Vintage versus Terroir Effects: Can Science Find A Difference?

Terroir!  The word that grossly symbolizes the symphonic cacophony of chemical dances that make you associate certain flavors, aromas, and overall characteristics of a wine to a certain area of the world.

In a very basic sense, terroir is the expression of a physical place through the flavors and quality of a wine.  There are a lot of factors that influence the quality and characteristics of a wine which in concert constitute this concept of terroir, including the climate of the vineyard where the grapes were grown, the soil, the geography, as well as the characteristics of the grape variety itself.

As much as we enjoy simplifying everything, terroir is a very complicated beast, and is the combination of

Photo By John Simon after Nicolas Lancret (Live Journal) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo By John Simon after Nicolas Lancret (Live Journal) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

many different factors that can influence the sensory profile of the wine, even if many of the factors are similar between vineyard sites.  The combination of historical factors in addition to current practices may very well blend together to produce what we think of as terroir in a wine.

In addition to factors directly related to the vineyard environment, the year or vintage during which the grapes were grown can also play a huge role on the chemical composition and sensory characteristics of a wine.

Is there a way to tease out the differences between these two effects?  Can we determine what a real terroir effect is and what is just a vintage effect? How do we know if we actually taste “terroir”, or if we just taste the result of the particular weather that year?

One recent study aimed to do just that, by comparing wines from the same appellation, same producer, different vineyards, and different vintage years, to see if there was a way to determine what is terroir and what is just a simple vintage effect.

How in the what?

Basically, the researchers focused on four different vineyards within the same domain in Burgundy.  Two vineyards were located in “Côte de Nuits”, while the other two were located in “Côte de Beaune”.  Pinot noir grapes from the 2007, 2008, and 2009 vintages were collected for chemical analysis, in addition to

Photo by Victor Levasseur [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Victor Levasseur [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

the wines made from these grapes and finally the wines aged after 3, 4, and 5 years after bottling.  Grape skin extracts, must, finished and aged wines all went under the same chemical analysis: FTICR-MS (high resolution mass spectrometry).  Very basically, this analysis spits out a unique “signature” for each wine, with different data points representing certain chemical compounds within the sample (sorted by mass).


So, can you tell the different between terroir and vintage effects using fancy schmancy expensive equipment?

The short answer is yes!  Though, it’s a little more complicated than that…

First interesting thing found:  Only 5% of the compounds in the grapes/must/wine could actually be identified!  That’s how complicated that seemingly simply beverage in your glass is!  95% of the compounds distinguished on the FTICR-MS were not readily identifiable, indicating that we still have a long way to go in determining what the heck is actually in our wines and how these compounds interact with one another to produce various effects (be it terroir or health effects, etc).

Second interesting thing:  The chemical composition of the wines tested was more similar to the chemical composition of grape skins than to that of the must.  Now that’s kind of interesting!  Take the grape skins—do stuff to them—get wine.  The wine is chemically more similar to the original grape skins than the intermediate must that was in the process of undergoing various “forced” chemical reactions.

Photo By L.A. Biggs XIXe [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo By L.A. Biggs XIXe [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Third interesting thing: When young, the wines could be separated/identified according to vintage, but not according to terroir (i.e. individual vineyards).  However, the longer a wine aged, the greater the separation of each individual vineyard was found, indicating that time is needed to integrate and tease out the delicate and unique characteristics that identify a wine as coming from a specific location.  In other words, an older wine could be chemically separated by not only vintage, but also terroir, but a younger wine could only be chemically separated by vintage.

Concluding Thoughts

I thought this was a very interesting study, and according to the researchers, the very first to compare grape extracts and wines from the same producer but different vineyards in order to discriminate between vintage and terroir effects.  While the vintage effect seems to be the most significant contributor to the chemical (and assumingly sensory) characteristics of a wine while very young, as wine ages, the terroir effect becomes more and more prominent.

These results would suggest that the terroir effect is real, and that aging time is critical in developing these very specific and unique characteristics.  You can’t taste terroir in young wines (no significant discrimination between vineyards were found in this study), but you can in older wines.  Just have patience, give it time, and later have that patience rewarded with one of the most unique gustatory experiences you can possibly have.

What do you all think of this study?  There were some interesting results that came from this study—if you have comments or questions regarding any of these results, please don’t hesitate to share those with us.  Remember—these posts are meant to garner discussion, so please, discuss!  Cheers!

Source: Roullier-Gall, C., Boutegrabet, L., Gougeon, R.D., and Schmitt-Kopplin, P. 2014. A grape and wine chemodiversity comparison of different appellations in Burgundy: Vintage vs terroir effects. Food Chemistry 152: 100-107.

4 comments for “Vintage versus Terroir Effects: Can Science Find A Difference?

  1. June 26, 2014 at 10:20 am

    Interesting survey but muddle headed and incapable of supporting its conclusions:

    • Becca
      June 26, 2014 at 10:26 am

      You make excellent points in your piece, Benjamin. Not definitive by any means, but certainly interesting from a strictly scientific point of view. While it’s pretty cool (ok, ok, dorky) to see this type of chemistry separated out compound by compound (well, for a small number of grapes, but anyway…), the only thing that really matters is that wine is damn tasty and is a one-of-a-kind experience that we don’t REALLY need to dissect to bits 🙂

  2. alleahf
    June 26, 2014 at 4:57 pm

    Interesting study, nicely written piece. One factor that is often overlooked with terroir is the quality of the soil. The way a vineyard is treated influences the “alive-ness” of the soil, which for me is a huge part of growing a quality grape. Nonetheless, I love how passionate people are to do a study of this depth. 🙂 cheers

    • Becca
      June 26, 2014 at 7:57 pm

      Very good points! Thank you for your comments and kudos 🙂 Cheers!

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