By Mary Jo
Terroir has nothing to do with terror, horror movies, or upcoming Halloween. Instead, terroir is a French word derived from Latin "terra" and French "terre" meaning the earth.
Most often it's used to refer to the natural conditions of soil, sun, weather, climate, et al, that produce specific flavors in food and drink. In other words, it's the agricultural version of "we are what we eat." We all more or less know this even if we don't think about it much, but in wine cultivation, terroir is an important concept. I might add that I am no wine specialist and my house wine is box pinot grigio, which is a perfectly good table wine.
But the concept of terroir is interesting. I started thinking about it when I was writing my most recent book, Once a Soldier. My fictional San Gabriel is a small kingdom between Portugal and Spain and wine is its most significant product. and the only one that has the potential to bring in revenue through exports.
Years ago we took a September wine cruise along the Douro River in northern Portugal, an area that is famous for the quality of its wine. Think of all the port our Regency characters quaff after their dinners! What makes the wines so prized is the specific conditions found in the Douro Valley and its tributaries, which is why I made the river that runs through my San Gabriel a Douro tributary. (Not long ago, a friend gave us a bottle of a red wine (not port, but regular wine) from the Douro and it was terrific.)
I specified that the soil of San Gabriel shares excellence of the Douro valley, with a little something special that made the local wines even better than that. I have a scene where my port wine specialist tastes the soil and the young royal princess decides its her duty to do the same. (You can find out how to taste the soil on Youtube, but it's something farmers have been doing since time immemorial.)
In order to avoid spoilage when being stored and shipped long distances, port wine is fortified with neutral grape spirits, which stops fermentation and makes the port last longer and make people drunk sooner. <G>
I became even more interested in terroir when the Mayhem Consultant and I made an anniversary trip to the most excellent Inn at Perry Cabin,on Maryland's Eastern Shore. By chance, the night we were there the inn was sponsoring a South African wine tasting dinner featuring Raats Family Wines. In our first trip to South Africa in 2005 we'd visited the Stellenbosch, which is sort of the Napa Valley wine country of South Africa, so I figured a wine dinner sounded good. Booking it was one of my better decisions. <G> (Picture above was taken in the Stellenbosch.)
What made it particularly fun was that Bruwer Slabbert, a Raats cousin and the company's winemaker was the special guest and the wines were his, and he explained them before each course and each wine sampling. (Four different wines over the course of the evening.) Bruwer was a passionate and fascinating apostle for his wines, I learned the chenin blanc grape does especially well in the South African climate, and that 53% of the world's chenin blanc vines are in South Africa.
He went on to explain that there were five different geological zones where South African chenin blanc vines are grown, and he blends grapes from three of them to produce what he thought was the best possible chenin blanc. It's never been a wine I thought much about, but WOW! His were good!!
Another part of the fun was that the inn's chef, a lovely fellow from Peru, had been sent bottles of the wine beforehand so he could create food that would best pair with the wines. I chatted with him briefly, and for him it had been a delightful creative experience.
While terroir is a term most often applied to wine, the concept fits all sorts of things. Ireland, for example, has wonderful brown soda bread. When we were there several years ago, virtually every meal included a small fresh loaf of the bread, and we loved it.
I came back determined to make some, and I found recipes, but also the information that the terroir of Ireland--soil, climate, rainfall--is what produces the soft wheat flour that makes the bread so special. I couldn't find Irish flour, but I did find an Irish brown soda bread mix from the Auld Country that's pretty good. But I really should go back to Ireland for taste testing….
Cheeses are another product that is all about terroir. The soil and climate produce the grass eaten by the cows that give the milk that makes the cheeses. (This could be a Dr. Seuss rhyme without much effort. <G>)
France has hundreds of cheeses; French President Charles de Gaulle famously said, "Comment voulez-vous gouverner un pays qui a deux cent quarante-six variétés de fromage?" ("How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?")
The French take terroir very seriously: they have a government bureau to manage AOL--"appellation d'origine contrôlé," that is, certification that agricultural products such as wine, cheese, butters, and more must be produced in a specific area to carry the name of that area. (For example, champagne must be produced in Champagne, and using traditional methods of production.)
Coffee is another product that is extremely terroir dependent. Jamaican Blue Mountain, anyone? Or Colombian coffee? Or chocolates, or teas???
Terroir has so much to do with the things we love to consume. Do you have favorite foods or drinks that are from particular places?
To return to wines, different countries are known for different types that feature particular grapes, like Malbec from Argentina or Pinot Noir from New Zealand. Tell me what you like from particular places!