Wine Variables: Terroir, Vintages and Oak

By Ryan Snyder on March 18, 2005

Category: Wine for Newbies

Have you ever noticed that each bottle of wine seems to have its own unique personality? Cabernet Sauvignon from California tastes different than Cabernet Sauvignon from Australia. The 1999 Napa Valley Merlot may have tasted much better than the 2000 Merlot you bought a couple months later. You find American wines have a stronger bite than Italian wines and French wines always seem to have a subtle taste of soil that you can’t quite place. The fact is that there are many variables in winemaking that can make wine completely change from region to region and from year to year.


Terrain is the literal translation of the French word terroir (pronounced ter-wahr), but in the world of wine it means so much more than that. Terroir encompasses every facet of the vine’s growing conditions, including not only the composition of the soil, subsoil and rocks beneath, but also the amount of sunlight and rain it receives, soil drainage, slope of the hill, climate and the groundwater that the roots are able to reach. Even a lake, mountain or patch of trees situated near the vineyard can dramatically affect the vine’s growing conditions.

Terroir determines not only how well the grapes and vines are able to grow, but also the flavor of the grapes. Many French wines are known for the terroir found amongst the wine’s fruit flavors. Chardonnays from Burgundy create wines that exhibit the limestone atop which they are grown. In the southern Rhône Valley of France, vines sprout between softball-sized rocks that cover the landscape, and its Grenache wines present the flavor of baked rocks. California vines grown next to a patch of eucalyptus trees will produce wines that show a subtle eucalyptus flavor on the palette. Vines that have plentiful rainwater or a nearby lake through which their vines can intake gobs of water will produce plump, watered-down grapes, while vines that receive little water produce tiny, flavorful grapes.

Terroir is the reason that many European wineries name their wines after the region in which it was produced instead of after the varietal. French winemakers believe their wines are the best because of terroir characteristics shown in the wine. They feel that grapes can be grown anywhere, but there can be only one France.


Grapes are grown and harvested in a specific year that is written on the wine’s label and called the wine’s vintage. This year could have an ideal growing season or a dismal one, and the quality levels of the wines are going to reflect that growing season accordingly.

As far as winemakers are concerned, every vintage is a good vintage. Read the back label of any wine bottle and a winemaker will surely be singing the highest praises for this particular vintage. It’s only logical – the winemaker wants to sell the consumer on his wine and he’ll carefully choose every word on that label to whet the consumer’s appetite. Grapes may grow on vines, but money doesn't. The grapes’ quality levels are then reflected in every aspect of the wine – the sight, smell, feel and taste of the wine, as well as its aging potential.

Wine critics, however, are of a different breed. They scrutinize each acidic tinge and berry aroma of every wine they taste, and are honest about the pros and cons of each wine. In order to maintain this level of honesty, they forget (or at least try to forget) the previous successes and shortcomings from a producer when trying a new vintage. A critic may praise the round, supple fruits of Joe Schmoe's 1998 Cabernet, but criticize the wet dog aromas and petrol notes of its 1999 Cabernet.

For example, because Piedmont's 2000 season was extraodinarily balanced with rain at the right times and heat at the right times, many critics have touted the 2000 Barolos as some of the best wines ever made. Meanwhile, 2000 California merlots have been shunned because they exhibit lighter bodies and green bell pepper flavors, off-characteristics caused by an unusually cool summer.

Are off-vintages still drinkable and enjoyable? Absolutely, they just aren’t as fulfilling as previous and subsequent vintages. Often it doesn’t really matter, at least not enough to get worked up over. But if you’re paying an exorbitant price for a wine, say a Brunello di Montalcino, you want to get the most bang for your buck, meaning that given the choice you’d rather buy the classic 1997 than the not-as-great 1996.

The vintage doesn’t always make or break a wine. Some producers have developed creative winemaking skills and add grapes from other regions to help round out deficiencies in their wine. Other producers have decided to avoid the quality fluctuation altogether by creating non-vintage wines, which are produced from the juice of grapes grown in multiple years. Through blending many sparkling wine producers have realized they can create a wine year in and year out that essentially looks, smells, feels and tastes exactly the same.

When worried about fluctutations from year to year, we please reference our regional vintage charts.

American Oak, French Oak and Stainless Steel Barrels

After the harvest, winemakers are faced with the important decision of how to ferment their wines. They have to consider what will be the best container for their wine and how long to keep it in that container before transferring the wine to bottles. The most popular containers used for wine are oak barrels and stainless steel tanks.

Many winemakers choose to ferment their wine in oak as oak barrels tend to soften the wine and impart characteristics that improve the flavor of the wine. The oak wood used for these barrels is derived from France and the United States. American oak passes on prominent characteristics to the wine, while French oak tends to lend more subdued characteristics. Each type of oak imparts notes of vanilla, clove and fresh cracked black pepper. Another important trait passed over from the oak is the tannin found in the wood – tannins from American oak are sharp while French oak provides more subtle tannins.

These may not seem like important factors at first, but as you explore the world of wine you’ll begin to notice subtle differences. California Chardonnays are often aged in toasted oak for a long period of time, which imparts the intense vanilla flavor that many have grown to love. But the fruit flavor drops off almost as soon as the wine is swallowed, a problem which many call “overoaking” a wine. Meanwhile, Chardonnay wines from Chablis in Burgundy have subtle vanilla flavors from shorter barrel storage, which allows the wine a crisp finish with fruit flavors that linger in the back of the throat long after being swallowed.

Stainless steel is another popular choice for fermentation. Used more often in Australia and New Zealand, this preserves the fruit characteristics of the wine and creates what many call a “fruit forward” wine. In these wines, we may feel slighted by the minimized tannins and lack of barrel spices, but these wines exude a more true expression of the grape.