Terroir is a French term and concept. With no equivalent word in English. But what is ‘terroir’?

Nowadays, in the foodie world and especially in the world of wine there is a lot of talk about this term.

It might look similar to the territory. But it is much more than that.

In this article you will learn:

What is a terroir (UNESCO definition)

What does each element of the definition mean?

How is a terroir born?

What is terroir? The firsts descriptions of the word “terroir” date from 1229, as a reconstruction of ancient forms (tioroer, tieroir) originating from the popular Latin “territorium”.

Protected Designation of Origin and Protected Geographical Indication protect and promote the terroirs.

The definition of ‘terroir’, adopted by UNESCO in 2005

The definition was created between 2001 and 2003 by a group of scientists that included agronomist, anthropologists, economists, and engineers from the French National Institute for Agriculture (INRAE) and the Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité (INAO).

« A Terroir is a geographically limited area where a human community generates and accumulates along with its history a set of cultural distinctive features, knowledge and practices based on a system of interactions between biophysical and human factors. The combination of techniques involved in production reveals originality, confers typicity and leads to a reputation for goods originating from this geographical area, and therefore for its inhabitants.»

What does each element of the definition mean?

The delimitation takes the form of a geographically determined border

The delimited space or territory is constructed through a process of negotiation and sociopolitical compromise, where natural, technical, cultural, historical, economic and political factors come into play.

What is terroir? Wine Terroirs in France
Wine terroirs in France. Credit champagne.fr

The “human community” is well located geographically in the designated space. It can also include parts of its own that are not inside the delimitation, it has a history, and sometimes a social name.

The human community along its history generates and accumulates a set of cultural distinctive features, knowledge and practices

The knowledge is the result of an evolutionary process of accumulation of individual and collective experiences over time. It is constructed and inscribed in a historical process. It is also a history being made, with continuous innovations, which are composed of existing knowledge.

The terroir is not the result of an explicit and intentional project. Rather, it is a Right emanating from the activity of men in the community.

A system of interactions between biophysical and human factors characterize the cultural features

These interactions include:

  • Environmental factors (e.g., climate, topography, plants, animals, microorganisms, etc.)
  • Human factors which refer to the collective knowledge of the community
  • And the usage, which results from the experience acquired in interaction with the environment.

The combination of techniques involved in production reveals originality, confers typicity and leads to a reputation

These techniques qualify as “socio-technical”, as social knowledge influences the technique and is produced by its implementation.

The socio-technical routes lead to a reputation.

Goods originate from the geographical area, and thus from its inhabitants

In this sense, what does ‘good’ mean?

Its meaning is larger than that of product or service.

A good originates from the geographical area and enhances it. It includes the products with its originality, typicality and reputation. But also, economic or non-economic goods, private or public and associated services. In particular, public goods include landscapes and the environment.

The terroirs are living and innovating spaces

It is not only about tradition.

A more simple definition of “terroir”, in the sense that interests today’s producers, could be:

“A fragment of the earth’s surface on which a human group obtains, by certain methods, products characterized by intrinsic qualities”. Such a definition may be too simple, but it has the merit of reminding us that terroir is an eco-cultural situation.

The specificity of the product emerges from the elements that produce it.

These elements are

  • the territory (soil characteristics, climate)
  • or the human factor (know-how, history).

In the oenology, we use terroir to characterize a wine for the territory where it comes from, like Beaujolais wines are rather light and fruity many sommeliers claim to know the wine terroir by tasting it. However, the term is not limited to the wine world, but more than that: it includes every traditional food and traditional spirits.

The traditional food products demand legal protection and promotion. And here is where the Protected Geographical Indication and Protected Designation of Origin take place.

And why do traditional food needs legal protection?

Neighbour villages tend to copy the product and give it the same name to enjoy its reputation.

How is a terroir born? Time for a story

The story goes like this:

In the Middle Age, a peasant family lives in a city called Altamura, in Italy. They use dough of durum wheat, sourdough, marine salt and water to bake bread in a traditional public oven.

The parents teach this tradition to their children. When they grow up, those children will teach their children how to cook the bread early in the morning with the same technique as their parents. The same will happen with the next generation.

Bread making, what is terroir
Bread making

Every generation will add some feature:

  • social,
  • raw material
  • or technique

Until they generate a unique product – a traditional bread – with the elements of the region:

  • durum wheat and even potable water from the area,
  • local machinery,
  • and a specific technique.

With time, this bread will gain a reputation: Pliny the elder defines it as the ‘best bread in the world’. And even the city of Altamura referred to bread making in its Municipal Statutes of 1527.

To protect it from imitation, the Altamura bread received a Protected Designation of Origin in 2003.

This story I told is true, it is the history of the traditional product of terroir: Pane di Altamura DOP

And it is one of the more than 3397 stories of traditional products that are legally recognized today in the World.