Terroir (pronounced tehr-WAHR) has no direct English translation. The easiest way to define it would be “sense of place.” The term is most commonly associated with wine, but also applies to cheeses, meats and even flowers. A wine that projects its terroir is said to taste, smell and feel of its birthplace.
While clearly derived from terre, the French word for earth, terroir actually includes the entire physical environment of a vineyard. In addition to the soils, sun and wind exposure, the steepness of terrain, rainfall and humidity all affect a wine’s terroir.
Can you smell chalk? Herbs? Jasmine? Bacon? It doesn’t necessarily mean that there are pigs roaming around the vineyard. But the holistic conditions of a plot of earth can lend these traits to grapes, which tend to be incredible media for a universe of smells and flavors.
While this concept is almost second nature to many Old World winemakers, it’s foreign to most Americans. Traditionally, Americans discuss what a wine is—Pinot Noir, for example—and neglect where it’s from. In the tradition of terroir, the provenance of the wine is the grape’s equal. For instance, is that Pinot Noir from Burgundy, the home of the most revered, elegant and long-lived Pinot Noirs in the world? Or is it from Sancerre, a village in the Loire Valley that produces Pinot Noir, though typically leaner, earthier and more minerally?
To this day a proud school of winemakers all over the world likes to say that they make their wine in the vineyard, not the cellar. Their goal is to let the character of the terroir be heard as loudly as the character of the varietal. They wouldn’t label a fine Burgundy simply “Pinot Noir” any sooner than a Georgian would call a Vidalia just an “onion.”
The group of women gathered under a wisteria-draped pergola on this sunny weekend afternoon could be talking about any number of subjects that dominate the conversations of 20-, 30- and 40-something women. What would not be a top guess would be “terroir”—or what French winemakers translate to be a “sense of a place.”
Seated here are Ashley Hall, a former journalist who currently peddles wine for Kermit Lynch, the famed, Berkeley, California-based wine merchant; Gina Hopkins, sommelier and co-owner of Restaurant Eugene and Holeman and Finch Public House; Michelle McKenzie, a private chef and cooking instructor who majored in nutrition and minored in chemistry at UNC Chapel Hill; and Judith Winfrey, food activist, co-leader of the Slow Food Atlanta convivia and farmer/co-owner of Love is Love Farm in Douglasville. These women, coming from four different perspectives of the local food scene, care deeply about what is happening with Atlanta food systems, and with this casual gathering around fresh produce and great wine, the talk turns to terroir.
“The reason the French have been able to define this thing, this ‘terroir’—which is sort of an esoteric concept—is because of time,” begins Ashley. “They have been making wine for centuries and have been paying attention to the soil, recording the years and the weather and the tastes. It is a little difficult for Americans to wrap their heads around it because our country is so young and sort of fast and furious about everything.”
“With wine—and pretty much everything else for that matter—you have to keep trying and actually be willing to have a negative experience,” Ashley continues. “You have to get your hands dirty and figure out what works best for the region.”
“The very same thing can be related to food and farming,” chimes in Judith. “Each farmer has to figure out what works on their land. My farm may be just a couple of miles away from another, but because of our position on the Anawakee Creek and our cultivation practices, our tomatoes are going to taste a little different from the farm down the road. The individuality of the farmer, the soil, the weather and the way the sun hits the fields as well as the history of that land shines through the produce.”
What these women are describing perfectly is terroir. The volume and excitement of the conversation continues to grow into this sort of “eureka!” moment.
“Paying attention is important,” adds Michelle. “When food hits the plate, we need to regard it, rather than just consume it. I don’t want to eat without thinking. Lack of attention to what goes on the plate is one of the reasons Americans are having such a hard time with obesity and other health issues.” Both Gina and Michelle are in the business of bringing good food and great service to the public.
“Shifting ideas of marketing and ‘the way it’s done’ must take place,” says Gina. “Huge nationally recognized produce brands will go to great lengths to take the terroir out of their vegetables so that this tomato always tastes the same. The restaurant industry preaches the same thing.”
Dining at a small, independently run restaurant, however, puts that place on the plate. Helping make that happen, there are now 13 local farmers markets in the metro Atlanta area, which carry produce grown by a new crop of young farmers like Judith. Young businesswomen like Ashley are bringing the message of terroir and appreciation for artisan technique to the public. Food professionals like Michelle are teaching classes that instruct buyers of local produce how to create delicious meals at home and restaurant, and owners like Gina are making efforts to buy locally and herald the small farm.
Take a bit of time, perhaps over a glass of wine, to ponder your own terroir. After all, you truly are what you eat.