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Terroir (French pronunciation: [tɛʁwaʁ] from terre, "land") is the set of special characteristics that the geography, geology and climate of a certain place, interacting with plant genetics, express in agricultural products such as wine, coffee, chocolate, tomatoes, heritage wheat, cannabis, and tea. The concept has also crossed to other Protected Appellations of Origin (PDOs a form of geographical indication), products such as cheeses.
Terroir can be very loosely translated as "a sense of place," which is embodied in certain characteristic qualities, the sum of the effects that the local environment has had on the production of the product. Terroir is often italicized in English writing to show that it is a French loanword.
The concept of terroir is at the base of the French wine Appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) system that has been the model for appellation and wine laws around the globe. At its core is the assumption that the land from which the grapes are grown imparts a unique quality that is specific to that growing site. The amount of influence and the scope that falls under the description of terroir has been a controversial topic in the wine industry.
Over the centuries, French winemakers developed the concept of terroir by observing the differences in wines from different regions, vineyards, or even different sections of the same vineyard. The French began to crystallize the concept of terroir as a way of describing the unique aspects of a place that influence and shape the wine made from it. Long before the French, the winemaking regions of the ancient world already developed a concept of different regions having the potential to create very different and distinct wines, even from the same grapes. The Ancient Greeks would stamp amphorae with the seal of the region they came from and soon different regions established reputations based on the quality of their wines. For most of its history, Burgundy was cultivated by the literate and disciplined members of the Benedictine and Cistercian orders. With vast land holdings, the monks were able to conduct large scale observation of the influences that various parcels of land had on the wine it produced. Some legends have the monks going as far as "tasting" the soil. Over time the monks compiled their observations and began to establish the boundaries of different terroirs-many of which still exist today as the Grand Cru vineyards of Burgundy.
While wine experts disagree about the exact definition, particular consideration is given to the natural elements that are beyond the control of humans. Components often described as aspects of terroir include:
The interaction of climate and terroir is generally broken down from the macroclimate of a larger area (For example, the Côte de Nuits region of Burgundy), down to the mesoclimate of a smaller subsection of that region (such as the village of Vosne-Romanée) and even to the individual microclimate of a particular vineyard or row of grapevines (like the Grand Cru vineyard of La Grande Rue). The element of soil relates both to the composition and the intrinsic nature of the vineyard soils, such as fertility, drainage and ability to retain heat. Topography refers to natural landscape features like mountains, valleys and bodies of water, which affect how the climate interacts with the region, and includes the elements of aspect and elevation of the vineyard location.
The definition of terroir can be expanded to include elements that are controlled or influenced by humans. This can include the decision of which grape variety to plant, though whether or not that grape variety will produce quality wine is an innate element of terroir that may be beyond human influence. Some grape varieties thrive better in certain areas than in others. The winemaking decision of using wild or ambient yeast in fermentation instead of cultured or laboratory produced yeast can be a reflection of terroir. The use of oak is a controversial element since some will advocate that its use is beneficial in bringing out the natural terroir characteristics while others will argue that its use can mask the influences of the terroir.
Many decisions during the growing and winemaking process can either lessen or increase the expression of terroir in the wine. These include decisions about pruning, irrigation and selecting time of harvest. At the winery the use of oak, cultured or ambient yeast, length of maceration and time in contact with lees, temperature during fermentation as well as processes like micro-oxygenation, chaptalization, clarification with fining agents, and reverse osmosis all have the potential to either reduce or emphasize some aspect derived from the terroir. Winemakers can work between the extremes of producing wine that is terroir-driven and focussed on purely expressing the unique aspects of a region's terroir, or winemaking that is done without any consideration given to terroir. Furthermore, aspects of terroir such as climate and soil type may be considered when deciding such things as which grape variety to plant if the goal is to make good wine rather than terroir-driven wine.
The importance of these influences depends on the culture of a particular wine region. In France, particularly Burgundy, there is the belief that the role of a winemaker is to bring out the expression of a wine's terroir. The French word for winemaker, vigneron, is more aptly translated as "wine-grower" rather than "winemaker". The belief that the terroir is the dominant influence in the wine is the basis behind French wine labels emphasizing the region, vineyard, or AOC more prominently than the varietal of grape, and often more prominently than the producer.
The concept of terroir exists in other drinks categories too, notably in Cognac, where the chalky soil, climate and distance from the Atlantic are all factors influencing the grapes, and in Armagnac and Absinthe. Many of the historically famous absinthes were originally produced in the French/Swiss Jura where most of the plants used in absinthe grew well, and Pontarlier and Val-de-Travers are again centers for both the plants used in absinthe and for production.
The same general concept exists for some types of tea - notably pu'er and oolong - where soil, local climate, altitude, and tree age all affect the flavor of the leaves. As with wines, this causes the desirability, value, and flavor of single-estate teas to vary widely. The discussions on linking coffees and Cacao to their terroir have started.
Increasingly, the phrase "terroir" is being used as it relates to the production of Artisan cheese. This is particularly true for pasture based, or grass-fed creameries where producers claim that the flavors of local forages and minerals contribute "delicate flavors to the cheese."
The influence of terroir means that wines from a particular region are unique, incapable of being reproduced outside that area, even if the grape variety and winemaking techniques are painstakingly duplicated. Winemakers in Burgundy do not believe that they are producing Pinot noir that happens to be grown in Burgundy, but that they are producing unique Burgundian wines that happen to be made from Pinot noir. Appellation systems, such as the French AOC systems, have developed around the concepts of "unique wines from a unique area". These systems have also developed into protected designation of origin across the European Union so that, for example, winemakers from outside a region like Tuscany can not produce a Sangiovese wine and call it a Chianti. While the wine may be made from the same clonal variety of Sangiovese, in the same soil composition as found in the Chianti region with winemakers using the Tuscan method of production, there is an assumption that the two wines will be different due to terroir.
The names of these European wine regions are protected so that wines from different regions and different terroir are not confused with wines from that those regions – i.e. A Spanish or Australian "chianti". In the United States there is some confusion over the use of semi-generic names like Champagne and Port but there has been more effort by the American wine industry to recognize the unique association of place names with the wines produced in those places, such as the 2005 Napa Declaration on Place agreement. While appellation systems and the protected designations of origin can be a way of protecting "unique terroir", the commercial importance of terroir has been a much debated topic in the wine industry.
The importance of terroir affects the price of the agricultural product as well as the products made from the product. Branding, variety, and farmer identification affects the price of a product. The Slow Food movement appreciates history of a variety of plant or animal, the story of the farmer who produced it, and ultimately the quality of the product. Chefs and bakers develop their own list of qualities they desire for their creations, and terroir affects these.
Wine critics question the value of a Pinot noir wine from a Burgundy Grand Cru vineyard relative to a wine produced from the "lesser terroir" of a Premier Cru vineyard, and whether it merits the higher price. These doubts also arise when the quality of winemaking and other human influences are taken into account, which may be of a higher standard with the "lesser" premier cru.
These critics also question the difference between New World and Old World wine and whether modern winemaking techniques – like significant oak influences, over-ripened fruit, cultured yeast, micro-oxygenation, and color pigment additives – obscure or even eliminate the influence of terroir in making different regions unique. Critics often point to the homogenizing effect on mass-produced wines made from popular varietals like Chardonnay, which may have their terroir characteristics hidden by invasive and intensive winemaking. A heavily-oaked, over-ripe Chardonnay from California can taste very similar to the same style of wine from elsewhere. The marketability of wines from different regions and producers is affected by the importance accorded to terroir, both by the wine industry and consumer wine markets, with some producers downplaying terroir and its effect on their wines.
The concept of terroir has been discussed in several films and television shows. Jonathan Nossiter's 2004 documentary, Mondovino, explores the globalization of the wine business, and features interviews with a number of small producers, mostly French, who talk about terroir. In the 2006 BBC series, Oz and James's Big Wine Adventure, one episode is almost entirely devoted to Oz Clarke teaching James May about terroir. At the end of the episode, May identifies three wines successfully, placing them in the correct order on the basis of the quality of terroir they come from.
Les Blank and Gina Leibrecht's 2007 documentary, All In This Tea, explores the importance of terroir and organic growing methods for the quality and future sustainability of the Chinese tea market. Terroir is also a frequent topic of discussion in the Japanese wine comic Les Gouttes de Dieu. The films French Kiss and A Good Year also makes references to terroir. Terroir recognition is a plot turning point in the French comedy L'aile ou la cuisse (The Wing or the Thigh) of 1976 with Louis de Funès.
In some Asian countries, terms like terroir or marriage have been popularised in Japanese manga. A 2008-09 Korean drama, most of whose leading characters work with wine, is titled Terroir after the main setting, a wine restaurant in turn named for the concept.
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