Wine terroir describes the collectively recognized relation between a geographical area and the distinctive organoleptic characteristics of the wines produced in it. The overriding objective in terroir studies is therefore to provide scientific proof relating the properties of terroir components to wine quality and typicity. In scientific circles, the role of climate (macro-, meso- and micro-) on grape and wine characteristics is well documented and accepted as the most critical. Moreover, there has been increasing interest in recent years about new elements with possible importance in shaping wine terroir like berry/leaf/soil microbiology or even aromatic plants in proximity to the vineyard conferring flavors to the grapes. However, the actual effect of these factors is also dependent on complex interactions with plant material (variety/clone, rootstock, vine age) and with human factors.
The contribution of soil, although a fundamental component of terroir and extremely popular among wine enthusiasts, remains a much-debated issue among researchers. The role of geology is probably the one mostly associated by consumers with the notion of terroir with different parent rocks considered to give birth to different wine styles. However, the relationship between wine properties and the underlying parent material raises a lot of controversy especially regarding the actual existence of rock-derived flavors in the wine (e.g. minerality). As far as the actual soil properties are concerned, the effect of soil physical properties is generally regarded as the most significant (e.g sandy soils being associated with lighter wines while those on clay with colored and tannic ones) mostly through control of water availability which ultimately modifies berry ripening conditions either directly by triggering biosynthetic pathways, or indirectly by altering vigor and yield components. The role of soil chemistry seems to be weakly associated to wine sensory characteristic, although N, K, S and Ca, but also soil pH, are often considered important in the overall soil effect.
Recently, in the light of evidence provided by precision agriculture studies reporting a high variability of vineyard soils, the spatial scale should also be taken into consideration in the evaluation of the soil effects on wines. While it is accepted that soil effects become more significant than climate on a local level, it is not clear whether these micro-variations of vineyard soils are determining in the terroir effect. Moreover, as terroir is not a set of only natural factors, the magnitude of the contribution of human-related factors (irrigation, fertilization, soil management) to the soil effect still remains ambiguous. Lastly, a major shortcoming of the majority of works about soil effects on wine characteristics is the absence of connection with actual vine physiological processes since all soil effects on grape and wine chemistry and sensorial properties are ultimately mediated through vine responses.
This article attempts to breakdown the main soil attributes involved in the terroir effect to suggest an improved understanding about soil’s true contribution to wine sensory characteristics. It is proposed that soil parameters per se are not as significant determining factors in the terroir effect but rather their mutual interactions as well as with other natural and human factors included in the terroir concept. Consequently, similarly to bioclimatic indices, composite soil indices (i.e. soil depth, water holding capacity, fertility, temperature etc), incorporating multiple soil parameters, might provide a more accurate and quantifiable means to assess the relative weight of the soil component in the terroir effect.
Author: Stefanos Koundouras
Laboratory of Viticulture, School of Agriculture, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Thessaloniki, Greece