Terroir is a French word which cannot be adequately translated into any single English word, simply because it covers a multitude of factors. Bruno Prats, the former proprietor of Chateau Cos d’Estournel in the Medoc, explained it thus:
The very French notion of terroir looks at all the natural conditions which influence the biology of the vines and thus the composition of the grape itself. The terroir is the coming together of the climate, the soil, and the landscape. It is the combination of an infinite number of factors: temperatures by night and by day, rainfall distribution, hours of sunlight, slope and drainage, to name but a few. All these factors react with each other to form, in each part of the vineyard, what French wine growers call a terroir.

The late Peter Sichel, former president of the Grand Crus de Bordeaux, put it even more succinctly when he said, ‘Terroir determines the character of a wine, man its quality.’

It lies at the heart of the French appellation system, itself built up by 1000 years of practical experience and observation. This system has led to a most precise and detailed delineation of quality, to the identification of a limited number of grape varieties considered to be especially suited to the terroir (and the climate) in a particular area, and to the exclusion by force of law of all others. It has led also to the prescription of pruning methods, and to the specification of maximum yields and of minimum alcoholic strengths (solved by the use of chaptalisation).

History shows that the vineyards of France were originally planted by default, in terroir which was too deficient to support other forms of horticulture or farming. In Bordeaux there is a saying: ‘If these soils were not the best in the world, they would be the worst.’ 

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