A vineyard by the ocean – does the salty air affect the flavor of the grapes?

It’s no secret that wine attributes flavors from the ground and surroundings where grapes are grown. That is the concept of “terroir,” a term first used in this context by the French to describe the environmental factors that affect wine flavor.

Terroir accounts for what is happening on ground level, but what about the factors that might influence wine through the environment topside? This is “airroir,” or as Christian Butzke, professor of enology at Purdue University, puts it: “[It’s] the idea that there is something magical coming through the air, depositing itself on grapes or leaves. Or in the end, influencing what the wine tastes like, [something that is] made in the air that is surrounding the vineyard.”

Airroir encompasses many different factors and carries the potential to be either beneficial or detrimental to a wine’s flavor profile. A singular example that highlights this concept is Australia’s abundance of eucalyptus trees, which are often found cozied up next to grape vines. There is a long and established history of Australian wine having a minty or eucalyptus character. This observation is not “off” by any means; in fact, others have tried to mimic the phenomenon by throwing eucalyptus leaves into their own ferments.

“There’s really no law that prohibits that, it’s obviously not quite ethical, but it would be impossible to prove what has happened,” Butzke says.

More worrisome than unethical production methods is the rise of so-called “smoke taint” in recent years due to wildfires, particularly in California but also throughout Oregon and Washington. The grapes there can absorb the smoke and release it during fermentation and aging, which makes it hard to tell exactly how bad the effect of the smoke is. “If you spend an evening in a European bar and you’re soaked in smoke then obviously you can smell that right away,” explains Butzke. “But some of those things with wildfires and grapes are a little more complicated and they might only show up much later in the process.”

Other characteristics found in wine that may be attributable in large part to airroir include flavors of salt due with a vineyard in close proximity to the ocean, the taste or smell of produce like onions and garlic that are grown in adjacent fields, and cork taint. In the last case, the air in places like Portugal, where cork oak grows, is captured in the pockets that develop naturally in the bark of the trees. The bark will be cut down and fashioned into a cork which is then inserted into the top of the bottle, and over time some of the air from the bubbles may be released into the wine, possibly resulting in the formation of new compositions.

Christian Butzke

While airroir seems to be a viable explanation for some of the mysterious flavors and characteristics of wine, it’s not likely to see much academic attention any time soon. “When it comes to doing more research, it’s probably never going to happen,” says Butzke. “That’s why there’s a lot of speculation and a lot of assumptions because there’s no scientific proof, and that’s quite typical for wine in general. You can make up all kinds of stories and there’s really no chance to say something that’s wrong or right.”

Half the fun of drinking wine is observation, and an increasing number of lists in notable wine bars are sorting the wines by their funky flavor and aroma profiles – smoky, salty, vegetal, floral, etc, So maybe it is something in the air.