The root of this noun is terre, meaning “earth.” A French-English dictionary will tell you that terroir translates as “soil” or “region”—but while you’ll find it used mainly in connection with food or wine, its precise meaning isn’t always clear. Many years ago, confronted with several references to terroir on the menu of a small Paris bistro, I asked the French friends I was dining with what the word conjured up for them. As we left the restaurant two hours later, the true meaning of terroir was still being discussed.
Much of what we spoke about that night concerned the excellent meal we had just consumed and why it was so good. My friends explained that not only did we know the type of soil that had produced the wine we’d drunk, we also knew the provenance of the chicken I had just eaten.
Biography of a chicken
Let me tell you about my chicken and its terroir. According to the menu, my chicken came from the Landes. This is a region of southwest France famous for poultry. Without reference to Google, my friends—born-and-bred Parisians without a trace of soil under their elegantly manicured fingernails—were able to explain in some detail the kind of life my chicken had enjoyed before it came to rest on my plate. It grew up in a forest under the shade of tall, thin Atlantic pine trees, where it ranged free and lived on natural grains. It was not imprisoned in a tiny cage and raised on a diet of animal feed. You see, the French never really took to battery farming as the rest of us did back in the early 1960s; not because they’re worried about animal rights, but because of the taste. And you can’t taste the terroir in a factory hen.
There was a similar story for every dish we ate that night, and yet our conversation took place more than 20 years ago, long before concepts such as sustainability, sourcing or even farmer’s markets had entered the modern lexicon. In the U.S. and Britain these are trends adopted by urban sophisticates. In France, knowing the terroir your food comes from is a tradition that never went away, and one that is cherished by all, whether they grow up in the city or the countryside.
Back to the land
Large-scale urbanization in France didn’t really happen until after the Second World War, nearly 100 years later than in Britain and more than half a century after the United States. This means that most Parisians are only three or four generations away from the land. Many of them have holiday homes in rural France that have been passed down through the family. They spend four weeks there every August and they know the local winemaker, the cheese farmer and who raises the best chickens or ducks.
For me, the true meaning of terroir is about roots and belonging to the land. It’s about seeing food not as a commodity packaged in plastic on supermarket shelves but as an ancient and integral part of the life cycle that connects us to the earth. It’s also about taste and pleasure rather than functionality and profit.
You can’t really talk about terroir without mentioning wine. Entire books have been written on the subject, but I’ll give you a brief explanation as told to me by Sam Ehrlich, an American enthusiast and student of wine. “In winemaking,” he explains, “a terroir is a parcel of land where the vines are grown. It has a specific character that depends on the combination of the soil and subsoil, the aspect, gradient, wind, rainfall and proximity to water and sunlight.”
For a French winemaker, he continues, each tiny parcel of land has a unique character, a physical makeup that determines the taste of the wine it produces: “If the soil is too rich or retains too much water, yields will often be too high or berries too large, and the juice diluted and lacking concentration. And on the slopes of the Côte d’Or in the Burgundy region, for instance, a parcel of vines facing due east or east-southeast will have longer exposure to the sun’s warmest rays and will produce riper fruit than one facing south or west.
“For us believers,” Ehrlich says, “this is why Chambolle-Musigny will produce such starkly different pinot noir from that of Nuits-St. Georges, and why chardonnay grapes planted in Chablis taste like no other version on earth. Conversely, the clarity of flavor and balance of great riesling from the Mosel in Germany could only be achieved on those steep wet slopes of exposed slate.”
A matter of taste
Of course, there are many more elements that go into winemaking and many more aspects to the meaning of terroir than we have room for here. Suffice it to say that this term is, in important ways, untranslatable. Forget trying to find words to explain it—rely on your senses instead. To understand the meaning of terroir you must taste, feel and smell it.