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Taking the Terror Out of Terroir

By Erin M. Hartshorn
Copyright © 2008 by Erin M. Hartshorn, All Rights Reserved

In the classic struggle of "us against them," everything matters--whether our kids are smarter, our men more beautiful, our women stronger, our weather better (or ever so much worse)--but above all else, our food is tasty, unique, and not to be compared with that of those upstarts from that town over the ridge! What could they possibly know of the proper spices for spring runt sausage, after all? True, Great-Aunt Bertha's second-to-youngest daughter married into one of their families, but she wouldn't have told them the secret. Besides, even if she was old enough for her Gran to have told her about green garlic, the bulbs here are sweeter with not as much sulfur to them.

That is the mystery at the heart of terroir--the influence of a particular locale on the food and drink that is created there. Terroir encompasses every local condition from the climate and microclimates to the minerals of the soil to the topography of the land to the experience of the person creating the product.

Terroir is the short answer to why champagne only comes from the Champagne region in France. The chalk hills there, the weather patterns, the accumulated knowledge handed down in a winery over hundreds of years cannot be reproduced elsewhere. The méthode champenoise can be, and is, followed elsewhere. But a cava from Spain is not identical to a champagne. And a sparkling wine from California, though it may be every bit as good as Dom Pérignon, has its own unique properties. (Whether the average consumer can distinguish them is different story.)

Similarly, barbera grapes may grow in the Sierra foothills of California because the climate is right for them, but the mineral content is different from the hills of Asti in Italy. Accordingly, barbera d'Asti tends to be more acidic than Californian barberas.

Although the word terroir isn't generally applied to other comestibles, the concept certainly is. Look at the hoopla surrounding Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee or Kona coffee. If you look at the Web site of a specialty purveyor, such as Peet's Coffee & Tea, you may find a banner for "Tanzania Kilimanjaro" or "Panama Esmeralda Geisha" ("grown on just one small block, at the highest altitude of Hacienda La Esmeralda, in the Boquete region of Panama"); teas can be purchased by preparation method (white, green, oolong, black) or by place of origin (China, India, Sri Lanka). Descriptions of tea mention altitude, dryness, wind, leaf size, how many estates the tea is available from, leaf-rolling methods--the same ideas that go into wine's terroir.

Foods have local variants as well. Chocolate, being a plant product, is subject to all the same factors that grapes, tea, and coffee are. "Single origin chocolate" takes advantage of this fact to showcase regional differences in flavors. The Nibble has a page up on the flavors of varietal chocolate: Of course, if you're happy with a bar of Hershey's milk chocolate, you probably don't care whether your chocolate has woodiness or notes of molasses and vanilla. There are, however, those who do care--they care about the percentage of cocoa, where it was grown, whether it's fair trade (not that that affects flavor), whether it's dark chocolate or milk. And yes, milk chocolate is available in varietals as well.

Empire apples; Maui, Walla Walla, and Vidalia onions; and Kobe beef are all other examples of local influence on flavor.

What of other living organisms, such as bacteria or yeast? Three words for you: San Francisco sourdough. Or if you prefer, New York bagel. The water, the yeast, the locally available flours--those are what make regional breads so typical.

Or look at molds. Many cheeses are named for where they were first made--Cheddar, Brie, Stilton, Monterey jack. Today in the supermarket, you can buy cheddar cheese that comes from elsewhere--but does cheddar taste the same if it's from New York, Wisconsin, or California? The flavor of cheese depends on the milk, which depends in turn on what the animals (cows, sheep, or goats) ate. In this day of homogenized, ultra-pasteurized milk, we may not all notice the difference in our skim if we change states, but the milk isn't treated before the cheese is made and the differences matter. 

How do you use this information in your story?

Your heroine isn't *just* having red wine with her dinner, or even merlot--she is having the last bottle laid down by her grandfather before the fire claimed all the vines on the southern hills. It'll be another ten years before this year's carefully cloned rootstock shows whether the additional carbon ruined the terroir.

Or your hero is undercover for his king in a foreign land, and he's having trouble adjusting to the inexplicably sweet onions. Will his reaction to a traditional dish expose him to the secret police?

Is it worth the exorbitant tariffs to import true Earth champagne to the capital of the new colony planet? Or will they make do with vodka from the potatoes that grow readily in the planet's rocky soil? Or will a smuggler come along offering a better deal on the champagne if the new government turns a blind eye to his other activities?

Suppose that a scientist has spliced part of the Botrytis cinerea (noble rot) genome into a line of grapes. Ideal conditions for the fungal growth are no longer necessary--diminishing the effect of terroir, and furor erupts in the wine world over those who want this new strain for themselves and others who want to destroy it at all cost.

Dropping in local food and drink is easy, but if you really want to add flavor, make the differences matter, to both the characters and the plot.