What exactly does it mean that a wine can express "terroir"? Is it a smell? A taste?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

What exactly does it mean that a wine can express "terroir"? Is it a smell? A taste?

—Anderson, Toronto

Dear Anderson,

Terroir is a French term that translates loosely as “a sense of place,” and is derived from the French word for earth, "terre." The concept is that wine is capable of expressing the interaction of the grapes with soil, climate, topography and even the bacteria and microbes in a specific site, allowing a wine to be uniquely distinct and reflective of where the grapes were grown. Terroir encapsulates the idea that a Pinot Noir from Burgundy will and should taste differently from one made in Argentina or New Zealand. And it's not just exclusive to wine—the term is frequently applied to things like coffee, tea and cheese as well.

Terroir is not expressed in a single flavor or aroma, but there might be a note that reminds you of where a wine is from. For example, if I have two glasses of Chardonnay side by side, I’d expect the one from Chablis to have a lighter body and a minerally saline note, while the glass from Sonoma Coast might have more richness and concentration.

—Dr. Vinny

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