What is terroir and where did it come from?

The term terroir comes from the French word, terre – meaning land. Terroir is a concept based on the interaction between natural and human factors. We recognize 4 traits of terroir:

  • Climate – cool and warm
  • Soil – different types of soil, rock and mineral deposits
  • Terrain – altitude and elevation
  • Tradition – historical and cultural aspect of a place

Main attributes of terroir

The physical aspects could be in more detail described by the exposure to prevailing winds, moisture, frost and sunlight. Terroir is then characterized based on how a specific region’s climate, soils and terrain affects the taste of a product. These physical aspects have commonly been used in the wine industry, where producers believe that the combination of the above attributes would lead to the production of a unique grape. The human factors are dependent on how a specific product is made. Terroir can also be described in a more spiritual way as The taste of place.

Influence of Terroir on the product

It’s not a surprise that discussions about Terroir originated on the European continent – thanks to France. Terroir is one of the pillars of French wine production and national drinking culture and has been used to define agriculture there for centuries. In the beginning, the debate was dominated by geologists who believed that geology and natural processes are determinants of terroir. The direct link between geological materials and product features has been, although, undermined and is still being studied these days.

The concept of terroir has been changing throughout the years and doesn’t always have to be used within all the aspects. Association with taste, place and quality is more recent, thanks to changes in the markets and politics. Is terroir nowadays seen as a physical or more like a social concept? Can we actually taste the difference between two of the same products from a different terroir? Or in other words, can we tell which product belongs to which terroir? This could be an interesting question, especially in the wine industry since some wine producers claim to believe that terroir has more influence on the wine itself than any other modern technique. Some of them would say that terroir puts emotion in wine.

What makes the value of the product?

Value can be examined in many ways – social, geological and physical. We can measure physical-geographical attributes, but what about those unmeasurable ones? Like myths or spirits of the place, that make a connection between place and its culture or history. Are people willing to pay more for the experience of a specific terroir? When it comes to narratives, people can very easily use a place’s history in order to promote or to create a specific terroir. It could be very similar to a Genius loci: The spirit of a place, which refers to a unique atmosphere of a specific place usually based on its history or myths. 

There is also another concept, that is trying to explain the overall value of the product: Principles of strangeness and familiarity, where the place of strangeness is summed up as a terroir amplified by other attributes (such as vintage years) and familiarity –  a home environment in which the product is being purchased and consumed (e.g. wine shops, restaurants, etc.).

What can create a connection between customer and terroir?

Turns out people are actually willing to pay more for authenticity, when associated with specific places. What people would pay for the product then depends on the value they associate with its place of origin, its terroir and other aspects (e.g. vintage years). But how do people create this association? It could be based on personal experience, but at the same time, the value depends on the socially fixed and carefully curated image or myth of a given place, as they are trying to connect food with the local culture and history. The thing is, for a customer, the guarantee of the food with a defined place of origin, evokes authenticity and the sense they can actually experience the taste of place even on the other side of the world. That can also become a replacement for quality. We can see that in cases where the physical site attributes are having an effect on the product quality, but not impacting the price, the value of terroir can be defined by reputation rather than reality.

Products from the Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu region

Not only producers, but local communities, media, tourism and customers themselves, can have a big influence on the promotion of a specific terroir, and the influence can be even bigger. Social media could, I believe, play a huge role in this matter. With people posting everyday life’s moments online, it has never been easier to reach such a vast amount of people. Social media could not just help to promote a specific product, but also increase a need to travel to experience the real feel of a given place.

Labelling terroirs

In France, terroir is being used as a branding device since the 1930s. The term place branding has now changed from a viticultural concept to a branding term. It could be considered as strategic placemaking although the labelling process requires regulation schemes.

It can be very similar to Geographical Indications (GI), which are place-based names, such as Roquefort, that interpret geographical origin together with its historical identity. The main difference between terroir and a GI, is that GI could be very well protected, but terroir is usually just socially constructed. But in both, producers can define their own products.

Local and global impacts on terroirs

Globalization is a trend that has been affecting almost all the branches in the world, including the terroirs. It can influence it in a good, but also in a bad way. Within the concept of terroir people are able to experience different types of food and drinks from different parts of the world. They get to choose which product they would like to have or try. Also, not just that people can “taste the place” thanks to the fact that it is geographically located, they can visit the place of origin. This fact could lead to an increase in tourism in that specific place. Local food could be seen as a strategic agenda of tourism based on terroir, especially wine tourism.

Wine tasting as one of the parts of Baker County Tourism, Oregon

In this case study, an example of Burgundy was used to show that its procedures are able to highlight both place and the specificities. That could also have a macroscale impact, thanks to globalization, such that a local wine-grower could become a global icon (e.g. Robert Parker in this case).

Although becoming more popular doesn’t always have only a good impact. The industry can be affected by an intervention of foreign corporations buying the land which could probably lead to a change in a terroir. This happened for example in Mexico, where local actors have lost control over the tequila industry that led to increased environmental degradation, reduction in the quality of tequila, and elimination of traditional practices. Therefore, they have failed to protect the link between terroir and the quality of the product. Can we still consider this as the same terroir? Perhaps not, but if people from different parts of the world would not be aware of this issue, they can probably still believe they are experiencing the very same Taste of the place, even though, it is not there anymore.

If we go back to the basics of the social construction of terroir, the more you can associate your product with a narrative people resonate with, the higher the possibility that you would stand out in a global market. But also, the bigger the company is, the harder it gets to stay within the concept of terroir and stop it from dominating the market.

Reversed use of terroir

Nowadays, the concept of terroir doesn’t only have to be used as was described above. There are many modern factors that can form it. The concept is easily applied to products where production has been historically related to a place rather than trying to form a new terroir.

But terroir can be also used in a reversed way. If there is a region with no traditional history, a place can come up with the new taste of the place, for example by mixing more cultures together, thus creating a “unique” and special experience. We could see a case similar to this in Denmark, where the Nordik touristic terroir uses reversely engineered narratives by forming a new ideology – New Nordic Cuisine. This manifesto promotes authenticity, local sources, freshness, ecology and well-being. The question is to what extent this could still be considered as terroir.

But even by the definition of UNESCO: “the terroirs are living and innovating spaces…”, we could see that the concept of terroir doesn’t necessarily have to stay the same. It can be also changing based on environmental conditions, cultural traditions and advance in production technologies and also, consumer trends.