Excavating the French Concept of “Terroir”

11 Sep
A small wine village in France's Languedoc region

A small wine village in France’s Languedoc region

As a geographer who has spent considerable time in France, I’ve always been interested  n the French notion of terroir, a term used primarily in viticulture (I mistakenly thought) to describe the unique interaction of soil and climate that makes one wine growing region (and its products) absolutely unique and different from all others. More recently, however, either the usage of terrior has been expanded considerably or I’ve missed a whole lot over the years because of my sophomoric  French. My enlightenment came after reading a fascinating essay, “Vive le Terroir”, by Steven Erlanger, the Paris bureau chief for the New York Times that appeared in the August 31, 2013 issue of the paper. Down below are some choice paragraphs from that article; the whole essay can be read here

“The importance of terroir to the French psyche and self-image is difficult to overestimate, because it is a concept almost untranslatable, combining soil, weather, region and notions of authenticity, of genuineness and particularity — of roots, and home — in contrast to globalized products designed to taste the same everywhere. Though related to the farm-to-table and locavore movements of a new generation, terroir is not about proximity, but about honesty and community, an idea even more important to a France that fears losing its identity in a larger Europe and a competitive world.

French wine tasting stop

A wine-tasting stop I made last year in the Languedoc region

Terroir is most identified with wine, of course — the same pinot noir grape grown in different parcels of Burgundy will produce a different wine — but the idea extends far deeper into French culture and is even deployed as an advertising gimmick….

The notion of terroir is essentially political, at heart a conservative, even right-wing idea, even though it has been picked up by a new generation that would consider itself on the left, opposing globalization and pesticides. It’s not just about organic farming or locavores, since authentic products of terroir can come from far away.

Alain Ducasse, the renowned chef-entrepreneur, said in an interview that “the terroirs, it’s our gastronomy” — the diverse heart of all French cuisine, which “must be preserved jealously.” Viewed from abroad, he said, “it can seem complicated, but it is this diversity that provides all our riches, our strength.”….

Jean-Claude Ribaut, a food critic for Le Monde, called terroir “a sort of lost paradise.” But it also stands for a reaction to modernity, he said: “One could say it’s a vision a bit backward-looking, but it’s also, I think, a battle of today, to try to safeguard what gives us pleasure and health.”

The preservation of terroir is finally a kind of unwritten conspiracy between the farmers and the wealthy, as well as the bourgeois bohemians of the big cities, who will pay more for quality, for freshness, for artisanal craft and for that undefinable authenticity that is the essence of terroir.”

Frendh anti-fracking

An anti-fracking poster

French authenticity

A landscape (and terroir) in the French Pyrenees where I like to hang out


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Posted by on September 11, 2013 in Europe


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