wine is a dynamic subject eliciting diverse opinions and experiences. While there doesn’t appear to be a consensus on how much alcohol is too much, there is a widely accepted notion that balance can override higher alcohol levels in some wines. These higher levels are seen by many as a “fact of life” in those wines where phenolic maturity is the goal. On the other side, there are those who say excessive ripeness and high alcohol masks varietal character and a sense of terroir. In the end we are all free to make our own judgements.

Share your experiences with other readers by commenting on this article at napavalleyregister.com/wine-exchange or email me at allenbalik@savorlifethroughwine.com.

Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 30 years.