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A World of Terroir
December 6, 2022 | ELEMENT: barley, life, water | article | 10 minute read

From grapes to apples to coffee beans to barley, every plant holds the capacity to speak of its place through the form of a drink.

 A Chardonnay grape grows in the Grand Cru Vaudésir vineyard in Chablis, toward the north-east of France. The roots of its vine reach into limestone-rich clay, formed in the Upper Jurassic, 150 million years ago. It’s cool here; travel much further north and historically Chardonnay will struggle to ripen. 

But Vaudésir, like the other six Grand Crus of Chablis, benefits from a south-facing slope that allows excess rainfall to drain away whilst soaking up every available drop of sunshine, bathing in the light until late evening. Were it planted on the flatter surrounding land, or on a slope with a less favourable aspect, the character of this grape, once ripened, would be entirely different.

Genetically there is nothing to distinguish it from any of the millions of Chardonnay grapes that make up Chablis’s collective press. But because of the particular three-dimensional effect of soil, microclimate and land in this tiny 15.4-hectare amphitheatre-shaped vineyard, Vaudésir wine tastes distinct — recognisably distinct, to any palate — from any Chardonnay grape grown not only in this particular region, but anywhere else in the world.

A Dabinett apple grows in Gammyoulands Orchard, southern Herefordshire. Sheltered from rainfall on three sides by the Malvern Hills, Brecon Beacons and Black Mountains, it too benefits from a perfect south-eastern aspect. Unlike the heavier mudstone clay that dominates much of the county, this southern patch sits on lighter, freer-draining red sandstone.

‘Terroir — it really is everywhere. If one is curious enough to look.’

Everything about this orchard; its climate, geology and situation is naturally geared towards a balanced ripening both of sugars and of the complex phenolics, particularly tannins, that characterise Dabinett, the world’s most common bittersweet cider apple. Grown in any of the surrounding orchards, anywhere else in south west England, or in any of the orchards that grow Dabinett from New York State to Kent, the flavours and textures it would lend to a cider would be different; would not carry the same balance of tannin with body and fruit ripeness.

A coffee bean grows high on a mountain in Yirgacheffe, in Ethiopia’s Sidamo region, 2,000 metres above sea level. Legally classified as Strictly High Grown (SHG), the cooling effects of altitude reduce the bean’s ripening down to a crawl, lengthening the window of its development, whilst maintaining access to dazzling sunlight throughout. Throughout that gradual creep the flavour compounds within the bean are developing, becoming more complex and robust, whilst the coolness of its climate promotes a distinct, refreshing acidity unique to this single part of the world. 

There is nothing exclusive to the ingredients grown in any of these three wildly different parts of the world. Chardonnay is perhaps the most famous white grape in existence; Dabinett produces more cider than probably any other apple; whilst the coffee bean varieties of Yirgacheffe can be found throughout Ethiopia and the rest of the coffee growing world.

TERROIR

GRAND CRU VAUDÉSIR VINEYARD IN CHABLIS
GRAND CRU VAUDÉSIR VINEYARD IN CHABLIS
SOUTHERN HEREFORDSHIRE
SOUTHERN HEREFORDSHIRE
YIRGACHEFFE, IN ETHOPIA’S SIDAMO REGION
YIRGACHEFFE, IN ETHOPIA’S SIDAMO REGION

PRODUCE

CHARDONNAY GRAPES
CHARDONNAY GRAPES
DABINETT APPLES
DABINETT APPLES
YIRGACHEFFE COFFEE BEANS
YIRGACHEFFE COFFEE BEANS

What marks each of these plants out as special is their place. Their situation. Their terroir. It is the inimitable flavour their specific growing conditions lend the plant that distinguishes a Vaudésir Chardonnay, a Gammyoulands Dabinett and a Yirgacheffe coffee bean — and which elevates the drink they produce into something more complex and coveted than drinks made from the same ingredients and in the same way elsewhere.

Terroir is a plant’s thumbprint. It isn’t just a fancy name or a highfalutin concept. It is tangible and demonstrable — gardeners call it ‘gardening’, farmers call it ‘farming’. There is simply no neater word in English for the three-dimensional impact of soil, land and microclimate. No two terroirs are the same, and the individual characteristics of terroir cannot be faked or reproduced elsewhere or in another way. 

It applies to anything that grows, from a pear tree to a sugar cane to a grape vine to a barley plant, and when care is taken throughout the process, the flavours of terroir will always whisper back through a drink, whether the ingredient has been merely fermented or whether it has been roasted and boiled. And yes — even if the drink has been distilled.

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