Terroir is a French word used to refer to the general characteristics a place impart on the taste of either wine or coffee. It is commonly used in English, and so may be seen either italicized or not. While the full extent to which the taste is affected by the plot of land grapes or coffee beans are grown on is disputed, most connoisseurs consider terroir to be an important part of both the wine and coffee experiences.
Exactly what constitutes terroir is also a matter of some debate. Most people include such things as soil type, sun exposure, altitude, weather, and drainage as being integral parts of a wine or coffee’s terroir. Others also include aspects of technique, such as spacing of plants, how the fruit is harvested, methods of drying or aging, and even the social history of the plot of land.
For the French, terroir is the defining feature of wine, with the grapes used being a secondary concern. This can be seen in their labeling and promotional practices. The fact that a wine comes from Bordeaux is substantially more important to the French than the fact that it is predominantly made from the Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Cabernet Franc grape. The fact that it comes from a terroir demarcated as being Granc Cru Classé is even more important.
Terroir is central to the idea that a wine cannot simply be reproduced anywhere in the world, just by using the same grapes and a similar set of practices. While one reason the French so strongly defend their exclusive use of terroir-based terms such as Champagne and Beaujolais is undoubtedly economic, another is just as surely philosophic. Terroir is viewed by many wine lovers as the essence of a wine, and by incorrectly applying a terroir term, something important is lost.
It is, of course, important to recognize that terroir plays only one part in the ultimate quality of a wine. Many critics of the terroir system have pointed out that sub-par wines are often sold to unsuspecting consumers on the virtues of the terroir printed on their label. A terroir can best be viewed as an assessment of the full potential an area can grant to wines produced there, but that potential may not be utilized fully. Certainly, there are producers even in some of France’s most important Grand Cru areas who put out wines that are consistently worse than those made in areas with an objectively worse terroir.
In the final analysis, terroir has the potential to add greatly to a wine or coffee experience, but should not be relied on exclusively to determine quality. For many tasters, the joy of being able to distinguish such specific differences in a wine’s growing area is unsurpassable, while for others, it couldn’t be less important. Like so many concepts in the worlds of fine wine and coffee, terroir is only worth what you can get out of it.