A Taste of Place

Learn how American innovation and traditional French ideals have left vintners of the two countries in constant contention.


At the beginning of the millennium, tossing a word like terroir into a conversation about wine would’ve been considered snobbish and elitist. The fact that terroir doesn’t have a direct translation only intensifies its pomposity. This French word is meant to impart an idea. The term insists that soil and microclimates deeply affect the taste of food and drink, and this makes the place in which something is grown or created intrinsically related to and inseparable from its flavor. But that’s a mouthful. Instead of launching into such a fumbling definition, Americans have at long last adopted the French word in English use. In today’s foodie parlance, terroir means “taste of place,” and the term has the power to shape both historical standards and future innovations for winemaking.

Recognizing Regulations

It should come as no surprise that a people with a specific word to describe the concept for where a taste originates also developed an entire legal code dedicated to protecting individual terroirs throughout their small but diverse country. With this goal in mind, the French formed the Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité (INAO) in 1935 to support a series of legally defined geographical indications (GIs) with certifications known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlées (AOCs). The purpose of these protections is to ensure that a wine’s name has the ability to convey not just where, but how, it’s made. Further, that name tells a consumer exactly why it has a unique taste.

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The INAO also dictates and protects where and how specialized foods are made, including cheese, such as Roquefort, which was notably the first French product in which authenticity was tethered to terroir in 1411; hot dried peppers, such as Piment d’Espelette; and even a specific chestnut from Ardèche. Still, the vast majority of these protections are bestowed to the formidable French wine industry. There are more than 300 viticulture AOCs in France, the first of which was argued for — and given to — the vintners at Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the Cotes du Rhone (which is its own AOC) in 1937. Often the designations are named for regions, but they can get more nuanced than that. Take, for example, La Romanée, the smallest AOC in France, with only a 2.1-acre plot of grapes. This vineyard in Burgundy produces one of the world’s most sought-after pinot noirs.

The minutiae for the AOC designation can be strict and comprehensive, from growing and planting density regulations to aging processes. Yet, taste can be surprisingly nuanced even among fellow producers of the same designation. The products are monitored and tasted by local experts often with close ties to the producers; an imperfect control for a rigorous set of standards.



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