LittleField Notes: Some Notes on Terroir
by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
If you want to start an argument in the wine world – and believe me, it’s not hard to do – all you have to do is mention the word terroir.
– Eric Asimov – New York Times
Grand Cru Schoenenbourg
“La Belle Colline”
Grand Cru: From the French, literally, great growth. More broadly – a wine of the highest grade, or the vineyard from which it was produced.
The Schoenenbourg grows the most noble wine in this country.
- Noted by Swiss cartographer Mattäus Merian in 1663.
It is October 2022, the Alsace region of eastern France. The rain slows and finally stops. I pause and fold my umbrella, briefly taking in the expansive countryside stretching out below and before me. The darkening evening mutes the already subdued grays and reds of the sandstone walls and buildings of the medieval village of Requewir several hundred feet below. In spectacular contrast to the darkening village, the autumn leaves on the grape vines in the surrounding hills and valleys glow golden in the dying light. I pause only for a moment, not wanting to lose the train of words from our guide Veronique; although her walking pace is leisurely, the pace of her words is anything but, and all of it interesting. We are a small group, come to this special hillside to experience first hand a ‘grand cru’ vineyard, in this case, the famous Schoenenbourg. As I gaze out over the rooftops I recall the etching that Veronique showed us as we gathered for the tour. It depicted the hillside where we now stand, but from the viewpoint of the village, hundreds of years ago. Startlingly, the scene is virtually unchanged: a picturesque, walled village tucked into vineyards planted on the folds and creases of the surrounding hills. I think of time and space, constancy, and the single minded dedication to perfection that has been viticulture in this place for longer than memory.
I am snapped back to the present when I realize that Veronique has stopped the group and is describing in detail the various soils found on this hillside and how they relate to the greater geology of this region of transition, where the Vosges mountains meet the plain of Alsace. She speaks with intimate knowledge of the alternating strata of sandstone, marle, and gypsum that form the basis of this hillside; a remarkable diversity of soils for such a small footprint. Veronique tells us which grapes do best in which type of soil, and how each soil type will affect the flavor and aroma of the resultant wine. She speaks with love and affection as she describes each parcel of the hillside. It is as if she is describing sections of a quilt, that she herself has hand stitched from pieces of old fabric passed down from her grandmother, each square pregnant with significance. Her knowledge is not merely academic, but familial, indigenous, inseparable from her identity; her family has been making wine here for generations. As we approach the far side of the vineyard, we pause and light festive, paper shrouded candle lanterns and walk down the path through the woods in the gathering darkness.
When at last we arrive back at the village, the rain is coming down again in earnest and darkness has fallen. We are led down a narrow, cobblestone side street, through a stone archway, across a courtyard, through a substantial wooden door with massive hand forged hinges and into an ancient wine cellar. We gather around several upright oak barrels, which serve as tables where we are afforded the rare treat of tasting three vintages of riesling harvested from the same slopes of the Schoenenbourg we have just walked. Until the moment when I took my first sip, I had a sort of academic concept of terroir and its potential to affect flavor and aroma of a wine, but I was completely awestruck by the way three different vintages, from the same hillside, from the same grapes, each showing distinct individuality, one from the other. Yes, all were riesling, that much was clear, but each showed different levels of acidity, texture, aroma; each unique in its expression of the vineyard across different seasons; each played out within its own way, like three productions of Hamlet, played out by three different actors on three different stages.
The experience of that evening, on the Schoenenbourg is not one I will soon forget, filled as it was with the magic of place, the perfection of farming, and elevation of craftsmanship — experienced in a single sip of wine.
It is summer of 1986; I am 16 years old and working for Kayo Robertson, a local beekeeper. We sit side by side, dangling our legs off the side of the flat bed of his red 1944 Ford farm truck. The supers we collected this morning are stacked behind us and bursting with honey. As we enjoy tuna sandwiches and honey sweetened lemonade, Kayo names the various wild flowers dotting the picturesque meadow where we are parked, the same flowers, that produced the honey we have just collected. He speaks in his quiet way of the importance of diversity, of nature and man’s relationship to it, and of course, of bees, honey, flowers, pollen and such. We are taking our lunch a little distance from the active hives so the bees don’t trouble us, nor we them. I don’t realize at the time, but doing this work, and listening to Kayo’s words, will have no small effect on fueling my future passion for farming.
The following day finds us in the honey house extracting the golden nectar from the hives robbed yesterday. As I scrape the honey-laden comb into a bucket with a hot iron, I pop a good sized piece in my mouth, sucking out the honey and chewing on the comb: a sensational experience of texture and flavor, all molten sunshine, floral essence; a distillation of the very nature of the wildflowers of a single meadow, nurtured by the warmth of the sun of a particular summer. On some level I knew, without actually knowing, that I was getting my first taste of terroir. And it was thrilling.
So what is terroir exactly?
First, a word about what terroir is not. Terroir is not to be found in the products of industry. Industry by default, suppresses, masks, and eliminates any trace of terroir that may have once existed in any of its products. Terroir is not homogenized, pasteurized, pressurized, sanitized, denatured, reconstituted, fumigated, waxed, or otherwise adulterated. Industrial farming is the death of terroir.
Terroir is a French word for which the English translation is terroir. Not very helpful, I know. The word finds its root in the Latin terra, meaning earth. Terroir then starts with terra, but adds to it the complex implications of weather, climate, and soil. Terroir is the eventual expression, in the form of culinary experience (French- dégustation) of the taste, texture, and aroma of a final agricultural product. It is a beautiful recognition of the character and individuality of a specific place, reflected in the food, and drink that finds its way into the glass or onto the plate.
I say “food and drink,” but the truth is, terroir is most frequently mentioned in reference to drink, and more specifically: wine. According to Miriam-Webster, terroir is “the combination of factors including soil, climate, and sunlight that gives wine grapes their distinctive character.” Soil, climate, sunlight: sounds like farming to me. Yet people do not generally think of vineyards when they think of farming, nor do they think of farming when they think of wine. In the minds of too many consumers, wine is divorced from farming. I know many people who will seek out, and pay a premium for organic produce, free range eggs, grass fed beef; maybe they belong to a CSA, know the name of their farmer and have a “hug a farmer” bumper sticker on the back of their car. Despite this general elevated awareness regarding food and farming, these same people often think nothing of buying a bottle of poorly made, cheap industrial wine. There is a disconnect here which I don’t entirely understand, though I have some ideas. It’s true that wine has a certain high society element associated with it, and not wanting to appear “snobby,” these folks pride themselves on drinking Two Buck Chuck out of a jelly jar. If they had any idea what went into the making of that wine, they would throw it out as quickly as they would a liter of Diet Coke or a package of Twinkies. I also suspect it has something to do with our lack of wine drinking tradition as it exists in Europe. We simply do not have centuries of winegrowing heritage in the United States and, as such do not have a strong cultural basis, for recognizing its qualities. Lastly, we have an uneasy relationship with alcohol in general, going back to our Puritan founding, and eventually expressed by the popularity of various temperance movements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, culminating in the grand failure that was Prohibition. While it’s true that abuse of alcohol can cause serious problems in people’s lives, wine and other alcoholic beverages, when enjoyed appropriately, have played an integral part of the human culinary, cultural, and agricultural tradition for many thousands of years.
A Bit About Wine
Wine, from the Latin vinum, along with cheese was likely the first value added farm product, whereby a raw material, such as grapes or milk, is transformed into a product of much greater value. Wine, for its part is known to have been produced as long as 8,000 years ago in the Caucasus mountains in what is modern day Georgia. It spread rapidly throughout Europe in regions whose climate could support grape growing. This included the lands around the Mediterranean, and north as far as Champagne on the 49th parallel. Juice pressed from grapes is transformed into wine by the action of yeasts and bacteria in a kind of biological alchemy: from raw, perishable agricultural product— grapes, into a stable, complex beverage, prized over the millennia above all others. Indeed, wine has been at the heart of religion and culture for centuries. For example, in Christianity, it was the subject of Jesus’ first miracle. At the wedding at Cana, when the wine jugs came up empty, he saved the day by turning ordinary water into wine. And the chalice of wine, along with bread, formed the centerpiece of the Last Supper, and it remains central to Christian ritual in the form of Communion up to the present day. At a Jewish wedding it is common for the couple to drink wine from the same glass symbolizing their shared commitment and the joy that will follow. Wine holds an important place in secular ceremony as well, in the form of New Year’s toasts, the christening of a new ship, or simply “raising a glass” in honor of the memory or achievement of an important individual or organization.
Raising a cheap glass at a wedding or smashing a bottle of bubbles on the hull of a new boat is not the best place to discover terroir in wine. For that you could do worse than exploring the white wines from the French region of Burgundy, and the sparkling wines of Champagne, which demonstrate a remarkable chalky minerality, derived directly from the limestone soil in which they grow. Or taste the distinct saltiness in a glass of Loire Valley muscadet made from grapes grown within sight of the sea. It is uncanny how one can taste the actual essence of stone, salt, or mineral in a glass of fermented grape juice. The complexity of terroir deepens further yet when one considers aspects of climate, moisture, and seasonal differences from one year to the next. A pinot noir made in California with its hot summers and irrigated vineyards will taste very differently than a pinot grown in the cool, dry-farmed foothills of the Alps. The best wine is produced when climate and soil type combine agreeably with growing, harvesting, and vinification; that is to say, where the work in the vineyard, and the work in the cellar support, in a harmonious fashion, the terroir of a specific place.
I was thinking of terroir and its implications when I considered the notion of planting my own vineyard. For years I have resisted the idea altogether. Puget Sound with its cool maritime climate is far from an ideal grape growing region. Also the farm, which receives about 70 inches of rain per year, is situated between a ridge and a river. All that water coming off the hillside finds its way eventually to the river, and to do so it must traverse our fields and woods in one manner or another. This is excellent for my pastures, hayfields, and garden, whose roots reach easily down to profit from the shallow, ground water, and so remain green long into the dry months of July and August. Yet these are far from ideal conditions for growing grapes, at least those intended for the making of wine. Of course the grapevines themselves would relish the notion of dipping their roots into a steady stream of water, indeed I have several table grape vines growing on the orchard fence which do just that, growing vast quantities of foliage and plenty of plump grapes full of juice. Plump, full, and abundant makes for good fresh eating, but does not make for quality wine. The best wine has intense aromas and concentrated flavors, made possible when grapevines experience a certain amount of hydrologic stress during the growing season. Grapevines are extremely hearty, and perform well in marginal soil with low fertility and scant water. Although it turns conventional agricultural practice on its head, these are exactly the conditions that produce the best wine.
Alas, contemplating my highly fertile, naturally irrigated fields, I had given up the idea of planting a vineyard. It was my wife Liz who came to my rescue when she pointed out the fact that the mysterious hill behind the farmhouse, (which exists for no apparent reason, geologic, or otherwise), might make a perfect little vineyard. I have never bothered much with it, having let it simply turn into an impenetrable blackberry bramble. In fact, the hill meets all of the criteria for creating a vineyard: it is sloped, drains well, has stones and rocks, and features a perfect wrap-around east-to-southwest exposure, perfect for ripening grapes in our cool climate.
Creating a vineyard is not a short term prospect, but rather a lifetime project. It can even be a legacy project: some vineyards are still producing after 75 or even 100 years. We began by clearing the blackberries in the fall of 2021 a full year and a half before any grapes were to be planted. Using a walk behind brush hog we mowed the berries and followed up with a special mattock designed for ripping out blackberry roots. It is nearly impossible to get every piece of root pulled, but any further growth can be controlled by timely, repeated mowing. Last spring I took the ferry to Bainbridge Island Vineyards, a lovely, horse powered island winery, where I took cuttings of pinot noir and madeleine angevine, two grape varietals that do well in our cool climate. I nursed them in the garden last summer and by the time you read this, I will have planted them out on the hill in eager anticipation of my first harvest two years hence.
As we have seen, terroir in wine is a well established and accepted concept, and it was certainly evident in the mountain honey I was extracting all those years ago, but what about other crops? Is it possible to identify the effects of terroir in grains, livestock, vegetables? I think the answer is certainly yes, though its effects will perhaps be less marked. There is no reason to think that the forces of terroir would not be present in any number of crops. Soil is an incredibly complex, dynamic, and mysterious medium we are only just beginning to understand. Add to this the endless variables of weather and climate and we see that terroir is not so easily defined. Science is uncomfortable with such vague, subjective, even mystical notions. I am convinced that if the effects of terroir are clearly apparent in wine, why would they not apply, even if, in subtle ways, to nearly every plant or animal that we nurture on the farm.
I have noted over the years, that grass finished beef can be a strong purveyor of terroir. In recent months I have enjoyed rib steak from cattle finished on the Laramie plains, the Montana mountains, as well as our own northwest rainforest beef. Each was different in its own way, none “better“ than another. Our beef is deeply red, rich, and delicious. Most years our cattle are able to graze some green grass year round. These conditions I think, give a certain freshness to the meat. If it was a wine, I would call it a Cru Beaujolais, or an Oregon pinot noir, fresh and vibrant, beefy and savory, but not overly heavy. The Laramie Plains beef, finished on browned out, shortgrass, prairie, would perhaps be a Châteauneufdu- Pape, with notes of dried fruits and a long dry finish. The Montana beef, meanwhile, I found to be a perfectly classic expression of beefyness, like that most classic of red wines, Bordeaux, balanced, harmonious, forthright, but not overpowering, with perhaps a bit less overt character than the other two.
At blossom time, in the spring of the year, I sometimes brew a Belgian inspired farmhouse style beer that I call orchard ale. Because of the staggering diversity of indigenous yeasts that exist in the natural world, and the fact that I use all homegrown ingredients, one could follow my recipe exactly, and obtain quite different results on other farms in other locations. I start by brewing a basic beer made from farm grown barley, hard red wheat, and hops. Normally in brewing, after the mash of grains has boiled, it is cooled rapidly and commercial yeast is added. Instead, to make orchard ale, I pour the wort (unfermented beer) into a coolship, a large open top stainless vessel (my small-scale 5 gallon version is intended for making large batches of sauerkraut or such). I place the coolship under the flowering apple trees in the orchard, where the wort cools slowly overnight, drawing in the indigenous yeasts living in and around the flowers of the orchard. The following morning the wort is poured into an oak barrel and tucked away in a shed. After a couple of weeks, just like magic, the airlock will begin to bubble away as the wort spontaneously begins to ferment. In June, I pick a pound or two of wild cherries, and add them directly to the barrel. The additional yeasts found on the skins of the fruit reinvigorate the fermentation, and add to the development, and complexity of flavor. The fermentation will go on at a leisurely pace for a year or so before I finally bottle it with a little honey or sugar to create a secondary fermentation in the bottle which will create carbonation, after which, if everything has gone well, I will have an ale of terroir, each batch, unique, sour, fruity, and a bit funky in all the best ways.
In the fall, I make apple cider from the apples in the orchard, again by spontaneous fermentation. After pressing, the natural yeasts on the skins of the apples begin their transformative work. The process proceeds at nature’s pace for almost a year and more, until, after aging and bottling, the cider will at last be ready to drink.
I am fascinated by the ethereal link connecting these two seasonal orchard beverages. Friends have remarked that my beer has a certain cider like quality, no doubt the result of the native yeast strains found in the orchard. In fermentation I try to stay out of the way and simply let the fruits of the farm express themselves naturally, with no more than a gentle nudge and a tender push. In doing so, I feel a certain mystical connection to the beginnings of agriculture, and the expression, through fermentation, of the elemental terroir of the farm.
Garlic and Me
I planted my first garlic crop back in 1996 in a high mountain valley of western Wyoming. I was given my original seed stock from a friend who had been growing it in the valley for many years. As such it had become well adapted to a cool, short growing season. Despite certain misgivings about its potential adaptability, I brought the garlic along with me when I moved to the Pacific Northwest, to a climate completely unlike the one we were both accustomed to. Suddenly, we no longer had to contend with six months of snow cover, low humidity, wind, and large swings in temperature. We found ourselves instead confronted not with six months of snow, but six months of rain, followed by a long, creeping, temperate spring, and cool summers, with very little diurnal temperature swing.
Garlic is an intimate crop to grow; it needs me as much as I need it. I require its dazzle in my food, and its constancy to anchor my gardening life, across seasons and years. Since garlic long ago lost its ability to produce seeds, it relies on me to break open the biggest heads every October, and lovingly plant each clove, root side down in moist rich earth. Then like tucking in a child, spread a generous blanket of mulch on each bed in preparation for its long winter sleep. And like that child who wakes unreasonably early, and smiling large, pokes her head into her parents’ room and announces the day, youthful garlic plants poke their daring shoots out of their beds in mid-February, announcing spring, long before it is prudent to do so.
The terroir of an Alpine valley with alkaline soil, and the acidic soil of a Northwest river bottom at sea level, could not be more different. Naturally, almost imperceptibly with the passage of time, my garlic and I have changed. We have adapted and continue to adapt. We have been changed and continue to change. In stature, we are slightly diminished; we have become milder, with less bite and more delicatesse, yet we remain steadfast in our commitment to becoming at home in this terra, this terroir; a continual homecoming.