On a basic, technical level, the word encompasses the characteristics imparted on wine from the immediate environment in which the grapes are grown and the wine is made. The soil, water, sun, slope of the vineyard, moisture in the air, etc. can all be considered part of a wine’s terroir. And, on the one hand, yes. The soil content, nutrients in the water, sun, moisture, etc. all DO affect the health of the vine and the composition of the berries that grow on it. That is true. Science!
However, a sort of mystical shroud has also been pulled over the word, and it has come to represent different winemaking ideologies and philosophies. Large, mass producing wineries are often criticized for eliminating terroir in their wines- for ignoring the characteristics imparted by the specific vineyard and purposefully creating uniform, predictable wines from vintage to vintage (year to year) and batch to batch. For instance, a Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay from 2009 is going to taste pretty much exactly the same as a 2011, which will taste the same as the 2015. Grapes grown from one of their vineyard plots will ideally taste just the same as grapes grown in another vineyard. This is intentional. The winery has branded itself so that you know what to expect when you drink one of their wines. Their viticultural strategy will be aimed at obtaining a higher fruit load on the vines (maximum quantity of juice,) just the right nutrient level (especially nitrogen as it is metabolized by the yeast) and just the right sugar levels at harvest. They want no variation from vineyard to vineyard (they have acres and acres and acres and acres- sometimes from vastly different locations) or year to year. Variation is bad.
In contrast, smaller craft winemakers often appreciate and accept the characteristics that soil, water (drought or abundant rain,) sun exposure, cover crops (other plants growing on the vineyard floor,) etc. can impart into the winemaking process, recognizing terroir down to the individual row or even individual plant in a vineyard. They, like the large scale wineries, want plants to grow well and have the right fruit load, but it tends to be less fruit per vine with these guys- they want the plants to concentrate their energy and nutrients on fewer berries. They too want nutrient levels in a proper range, and will harvest when sugars are right. However, they accept and appreciate the differences that different locales may offer. These wineries may experiment with different yeast strains from year to year. They may play with oak contact or eliminate it altogether, or they may decide to not filter their wines. They tend to not have a perfect "recipe" that they use from year to year. They are more interested in high-quality, interesting, complex wines. In this way, terroir has also come to include the winemaker and the care and influence that they exert during the winemaking process.
Ultimately, in the global wine market, you can compare wines where terroir is to be present in the bottle (small, handcrafted productions) with large-scale wineries whose brand is more important than the uniqueness of their product. This concept is of importance to many European winemakers- especially the French, who want to distinguish themselves in an increasingly global market.
If I sound mildly hesitant about the terroir hype, it is because I am... And unsettlingly, I can't quite pinpoint why... It may be because the scientific evidence seems to say that while soil, weather, etc. DO play a part in the eventual composition of the berry, and the subsequent fermentation, it does not affect the finished product in such a mystical, spiritual way. Consequently, I'm just not quite ready to bow down at the altar of terroir.
However, I must admit that it is precisely such a romantic notion that attracted me to wine and winemaking in the first place. I vividly remember a winemaker in Walla Walla pointing out into their estate vineyard and showing us two different hills, each growing the same varietal. They explained that the grapes on one hill tasted extremely different and made vastly different wines because there was more lime in the soil and that they took that into account in the cellar when fermenting and blending. It's fascinating stuff, and to ignore those nuances the way the mass produced wines do seems a real shame. What a waste to ignore the gifts that nature has given you, whether you want to call them terroir or not!
That muddled explanation is the best I can do to try to nail down the slippery meaning of the word. And I'm sorry I can't give you a hard and fast opinion on the subject either. But hopefully, the next time someone sips a white wine with a slight calcium flavor and comments on its "terroir," you’ll be able to keep up in the conversation!
And remember, (friendly and constructive) thoughts and opinions on the subject are always welcome!
Did you know?
You can keep sparkling wines bubbly for a day or so by putting them back in the fridge. If you have a cork or some other closure, it can’t hurt to use it (and will keep the flavor fresher,) but if not, just stick it back in there and keep it cold. It’ll stay bubbly through at least the next day’s dinner… or dessert.