The Concept of Terroir in Viticulture
CORNELIS VAN LEEUWEN and GERARD SEGUIN
Original manuscript received, June 2005
Revised manuscript received, January 2006
ABSTRACT Terroir is a highly important concept in viticulture because it relates the sensory
attributes of wine to the environmental conditions in which the grapes are grown. Quality hierarchy
and wine style may, to a considerable extent, be explained by terroir. However, terroir is difﬁcult to
study on a scientiﬁc basis because many factors are involved, including climate, soil, cultivar and
human practices, and these factors interact. The best expression of terroir is achieved when the
precocity of the grapevine variety is suited to the local climatic conditions in such a way that full
ripeness is reached by the end of the growing season. For the production of high quality red wines,
environmental conditions should induce moderate vine vigour, either through moderate water deﬁcit
stress or through low nitrogen supply. These conditions are most frequently met on shallow or stony
soils, in moderately dry climates. Regular but not excessive vine water and nitrogen supplies are
needed to produce high quality white wines. However, great terroir emerges only when socio-
economic conditions are favourable to the establishment of quality-orientated wine production.
Terroir is concerned with the relationship between the characteristics of an agricultural
product (quality, taste, style) and its geographic origin, which might inﬂuence these
characteristics. The concept of terroir is frequently used to explain the hierarchy of
high-quality wines. It can be deﬁned as an interactive ecosystem, in a given place,
including climate, soil and the vine (Seguin, 1988). To understand the way terroir
functions, it is essential to take into account the interactions among the factors that
contribute to terroir. While very high quality wines are grown in various climates, it
is impossible to deﬁne the ideal climate for ﬁne wines in terms of temperature, rainfall
(amount and distribution), or solar radiation. Nor can one deﬁne the best possible soil
for growing high-quality wines in terms of pebble, clay or lime content, soil depth or
mineral content. These factors of the natural environment have to be considered in
terms of their interaction with the vine. Human factors, such as history, socio-
economics, as well as viticultural and oenological techniques, are also part of terroir
(Seguin, 1986). Viticulture is a human activity. The history of the socio-economic
Cornelis van Leeuwen, Unite
´de Viticulture, ENITA de Bordeaux, 1, Cours du Ge
´ral de Gaulle, BP 201,
33175 Gradignan-cedex, France (E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).
Journal of Wine Research, 2006, Vol. 17, No. 1,
pp. 1– 10
ISSN 0957-1264 print/ISSN 1469-9672 online/06/010001–10 #2006 Institute of Masters of Wine
environment may be important in understanding why a given vineyard has emerged in
a given site and why it has prospered. Mastery of viticultural and oenological practices
is necessary in order to optimise in the wine the potential of the natural environmental
factors. This last point, which is extensively treated by Jackson and Lombard (1983), is
not within the scope of this paper.
It is important to consider the human factor in terroir because no vineyard exists
without the intervention of mankind. Wine is an essential element in eating and drink-
ing, especially in Mediterranean regions. Because vines (like olive trees) have low agro-
nomic needs in terms of mineral and water supply, farmers used to reserve richer soils
for cereals and grazing and planted vines on poor soils, either because they were
shallow or stony, or because they were located on steep slopes. Mankind also played
an essential role in the evolution through selection of grapevine varieties to increase
their ability to produce high-quality wines, because none of the currently cultivated
varieties of Vitis vinifera existed in nature.
Vineyards emerge in locations where the socio-economic conditions are favourable
for wine growing. The difﬁculty of transporting a liquid beverage in the past should
not be overlooked. Many vineyards arose in the vicinity of a concentration of consu-
mers, or near a harbour or a navigable river. Vineyards that were established in
locations where the natural environment was favourable for growing quality wines
survived, while other, less favourable, locations, disappeared. Because Paris was (and
is) an important centre of wine-consumption, a ﬂourishing wine-growing region devel-
oped close to the French capital, which produced up to 4.8 million hectolitres of wine
on 24,000 ha in 1820 (Logette, 1988). However, climatic conditions in that part of
France are not optimum for wine growing since it is difﬁcult to attain ripeness. For
this reason, wine growing sharply decreased around Paris after the phylloxera crisis
when the opening of the Paris-Lyon-Marseille railway in the second half of the nine-
teenth century made it possible to transport wine to Paris from the South of France,
where climatic conditions were more favourable for wine growing. Around La Rochelle
and Bordeaux, two ﬂourishing vineyards developed during the Middle Ages because of
the possibility of transporting wine overseas, to England and Holland. The vineyard at
La Rochelle, where the soils are not particularly favourable for vine growing, dis-
appeared with the decline of the port; the vineyard at Bordeaux survived, even
when its port lost in economic signiﬁcance, because the environmental conditions
(soil and climate) and the cultivars used around Bordeaux were particularly suitable
for the production of high-quality wines. Even today, new vineyards develop where
the socio-economic context is favourable for the production of wine. The emergence
of the Pic Saint Loup area in the Languedoc can largely be explained by the beauty
of the countryside, which, combined with the vicinity of Montpellier and the Mediter-
ranean sea, makes it an attractive site for investors. In Australia, wine growing in the
Hunter Valley was introduced by early settlers, who brought in vine cuttings via
Sydney, although the humid climate is far from ideal for wine growing. Later, wine
growing extended to more favourable sites, although vineyards in the Barossa and
Yarra Valleys also largely beneﬁted from the vicinity of Adelaide and Melbourne.
There are very few examples of famous wine-growing areas developing in inhospitable
and remote areas, far from centres of consumption.
It was due to the trade with England that Bordeaux developed the production of
wines of origin. Since the Middle Ages, wine was sold in Bordeaux by the name of
2CORNELIS VAN LEEUWEN AND GERARD SEGUIN
the parish. Selling prices varied according to the name of the commune, which means
that it was already acknowledged that some origins produced better wines than others.
The ﬁrst estate to sell its wines under its own name was cha
ˆteau Haut-Brion, under the
ownership of Arnaud de Pontac, in the seventeenth century. He was convinced that the
wines of Haut-Brion were superior to other wines of Pessac, justifying higher prices.
When Arnaud de Pontac’s son opened a tavern in London, Haut-Brion soon became
an acclaimed wine in the capital of England. This brought the philosopher John
Locke to visit Haut-Brion in 1677. Locke refers to this visit in his complete works
(Pijassou, 1980: 358).
The vine de Pontac, so much esteemed in England, grown on a rising open to
the West, in a white sand mixed with a little gravel, which one would think
bear nothing; but there is so much a particularity in the soil, that at Mr.
Pontac’s near Bordeaux the merchants assured me that the wine growing
in the very next vineyards, where there was only a ditch between, and the
soil, to appearance, perfectly the same, was by no means so good.
This suggests that as early as the second half of the seventeenth century the soil was
already thought to be an important factor in wine quality in Bordeaux.
Inspired by the example of Cha
ˆteau Haut-Brion, rich Bordeaux merchants created
large estates in the Me
´doc between the end of the seventeenth century and the eight-
eenth century. Some of today’s most famous Me
´doc estates were among the ﬁrst to be
planted with vines in that region. Apparently, enough empirical knowledge was avail-
able at that time for efﬁcient site selection. Qualitative differences among the wines pro-
duced led to a sophisticated hierarchy in selling prices, which was the basis for the
classiﬁcation of 1855 (Markham, 1997). Although terroir-related factors such as
climate and soil were not directly taken into account in the classiﬁcation of 1855, the
wines from the Me
ˆteaux can be considered ‘terroir wines’. These cha
produce their wines exclusively from grapes grown in their own vineyards, where the
soil remains invariable over the years.
In today’s wine production, a distinction should be made between ‘terroir wines’ and
‘branded wines’. Terroir wines are produced in a speciﬁed location which remains
the same over the years. They owe their speciﬁc characteristics to the inﬂuence of
climate and soil on vine behaviour and wine quality. Examples are estate wines or
single-vineyard wines. The volume of these wines cannot be increased, which can
make some famous terroir wines very prone to speculative investment. Branded
wines are produced by blending wine or grapes from larger areas and from a variety
of sources, which may vary from year to year. They owe their characteristics to oeno-
logical processes and blending. Their volume can be increased to meet demand. Trace-
ability is an important issue in today’s agro-business. Terroir wines have always had
excellent traceability. Three centuries ago, a consumer who enjoyed a bottle of
Laﬁte could visit the vines which produced the fruit, know when the wine was made
and bottled and meet the people involved in its production.
Factors of the Natural Environment
Macroclimate and vine – climate interaction
The vine is a perennial plant adapted to a wide range of climatic conditions. The main
cultivated vine species for quality wine-making is Vitis vinifera, which can survive
THE CONCEPT OF TERROIR IN VITICULTURE 3
temperatures as low as –158Cto–208C (depending on the cultivar) in winter. The
heat load needed for grapes to attain full ripeness is highly variable among cultivars.
At least 1200 degree days base of 108C are necessary for the most early ripening culti-
vars, which is another limitation on vine cultivation at high latitudes. In equatorial
regions, vine vegetation is continuous and all the reproductive stages exist simul-
taneously in the same plot. Although viticulture is possible in equatorial regions,
especially for table grape production, fruit grown under these conditions does not
have a high oenological potential. Taking into account these limitations, it appears
that the zone most suited to growing high-quality grapes is between the 35th and
the 50th parallel latitude, on both the northern and southern hemisphere. In some
cases, high altitude can compensate for low latitude.
Precociousness for fruit ripening is a genetically determined property that is highly
variable from one cultivar to another. Huglin has calculated the heat load require-
ments for a large range of cultivars (Huglin and Schneider, 1998). In the ampelo-
graphic collection of the Ecole Nationale Supe
´rieure d’Agronomie de Montpellier
(ENSAM), where several hundred cultivars are grown in the same vineyard, it is
common to observe a two-month time lag between the moment of ripeness of the
earliest and the latest ripening varieties.
In traditional wine-growing regions in Europe, growers have used this property to
adapt the vines to local climatic conditions. At high latitudes, the limiting factor for
producing high-quality wines is the level of ripeness of the grapes. Unripe grapes
give green, acidic wines, with low alcohol levels, as a result of insufﬁcient sugar accumu-
lation in the fruit. For this reason, early ripening varieties such as pinot noir, chardon-
nay and gewu
¨rztraminer are grown at high latitudes, to optimise the chances of
attaining correct ripeness. At lower latitudes, where the climate is warmer, grapes
might attain ripeness early in the summer. Quick ripening of the grapes reduces
aromatic expression in the wines produced. This was already observed by Ribe
Gayon and Peynaud (1960: 122), who wrote that “the best wines are produced with
cultivars that just achieve ripeness under the local climatic conditions, as if quick ripen-
ing of the grapes burned the essences that makes the ﬁnesse of great wines”. According
to this empirical knowledge, growers have planted late-ripening varieties such as Gre-
nache and Mourve
`dre (called Monastrel in Spain) in warmer climates at low latitudes.
As a result, in traditional wine-growing regions in Europe, grape picking generally
takes place between 10 September and 10 October, despite huge climatic differences
between, for example, the Mosel in Germany and Alicante in Spain. This type of viti-
culture is also called ‘cool climate viticulture’, not necessarily because the climate is
particularly cool, but because the ripening of the grapes occurs in cool conditions, at
the end of the summer or in the early autumn.
In its early stages, New World viticulture did not have the experience of Old World
growers with regard to the choice of cultivars in relation to the local climatic con-
ditions. In most cases, early-ripening varieties were planted in relatively warm con-
ditions. These varieties were chosen as much for marketing reasons (chardonnay to
produce a white Burgundy-style wine, cabernet sauvignon to produce a red Me
style wine) as for technical requirements. Although the grapes easily attain ripeness
in these conditions (resulting in high sugar and low organic acid content), they lack
speciﬁc aromas. To produce aromatic wines, wine-making technology can compensate
for the neutrality of the grapes. Good examples are most New World chardonnay
wines. Yeasts produce highly aromatic esters (e.g. isoamyl acetate, isobutyl acetate)
when the alcoholic fermentation takes place at low temperatures. Lactic bacteria
produce aldehydes and carbonyl compounds during malolactic fermentation
4CORNELIS VAN LEEUWEN AND GERARD SEGUIN
(e.g. diacetyl, which smells like butter). Fermentation in new oak gives vanilla aromas.
Wines produced from early-ripening varieties in warm climates (especially during
grape ripening) can be good when the wine-making technology is controlled, but
because the grapes do not contain a high level of aroma compounds, they lack
terroir expression. A certain standardisation in taste occurs in this type of wine,
which leads many to seek out “anything but chardonnay”.
However, although there is more cool-climate viticulture, and, as a result, more
wines expressing terroir, in the Old World, this is only due to greater historical experi-
ence. Viticulturists in the New World are now ﬁnding cooler areas, where wines expres-
sing terroir can be made. In California, good examples are the Carneros region north of
San Francisco, where the cool inﬂuence of the bay is greater than in the Napa Valley,
and the coastal region near Monterrey. In Australia, the relatively cool Yarra Valley
(north of Melbourne) and Western Australia are quickly developing regions. New
Zealand sauvignon blanc shows how powerfully aromatic this variety can be when
grown in cool conditions.
Mesoclimate and topoclimate
Climatic variability within a wine-growing region can be described as mesoclimatic
variability. When it is the result of relief (altitude, aspect, slope), it is called topo-
climatic variability. Especially in cool regions, where it is difﬁcult to achieve grape ripe-
ness, topoclimate can be a major terroir factor. In the Mosel Valley in Germany,
quality wines can only be produced on steep, south-facing slopes. In Burgundy, the
best wines are produced in the Co
ˆte d’Or, at approximately 300 m above sea level.
In the Hautes-Co
ˆtes, where the altitude is higher, it is harder for grapes to reach com-
plete ripeness. Picking is delayed by 10 days, and wine quality is generally good, but
rarely outstanding, despite the fact that ﬁne soils for vine growing can be found in
this part of Burgundy.
Microclimatic variation in the fruit zone can be induced by the soil type and through
canopy management. It can have a great impact on the quality performance of a vine-
yard. Dry soils (for instance stony soils) do warm up more quickly than wet soils and
induce early ripening. Night temperatures are cooler close to the ground, but day
temperatures are higher. When a cultivar has difﬁculties in ripening in the given
climatic conditions (for instance, cabernet sauvignon in the Bordeaux area), low
vine training can contribute to improving quality, although it increases vine suscepti-
bility to spring frost. In warm climates, with early-ripening varieties, high vine training
should be preferred, to delay fruit ripening. Soils inducing low vine vigour (for
instance, because of low water and/or nitrogen availability for the vines) improve
light penetration inside the canopy and on the fruit zone, which is essential for
growing high quality fruit. Microclimate can also be improved through speciﬁc
canopy management (Carbonneau, 1980; Smart and Robinson, 1991), but this
subject is not within the scope of this paper.
Vines can be grown on a huge variety of soils. In deep, rich soils, vines are vigorous and
highly productive, but better wines are generally produced when the vines are culti-
vated on poor soils. The effect of the soil on vine behaviour and grape composition is
complex, because the soil inﬂuences vine mineral nutrition and water uptake
THE CONCEPT OF TERROIR IN VITICULTURE 5
conditions, but also rooting depth and temperature in the root zone. Soils can be
studied from a geological, a pedological or an agronomic perspective.
Geology deals with rock types and dating of sedimentary strata. Geology indirectly acts
on topography. The soil type is also related to the sort of rock on which it has devel-
oped. In some regions, there is a rather good correspondence between the geological
sediment and the quality of the wines produced on it. The example most often cited
is Chablis, where all the famous vineyards are planted on Kimmeridgian limestone
and marl, while vineyards on Portlandian limestone produce the less famous petit
Chablis (Pomerol, 1989). In this case, the relation is probably based on the inﬂuence
of the rock type on the geomorphology of the region. South- and east-facing slopes
are shaped in the soft Kimmeridgian limestone and marl, providing good exposition
and compensating for the cool climate of the Chablis region. The harder Portlandian
rock is found on wind-exposed plateaux, located at higher altitudes, where it is harder
for chardonnay grapes to attain complete ripeness (Wilson, 1998).
In most other regions, the link between geology and wine quality is less obvious. In
Bordeaux, very good wines are produced on sediments of a large variety of geological
origin: Oligocene heavy clay sediments, Oligocene limestone and Quaternary alluvium
(Seguin, 1983). Some of the ﬁnest wines are produced on Oligocene Asteries limestone
in Saint-Emilion, while lesser wines are made on the same rock type in the Entre-
Soil types can be mapped, based on a pedological classiﬁcation. Some soil types, such as
limestone soils, are known for producing generally high quality wines, while others,
such as soils subject to water logging, are known for being less suitable for producing
quality wines. However, throughout the world, outstanding wines are grown on a
huge variety of soils. In the Bordeaux area, top wines are produced on soils as different
as alkaline limestone soils (Ausone), acidic gravely soils (Laﬁte-Rothschild), neutral
gravely soils (Cheval Blanc) or heavy clay soils (Petrus, Cheval Blanc). It is generally
not possible to equate a soil map of a given region with a map of quality potential for
wine-growing (van Leeuwen, 1989).
To understand the effect of the soil in viticulture, it is necessary to take into account the
interaction between the soil and the vine (agronomic approach). Soil inﬂuences vine
behaviour and wine quality through the temperature in the root zone, and through
mineral and water supplies.
Barbeau et al. (1998a, b) showed that vine precocity, especially at budbreak, is
related to soil temperature in the root zone. Soil temperature in the root zone is high
in dry and shallow soils and low in deep, humid soils. Vine precocity can be an import-
ant quality factor in cool climates, as in the Loire Valley, where it is difﬁcult to ripen
cabernet franc in cool vintages.
Among the minerals the soil supplies to the vine, nitrogen is obviously the one that
most inﬂuences vine vigour, yield and grape ripening. Many studies deal with the inﬂu-
ence of various levels of nitrogen fertilization on these parameters (Kliewer, 1971; Bell
et al., 1979; Delas et al., 1991; Spayd et al., 1993; Spayd et al., 1994). Other papers
deal with the depressive effect of cover crops on vine nitrogen supply, which can
partly explain the quality-improving effect of this technique in red wine production
6CORNELIS VAN LEEUWEN AND GERARD SEGUIN
(Soyer et al., 1996). Much less documented in scientiﬁc literature is the fact that vine
nitrogen uptake is likely to vary considerably in relation to soil parameters such as
soil organic matter content, C/N ratio of soil organic matter and organic matter turn-
over, even when no nitrogen fertilization or crop cover is implemented. Soil organic
matter turnover depends on soil temperature, soil aeration, soil pH and soil moisture
content. It is also very much slowed down by the presence of active limestone. As a
result, the level of natural soil nitrogen supply to the vines can be considered as a
component of terroir and it is highly variable depending on the soil type (van
Leeuwen et al., 2000). Chone
´et al. (2001a) showed that limited nitrogen supply to
the vines due to soil parameters increases quality in red wine production because it
reduces vine vigour and increases berry and wine phenolic content. This is not true
in white wine production, where vine nitrogen supply should be at least moderate to
obtain high aroma potential in grapes (Peyrot des Gachons et al., 2005).
The effect of other minerals on vine development and grape quality potential is much
less obvious, as long as neither excess nor severe deﬁciency alters vine physiology
(Seguin, 1983). This was conﬁrmed by van Leeuwen et al. (2004).
Vine Water Uptake Conditions
Vine water status depends on climate (rainfall and potential evapotranspiration), soil
(water holding capacity) and training system (canopy architecture and leaf area). Vine
water uptake conditions are a key factor in understanding the effect of the terroir on
grape quality potential, because the main terroir factors are involved and interact
(climate, soil, grapevine). Vine water uptake was ﬁrst studied by means of a neutron
moisture probe in the soils of the Haut-Me
´doc (Seguin, 1969). The same author
showed that grape quality potential was related to a regular but moderate water
supply to the vines (Seguin, 1975). In unirrigated ﬁeld conditions, berry size is
decreased and total phenolics are increased when vines face water deﬁcits, which
results in higher grape quality potential for red wine-making but lower yields
(Duteau et al., 1981; van Leeuwen and Seguin, 1994; Koundouras et al., 1999;
´et al., 2001a; Tregoat et al., 2002; van Leeuwen et al., 2004). These effects
were conﬁrmed in irrigation trials by Matthews and Anderson (1988) and Ojeda
et al. (2002). Berry ripening speed is increased when vine water status is low (van
Leeuwen et al., 2003). Aroma potential of white grapes might be decreased under
severe water deﬁcit stress (Peyrot des Gachons et al., 2005).
Vine water uptake conditions can be monitored either by measuring or modelling
variations in soil water content or by means of physiological indicators. Physiological
indicators use the vine as an indicator of its own water status. Among physiological
indicators, stem water potential (Chone
´et al., 2001b) and carbon isotope discrimi-
nation measured on grape sugar (van Leeuwen et al., 2001; Gaudille
`re et al., 2002),
have proved to be particularly efﬁcient to indicate vine water status in terroir studies
(Tregoat et al., 2002).
Vine water uptake conditions can be modiﬁed by means of irrigation. Irrigation
increases not only the production of sugar and skin phenolics per vine, but also yield
(Matthews and Anderson, 1988). Yield is generally more rapidly increased than
sugar and skin phenolics on a per vine basis, which might result in dilution. Only
deﬁcit irrigation can result in economically acceptable yields with high quality poten-
tial grapes in very dry regions. Irrigation is likely to modify terroir expression. The
ideal water status with regard to grape quality potential is highly dependent on
yield. In dry farmed vineyards in dry areas, excellent red wines can be made from
THE CONCEPT OF TERROIR IN VITICULTURE 7
fruit grown on severely water stressed vines, as long as the yield is very low. For higher
yield, the best results in terms of quality are obtained when water deﬁcit is mild, which
might be obtained through deﬁcit irrigation in dry areas.
The highest expression of terroir is obtained in cool-climate viticulture, when the pre-
cociousness of the grapevine variety allows it to ripen its fruit at the end of the growing
season (at the end of September in the northern hemisphere). Early-ripening varieties
should be chosen in cool climates, in order to obtain full ripeness, and late-ripening var-
ieties should be chosen in warmer climates, so that grape ripening does not take place in
the warmest part of the summer. High grape quality for red wine production is
obtained when a limiting factor reduces vine vigour and berry size and increases
grape skin phenolics. In most terroirs known for their high quality performance, this
limiting factor is mild water deﬁcit, either because the climate is dry (high ET
or moderately low rainfall) or because the soil water holding capacity is low. Soil
water holding capacity can be low because of high pebble content or because of
reduced soil depth. Hence, high quality potential viticultural soils are either stony or
shallow. Low nitrogen supply as a result of soil parameters can also be a quality
factor in red wine production. For white wine production, water and nitrogen
supply to the vines should be at least moderate, because severe stress can negatively
affect grape aroma potential.
We thank Julia Harding for proofreading.
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