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  • Alexander Smith

The difference between 'Terroir' and 'Personality' in wine

I often refer in my tasting notes to 'Terroir' and 'Personality'. These two terms can often be confused and understandably. I will at least aim to provide what I believe is the literal difference between these two terms, other wine writers and critics may disagree, however I believe it is important to distinguish the differences.


Terroir is a french word which has no direct english translation. I have read many interpretations of this term, however I believe the best descriptor is as follows. Terroir encompasses the influence of soil, topography and mesoclimate on the vines and the grapes it produces. So if you are still a little bewildered by this, think of Burgundy. Ah, Burgundy!


Burgundy in my eyes is the quintessential of the term: terroir. The burgundy landscape has a magnitude of different variations in soil structure, elevation changes, altitudes, climate and hence a terroir can be as small as a few rows of vines or as large as a small vineyard. At this point some might be asking is a terroir not a climat, well yes, sort of. A climat in Burgundy is defined as a delineated parcel of land with a certain terroir aspect to it. This parcel of land cannot be further broken down and is usually reserved for a vineyard or a label which is of cru level or higher. To ensure we don't confuse ourselves further, there are 1,247 climats in Burgundy! So you could say there are 1,247 distinct terroirs in Burgundy. I hope you are following, because if you are, I will also throw the term lieu-dit into the picture which is not the same as a climat. A lieu-dit is a named parcel or vineyard that can be broken down further, also known as a geographical place with boundary. It is usually reserved for labels below cru. So maybe I went off at a bit of a tangent but hopefully it was worth it, and you now have a better understanding of what a terroir is and why it is important for us wine writers. A wine with a certain terroir aspect to it allows us to better understand its origin and is the essence of what makes a wine special in our eyes. No two terroir can be the same, yet can you have a terroir with a personality? Well not directly.....



I often refer to wines with personality. A wine with personality tends to not come from a certain terroir, but multiple and is an expression of an area. A perfect example is Penfolds. Their range of wines often show great personality of the different expressions in Australia, but there is not one ounce of terroir in their wines. That is fine, it is just different. I recently tried the Black Hills Pinot Noir 2017, which I felt was lacking personality, the grapes were purchased from different sites across Okanagan, yet I feel there was no character or personality to the wine.


So can a wine have both personality and terroir characteristics? Not in my eyes, I feel they are two different sides of a wine and you cannot overlap them.


Can I taste the difference between the two blind? I like to think I can, however I am sure there are some wines which are blends of different sites which could be mistaken as from the same site. Also the same is true of a wine produced from a same small site, if too much manipulation occurs in the cellar then you might be mistaken for a wine of personality.


Which are your favourite wines of terroir and personality?

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