What is terroir ?
We often refer to terroir when talking about our wines, and more and more with spirits too. But what does this French word mean? Terroir has no direct equivalent in English; it is often translated as a 'sense of place' and refers to a specific combination of soil, location and climatic conditions in a particular vineyard spot.
Most French people will agree that a gourmet meal 'from the terroir' sounds more appealing than a late-night bite in a greasy spoon. In the hustle and bustle of modern life, terroir often stands for quality, steadiness and trust. For a producer, terroir is the unique territory that will give their wines a distinctive 'sense of place'.
Terroir does sound French but it has no borders. Kobe beef from Hyogo prefecture in Japan, Italy's Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, many Scottish whiskies, several Polish vodkas and thousands of other delectable food and drink, all come from particular terroirs. Take Sauternes: this sweet golden wine can only be made in the Sauternais, an area 65 kilometres (40 miles) south of Bordeaux. Roquefort, a strong marbled blue cheese, is matured only in the rocky cellars of Roquefort-Sur-Soulzon, a village on the Larzac Plateau in central France.
For winegrowers, the local environmental is essential. The amount of rain, the variation in temperature, the nature of the vine-friendly soil or sub-soil and the quality of the vineyard itself; all of these elements combined form the terroir and give wine a distinctive flavour. Hugh Johnson, one of the world's most eminent wine writer, once wrote: 'unlike other products, where the wine comes from is the whole point.' We completely agree.
Terroir stands for 'regionality'', but men and women also have a role to play. It takes passion and knowledge to find the right piece of land and bring out the best in it. On their terroirs, winemakers must master the local methods of cutting, binding, keeping the soil healthy, fighting disease and eventually turning grapes into excellent wine. As a result, terroir is also history; it is the tale of how men and women have built up hundreds of hectares of vineyards over centuries and the expertise they've gathered over all these decades or centuries. One striking example is the region of Burgundy, where some precisely demarcated vineyard called the 'Climats' have been farmed since the High Middle Ages. They were added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in July 2015. For all its history, a terroir should also embrace the future. Veuve Clicquot, for instance, is doing just that by banning all herbicides by 2020 to make all of their vineyards sustainable.
Single malt Scottish whisky superbly matches our definition of terroir. Glenmorangie rises from a unique environment: the largely untouched Scottish Highlands. This distillery relies on carefully selected barley and its own water source: the Tarlogie Springs. Ardbeg, on the other hand, showcases the iodine touch of its unique location on the Island of Islay. Go East and you will find out how Belvedere vodka is a product of Polish magnificence. It uses fermented golden rye – a typical crop harvested in this part of the country - along with the pure water from its own artesian wells, near Żyrardów. Watch Claire Smith talk about Belvedere's terroir.
Yet, for all its charms the term terroir is often abused. 'Monsieur terroir', 'Sélection terroir': countless food and drink companies use this term as easy marketing spin to add some glamour to their brand. Take a stroll around a French supermarket and you will be amazed how many times the 'T' word crops up on labels, along with pictures of old cracked plates and grandmothers cooking. For that reason, genuine terroir-based artisans push for their products to be protected by certification labels such as 'AOC' or 'Label Rouge', which guarantee the origin and quality of a product. Epicureans beware!