Terroir has become the winemakers’ buzzword – a means to highlight the complexity of their practice and the individuality of their product. First used in France, and rooted in the earth or land, terroir is the total natural environment of a viticulture site: how the soil, topography, microclimate, flora, and important to the French, tradition of the vineyard influence the characteristics of its grapes and wine. It is, in essence, the soul of the wine.

From the earth

Terroir is not a new idea, of course; winemakers have lived with it on the land every day for centuries. Soil type, and its irrigation, is key. Clay, which keeps its cool and water, generally produces muscular, cultured wines – think Burgundy, Rioja and Tuscany. Sand retains heat and drains well for lighter, aromatic wines (German Rieslings, Cabernet Sauvignons of the northern Médoc), while silt yields smooth, less acidic wines, such as the Pinot Noirs that spring from Oregon’s silt-clay soils. Without rigorous pruning, fertile loam will produce poor grapes, since the vine expends more energy on growing foliage than fruit.

Lay of the land

Soil depth similarly affects fruit quality, with shallower earth on the hillside trumping the deeper layer of the valley floor. High altitudes elevate wine, literally – see the prized Malbecs from the Uco Valley in Mendoza, Argentina, 4,000 feet (1,220 metres) above sea level. The aspect (slope and direction) of the vineyard affect the microclimate. For instance, grapes that can bask in the sun for longer on south- or southwest-facing slopes generally yield the best wines in cool climates. Proximity to the ocean or water can also temper the vines, as do the plants and microbes that share, and shape, their ecosystem.

In the early 1980s, Bruno Prats of Bordeaux Château Cos d’Estournel opined that “sun, slope climate and exposure to the elements” encompass the “goût de terroir” (the taste of terroir). When Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s Aubert de Villaine spoke of “the miracle” of Burgundy’s perfect ecosystem, he spotlighted drainage, pedology (study of soil), soil depth, microbiological activity and “the way the air moves”.

The weight of history

French agriculture officials were probably more prosaic when determining the 1937 Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée system. Based essentially on terroir, it established a patchwork of more than 300 wine appellations, or regions, producing different styles of wine. In Bordeaux, Château Le Bon Pasteur exhibits the softness, depth and complexity of its Pomerol appellation, while sister châteaux, Roland-Maillet and Bertineau Saint-Vincent, that lie nearby in Saint-Émilion and Lalande-de-Pomerol have powerful, robust, red-fruit, and generous, fruity, spicy wines respectively.

Burgundy’s 100 appellations are further classified into grand crus, premier crus, villages and regions. While sharing characteristics with their neighbours across the field, these tiny plots, or climats – identified for centuries for their specific geological and microclimatic conditions – each have a uniqueness. It is here that winemaking heritage, or the accrued knowledge of the human who interacts with the land, vine and grape, most clearly comes into play.

Today, winemakers all over the world are mindful that what they bottle is a full and discernible expression of their terroir. And while the concept still has its agnostics, this sense of place enriches the experience for aficionados, folding a knowledge of geography, pedology and botany into the conversation as they taste the terroir in their glass.


Critically acclaimed, rarely available and thus extraordinarily priced, cult wines are the upstart treasures of the collector’s cellar, bestowing bragging rights and the potential of either spectacular drinking or reselling for a huge profit.

Although the Old World does have its superstar rarities, including Bordeaux’s Château Le Pin (producing only about 600 cases per year) and Dominio de Pingus (500 cases) in Spain’s Ribera del Duero, cult wines were first “discovered” in the New World. The term was coined by American wine critics like Robert Parker for the big, bold, small-production Cabernet Sauvignons of Napa Valley.

Napa power

Screaming Eagle is the cult leader, almost secretively (few are granted a visit) producing 500 to 800 cases per year on the red volcanic soils of eastern Oakville. Since the 99-point Parker rating of its 1992 vintage, the estate now owned by Arsenal FC and LA Rams sports magnate Stan Kroenke has never looked back, with a lengthy waiting list of buyers and a price tag that can soar well above US$2,500 per bottle.

Other Napa names commanding cult status include Harlan Estate – which famously sold a 10-year vertical of magnums for US$700,000 at the 2000 Napa wine auction – Bryant Family Vineyards, Dalla Valle Vineyards and Schrader Cellars, which is said to have more than 7,000 eager fans on its waiting list. The credentials of SLOAN ESTATE, founded in 2000 in the eastern Rutherford hills and acquired by Goldin Group in 2011, were set with a 100-point rating by Parker for the 2002 vintage; the 2007 and 2015 also garnered perfect scores.

Out of the valley

The most unusual Californian cult wine is Santa Barbara’s Sine Qua Non, where the variety (Syrah, Grenache-based or even a Rhône-style white) and the bottle artwork (by daredevil owner Manfred Krankl) differ every year. Elsewhere on the US West Coast, the Pinot Noirs of Oregon (such as Beaux Fréres) and Cabernet Sauvignons of Washington (Leonetti Cellars, Quilceda Creek) hover on the cult-wine cusp.

Southern stars

Collectors are now looking to the Southern Hemisphere to discover exceptional wines. In Australia, Penfolds boasts high quality (try, if you can, the Hermitage Grange Bin 95 or 60A) and high price – its special-edition Ampoule collection of Block 42 Kalimna Cabernet Sauvignon was released in 2012 at US$168,000 per bottle – yet it is hardly a small producer like the American estates. The Shiraz of young boutique wineries Dalwhinnie and Mollydooker have caught the eye.

Argentinian Malbec by Catena Zapata can sell for more than US$1,000 per bottle; Viña Cobos and Achaval Ferrer are also among the country’s iconic producers. In Chile, visionaries include Eduardo Chadwick’s Viñedo Chadwick and Norwegian billionaire Alexander Vik’s Viña Vik, and Alheit and The Sadie Family are hailed in South Africa.

Joining the cult

While the word cult still fits best in California, a maverick French producer is giving the Americans a run for their money. Loïc Pasquet crafts Liber Pater in tiny numbers from rare Bordeaux varieties in Graves, with the 2015 red to be the world’s most expensive wine upon its September 2019 limited release at 30,000 euros per bottle.


In France, the word for winemaker (vigneron) is more precisely translated as winegrower, an apt reflection, perhaps, of months spent in the fields tending the vines compared to days in the cellar blending the wine. Viticulture requires constant vigilance, from pruning in winter to bud break in spring, then flowering and fruit set in early summer, and the late summer week of ripening.

Harvest time

The autumn harvest is the busiest period outdoors; the culmination of a year of labour and the focus of much local fanfare as pickers move among the vines. Grapes for sparkling wine are picked early, before the berries become too sweet. Estates growing white varietals usually move to harvest before those producing red wine, and the fruit for full-bodied reds is picked last; Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc grapes, for instance, generally ripen weeks before Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. The grapes of late-harvest wines – sweet and dessert wines – enjoy a prolonged sugar boost as they dehydrate naturally on the vine.

Timing is key – and winemakers use instinct and experience to determine when to begin. There is a short window for offloading grapes at the peak of ripeness, when sugar and acidity levels are balanced (what winemakers call physiological maturity), and phenolic (tannin) levels and aromas match the estate’s winemaking profile. Pickers must work quickly but fastidiously to preserve the integrity of the fruit. Time spent in the fields depends on the size of the vineyard, the numbers of varietals planted, and if all the rows reach maturity in splendid synchrony. It could be a fortnight or five weeks.

Man versus machine

Many top estates decided not to jump on the mechanical bandwagon that has swept through the world’s vineyards since the 1960s. While speedier than man, mechanical harvesters are less fruit friendly or terroir aware; they struggle on small plots, steep slopes, and with old vines planted close together. The more delicate grapes, such as thin-skinned Pinot Noir and Grenache, need special care, and for Champagne houses and top Burgundian domaines, tradition dictates that the grapes must be picked by hand.

Weathering the storms

Growers are at the mercy of the weather, and many a prayer will be said for it not to rain during harvest season. Cool, dry nights, and sunny but not scorching days are ideal. In warmer climes, such as Napa Valley, picking is often done at night, and the fruit stored in refrigerated trucks until it reaches the cellar. Favourable weather is crucial year-round, with too much or too little moisture, and unseasonal heat or cold, disturbing the vine’s natural cycle. A devastating late April frost, which wiped out the premature grape buds of an unusually early spring, caused harvest yields to plummet by 40% in Bordeaux in 2017.

Green harvest

From irrigation to intervention, growers do have some tricks up their sleeve to keep the vine cycle on course. In effeuillage, or leaf stripping, the plant’s lower leaves are removed to maximise ripening grapes’ time in the sun. Green harvesting – the removal of excess or low-quality grape clusters before veraison (onset of ripening) – takes vine manipulation a stage further; with fewer grapes on the vine, nutrients are more plentiful and flavours more concentrated, resulting in a lower yield but higher quality wine. Michel Rolland introduced these viticultural techniques at his Bordeaux property, Château Le Bon Pasteur, in the 1980s, earning international attention for his oenological savvy.


Wine aficionados look primarily at terroir – the intricated interactions among soil, aspect, elevation, microclimate and grape variety – and the skilled hand guiding each stage of the production process, to account for the aroma, texture and taste of the cherished liquid they swish around in their glass. Yet there is another key element that gives wine its character: the oak it lies in prior to bottling. Winemaking, of course, varies from region to region, and from red to white to sparkling, but for some length of time a fine wine will mature in barrel, with French or American white oak being the wood of choice.

A matter of taste

Wooden barrels have been used to store and transport wine since Roman times, when picking up a tip from the beer-drinking Gauls the conquering armies discarded their ceramic vessels. It is only in the modern age, however, that oak’s ability to enhance wine has been fully understood.

Scientifically, oak allows slow influx of oxygen and encourages metabolic reaction. Naturally, aroma compounds found in the wood – the likes of vanilla, spice, clove, coconut, smoky notes – and triggered by specific crafting methods at the cooperage, seep into wine as it ages for one, two or more years, depending on the house style and region. Moreover, a recent steer away from large stainless steel vats to a more holistic and intimate style of winemaking has seen small oak ‘barriques’ utilised not just for optimal maturation but for smoother and more fruitful fermentation too.

French or American

Two species of white oak are most favoured for barrels; the fine-grained European oak is judged to augment subtler wines compared to the bolder, more structured wines that might mature more quickly in oak grown in the USA. French oak is most prized, and the forest it hails from (tannin-rich Limousin or spicier Allier, for instance) also impacts the wood, and thus the wine.

French coopers typically hand-split the oak into staves, season (or dry to soften) it naturally outdoors for months, then toast the staves over an open fire until they are sufficiently pliant to bend and ring with iron. Lighter toasting results in more oak, vanilla and tannins; heavy-toasted barrels are treasured for the rich coffee and caramel aromas they bring to the wine.

Old or new

The high prices of French oak barrels are a reflection of their quality and labour-intensive craftsmanship by hand. Many wineries will reuse them, but elite producers, including Goldin Group’s SLOAN ESTATE in Napa Valley and Pomerol property, Château Le Bon Pasteur, will not skimp on new French oak for each vintage. Brand-new barrels allow more precise winemaking and more intense flavours, translating to greater complexity in the glass.


Winemakers today hold degrees in chemistry or oenology, but science alone does not make a superlative wine. Skill, instinct, experience, a discerning palate and perhaps an artist’s soul are required to guide the fruit from barrel to bottle. Winemaking is often called an art, and artful blending provides its signature flourish.

Coveted reds show depth and complexity that can rarely be attributed to a single type of grape or parcel of land. Blending fermented juices from different varietals and plots imparts nuanced aromas and flavours for the finest expression of terroir and house style. Clarets may combine the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot grapes; Rhône Valley blends can juggle up to 15 varietals. Many of Napa Valley’s famous reds are Cabernet Sauvignon blends.


Even in Burgundy, where the red is 100% Pinot Noir, winemakers will sample myriad combinations – from lots picked at varying degrees of ripeness, and different crus (villages) or corners of the vineyard – until they encounter the most powerful blend. With intuitive genius, they know how much press wine (pressed and fermented grape skins) to add for structure, and how their chosen blend will develop after further ageing, before and after bottling.


Winemakers pick and choose their grapes, and the time and frequency they blend them. There could be four tasting sessions (or many more): a first tasting of all available lots in barrel after malolactic fermentation; a second, six to eight months after harvest; and a pre-blend before the new harvest that evolves into the final blend after further tweaking. Very often, an outside expert is hired to conduct the blending process, improvising and fine-tuning the resident winemaking team’s composition, if not writing the music.

Globetrotting oenologist Michel Rolland, the consultant at Goldin Group’s wineries in Bordeaux and Napa Valley, orchestrates a slow, deliberate iteration, the final blend achieved in 18 to 28 months from multiple small batches selected and combined with exquisite care. Since critics arrive en masse to rate the vintage en primeur each spring, Bordeaux châteaux may finish blending much earlier, within six to seven months of harvest, so wine presented in barrel bears close proximation to its final taste.


Master blenders have a less pivotal role in white wine given the prevalence of single varietals, though classic Bordeaux blancs blend Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, often with a little Muscadelle in the mix. Red and white can come together – not in rosés, which are nurtured from red grapes with only a touch of skin – but in the Côte-Rôtie, for instance, where red Syrah and white Viognier may even be co-fermented, and of course in Champagne – traditionally a proportion of Pinot Noir (red, for strength), Chardonnay (white, elegance) and Pinot Meunier (red, dependability). Except for their vintage Champagnes, the Champenoise blend grapes not only of different varietals and vineyards but also years to achieve a consistent house style synonymous with luxury.


Winemakers have a natural affinity for the land they live and work on, the vines they tend year-round, and the grapes that they nurture, like children, to become the best possible expressions of themselves and the terroir. It is no wonder then that many have embraced the cry for a greener, artisanal lifestyle. In viticulture terms, that means hands-on rather than mechanical, organic rather than chemical, pure not adulterated. As for the wine itself, researchers found that American wines from 1998 to 2004 labelled “ecocertified” were rated on average 4.1 points higher than non-organic wines by trusted reviewers. Prepare to enjoy a fresher, wild-flower, fruitier vitality.

Chemical ban

Government regulation criteria vary, but wines are certified as “organic” or, to a lesser degree, made from “organically grown grapes”. Soil is enriched with natural compost and minerals since synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and fertilisers are prohibited; the stricter certification also forbids winemakers, during fermentation, to add more sulphites to counteract oxidation and unwanted bacteria than the small amount of sulphur dioxide that occurs naturally.

Biodynamic winemakers elevate organic cultivation onto a higher plane, believing in a harmonic interconnection between all living things in the universe. Certification comes from Demeter, a regulatory body adhering to Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner’s 1920s theory of biodynamic agriculture rooted in spiritual science; or by Biodyvin, an association of 148 primarily French biodynamic wine growers. More than 600 wineries held Demeter certification in 2018.

Cycles of the moon

The biodynamic vineyard operates as a self-sustaining and regenerative ecosystem, with cultivated plants growing as they would in the wild. Livestock provides manure for compost – manure-filled cow horns buried in winter are dug up in spring, their contents diluted with water to spray the fields. Herbal sprays of nettle or dandelion are also utilised. Celestial and terrestrial forces intertwine: the lunar calendar drives pruning (Root days), watering (Leaf days) and harvesting (Fruit days); on Flower days, when the moon is in Aquarius, Libra or Gemini, the vineyards are left alone. Vinification rules are stricter than for organic growers: fewer additives and only natural yeasts.

A newer trend by small artisanal producers is for natural wines, which are organic but not necessarily biodynamic. Here, wines are spontaneously fermented using only yeast present in the grapes or the vineyard, have no added sulphite preservative, and are unfiltered.

The vast majority of organic and biodynamic vineyards (316,000 hectares in 2017, equating to 4.5% of the winemaking total) are in Europe, specifically Spain, France and Italy. Yields are relatively lower than in conventional winemaking, but this, and the richer soil, leads to a more concentrated grape, and arguably a more aromatic and intense expression of terroir.

While many wine-lovers would not want their favourite Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay to change – apart from developing greater complexity in the bottle – the feel-good factor and vibrancy of organic and biodynamic wines make them a non-guilty pleasure.