The English language has no accurate translation for the French word terroir. The closest thing we have is terrain, a word designed strictly to denote the way a land lays, a word for describing surfaces. Terrain says something, but far from everything, about terroir. At its closest, terrain is perhaps to terroir what a page is to a book, though terroir as a concept is admittedly more slippery.
It was Wendell Barry who said: If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are. His observation reveals much about what is at the heart of the meaning of terroir: that the character of a thing is informed by its origins. While here in the States we hear terroir most frequently in regards to wine, for the French, terroir can be associated with anything, even traditional clothing or furniture. Terroir, a far more abstract notion than terrain, encompasses the intangible signature given to a thing by the invisible energies of a place over time. Or perhaps it only seems more abstract to our American minds because ours is a culture of motion and transience. For a land so rooted in rootlessness, so addicted to change, the concept of terroir requires a seemingly impossible leap. We who, for the last couple of centuries, have transplanted ourselves and our families to wherever the opportunies and abundances are, have fostered an alternative mode of survival which involves discarding the past and peering restlessly into the ever-distant and hopeful horizon of the future.
And yet, terroir seems to be haunting us more than ever. Lacking an adequate surrogate in our own language, we have merely lifted it, as is, from the french, and adopted it for ourselves. Even with the word at their disposal, many winemakers don’t know how to make it something that their wines actually possess.
If it wasn’t for the recently-thriving practice of biodynamic viticulture in the U.S., terroir might have remained an elusive term for us, cloaked in french mystery forever.
A biodynamic vineyard is treated as a single agricultural organism. Within that organism, the four elements of earth, air, water, and fire are finely integrated by the winegrower to achieve, at best, a perfect equilibrium, or macrocosm, in which each element (for instance soil composition, geography, climate, as well as regional tradition) contributes to the overall internal harmony of the vineyard. Over time a biodynamic vineyard evolves so as to be almost undifferentiated from a natural ecosystem. These vines will have a vigor and character like no other, a fingerprint bearing the memory of the soil, surrounding habitat, and the history of those who have farmed the land for generations that the vines have absorbed over time. It is when this is achieved that the fifth element, or terroir, becomes apparent.
Terroir, then, as a sum, as an unwritten dialect of a place. It’s the kind of thing you can get your brain around for a minute, if you’re in a quiet space. Terroir has a lot to teach us about being quiet and realizing that much of what we need can be found very near to where we already are. It is a good thing we seem to be learning that it is possible to make progress by remaining at home. For as Wallace Stegner wrote: “Neither the country nor the society we built out of it can be healthy until we stop raiding and running, and learn to be quiet part of the time, and acquire the sense not of ownership but of belonging.”