In many cellar doors and wine tastings, the term ‘terroir’ is often mentioned in hushed, reverential tones.
Though the word can seem a little daunting to those new to the world of wine, it really isn’t that tough a nut to crack. Terroir, unsurprisingly, is a French phrase that means ‘a sense of place’.
When sipping a beautiful Burgundy, you’re not only enjoying the finely-crafted wine, but the place in which the grapes grew.
The notion of ‘terroir’
The basic notion of terroir refers not only to the area in which a wine’s grapes were grown, but other natural characteristics that help shape its character.
The soils of Piedmont are different to those of the Hunter Valley, but terroir delves much deeper than simple earth. It also takes into consideration weather patterns, the topography of the land, and even local harvesting techniques.
Each combine to deliver a wine that has its own unique terroir, which is why you’ll often hear ‘yes, you can really taste the terroir’ at wine tasting events.
However, there’s also an aspect to terroir that even the most knowledgeable oenophile may not be aware of – microbes.
That’s right – the soil of every vineyard is alive with miniscule microbes that also make their way into the roots of the vines and the skin of the grapes.
Just like us, these microbes differ in certain ways, depending on where they are from – try to think of them like regional accents.
A team of academics from the University of Auckland, organised an experiment to find out how these microbes affect the flavour and aroma of our wine – with startling results.
The researchers took a sample of grape juice (a Sauvignon Blanc grape from the nation’s Marlborough region) and added six differing strains of ‘Saccharomyces cerevisiae’ yeast – each of which were sourced from New Zealand’s various wine regions.
The grape juice was then examined, with the research team looking for chemicals that could feasibly alter its taste and smell. It was discovered that each separate sample was home to a distinct set of chemicals, which were found to markedly affect both flavour and aroma.
This showed that the yeast strains used in wine creation give different results depending on where they come from, even if they’re exactly the same species.
“Microbes have a small but significant effect,” said Mr Goddard, who led the study.
Matthew Goddard also stated that of the hundreds of compounds that make up any given wine’s taste and nose, over half of them had come from yeast.
On this basis, the role of microbes should not be overlooked when it comes to terroir – and deserves to be studied further.
By extension and hypothetically, this newly discovered component of terroir could perhaps in the future be “carried” from one region of the world to another… unlike local weather and soils which are more difficult to transport!
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