Everything You've Always Wanted To Know About Terroir But Were Afraid To Ask
Terroir (Ter-wär) is a term that is thrown around a lot these days in the spirits world. Any number of luxury spirit brands claim to exhibit Terroir, which in most cases they seem to define as a sense of place. When the definition is that vague, who can argue with them? Does Kentucky bourbon truly exhibit the essence and taste of Kentucky? Or does it taste like Kentucky because we drink it when we’re in Kentucky? Or is it just because we’ve seen advertisements featuring Matthew McConaughey walking along the Kentucky River in the early morning sun, touting the “Great American invention we know as Bourbon”?
Basically, is Terroir just a feeling? Well... no. However, it’s complicated and can be hard to define. The idea of Terroir rose out of the observations made by French winemakers over the centuries that grapes grown and wine made in different places (even from the same kind of grape) exhibited very different characteristics. The soil and specific environmental elements contributed essential qualities to the end product that couldn’t be precisely reproduced in another region. This eventually led to the establishment of the appellation d'origine contrôlée(AOC) laws passed in the early 20th century, which officially granted certification to agricultural products grown under certain governing laws in certain defined regions, in order to preserve the traditional methods and environmental influence that made these products special. This is why not just any brandy can be Cognac and why not just any sparkling wine can be Champagne. There are similar “Designation of Origin” laws that developed in other European countries and even some in North America.
Wine has an established history with the idea of terroir, and a pretty solid definition: “The environmental conditions, especially soil and climate, in which grapes are grown and that give a wine its unique flavor and aroma”. So in the truest, strictest sense, Terroir has everything to do with the environmental impact on the raw material as it grows, and how that impacts the nature of the final product.
Many wine acolytes claim spirits cannot truly exhibit this kind of terroir because the act of distillation alters and removes the end product too far from the original crop and the influence of the environment on it. After all, the fermentation to produce wine can happen without human intervention, while distillation requires machines and the touch of human hand. Others say that many spirits still show terroir, but the definition should be expanded, as certain distillation methods retain more of the raw material’s quality, the origin of the water used can alter the product, and the aging process in barrel aged spirits also imparts influence from the surrounding environment. Still others argue that all talk of terroir is BS and it’s just a romantic notion to associate these products more closely and poetically to where they come from. It’s a heated argument, but an interesting one, and potentially a very important one. So let’s look at some spirits that exemplify terroir in some fashion, from the most traditional, wine-friendly definition, all the way to terroir by design, where botanicals and raw materials are added specifically to evoke a certain place.
Rhum Agricole is rum made in Martinique (with a French AOC designation), produced using fresh pressed sugar cane juice, rather than molasses, which is a byproduct of sugar production. This arguably makes Rhum Agricole naturally exhibit terroir to a much greater extent than most rums, as it is one step closer to the raw material. In general the character of these rums is fresher and grassier than their molasses based cousins, particularly the unaged, blanc varieties.
Trois Rivieres make two blanc Rhums, their standard Blanc and the Cuvee de L’Ocean. What sets the Cuvee apart is that it is produced from sugar cane grown on the far south coast of Martinique, directly next to the ocean. Growing in this coastal environment exposes the cane to sea spray, which imparts a briny character that sets the rum apart from its sibling, their standard blanc. The difference in aroma and taste between the two otherwise identical rums is significant, and for my money clearly demonstrates that true terroir in distilled spirits is certainly possible. The salty brine quality plays beautifully with the notes of tropical fruit and grassy flavors also present in the rum. This is a great bottle to explore and compare alongside more traditional Rhum Agricoles, showing the wild effects of terroir on a spirit.
“Estate produced” is a term we often hear thrown around about wine, but unfortunately not very often about spirits. Basically this means that the entire production process is done in one place. So for a brandy like Armagnac this means the grapes are grown in that estate’s vineyards, they ferment the juice, distill it, age it, and bottle it. Certainly seems like the perfect situation for some serious terroir.
Chateau de Pellehaut is located in the Armagnac-Tenareze appellation, which is slightly higher in altitude than the Bas-Armagnac, and also sits on a terrain of limestone and clay, as opposed to Bas-Armagnac’s sand. This produces a rustic, slightly rough around the edges spirit that sets itself apart from the softer, fruitier Armagnacs of the other appellations.
Chateau de Pellehaut’s “Selection” bottling is a particularly young Armagnac, aged 5 years and made from 100% Folle Blanche grapes. It's bottled with the possibility of making cocktails in mind, but it’s young age also makes it a great candidate to truly taste the raw character. The strong spice notes, balanced with sweet fruit set it clearly apart from Armagnacs from the Bas-Armagnac or the Haut-Armagnac. This is the benefit of designation of origin laws such as France’s AOC: organized and transparent classification allows us to not only taste the difference in terroir and production methods, but also easily understand clearly how and why they are different.
This bottle also gets to the idea of “Estate Produced” and how that would seem to naturally create spirits that exhibit terroir. While not being truly Estate Produced, it’s about as close as it gets in the Whisky world. Springbank is one of the very few independent Scotch distilleries left, having avoided being gobbled up by one of the many multinational beverage conglomerates, and they still don’t add any flavor or coloring additives, and don’t chill filter their whisky.
Along with an even smaller handful from that small handful of independent distilleries, Springbank carries out the whole whisky making process on their premises, from the malting of the barley (using traditional floor malting methods) to the bottling. The only part of the process they don’t oversee at the distillery is of course the growing of the barley, as they are not a farm. They are one essential step short of being Estate produced. So for their regular bottlings (which include the Longrow and Hazelburn labels) the barley is sourced from an unnamed location. However, for their special release Local Barley expressions, the barley comes from West Back Farms, just a short walk from the distillery. This makes the end product a true Campbeltown whisky, arguably exhibiting terroir by default, from the soil that grows the barley, to the aging in ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks just a couple miles away, right next to the coast.
Mezcal is perhaps uniquely suited amongst spirits to express terroir. It may be hard to imagine a cocktail scene without Mezcal, but ten years ago, there were very few Mezcals available outside of Mexico, and almost nobody in the US was drinking them. Now there are super hip bars in seemingly every major city devoted entirely to Mezcal, cultivating both a sipping culture (sipping from the appropriate “copita” of course) and a cocktail culture. It has exploded in popularity, and independent bottlers are popping up all over the place, developing business partnerships with small producers who have been making the stuff for generations for friends, family and their local community.
Unlike basically every other spirit category, Mezcal isn’t dominated by huge producers that aim for consistency of product for international distribution. A lot of Mezcal isn’t even made in what most of us would think of as a traditional distillery. Oftentimes it’s made from start to finish, from planting the Agave all the way to the bottling, by one person, called a Mezcalero, at their small “palenque”, or production house. They grow the Agave (or in some situations harvest wild Agave), they roast the piñas (hearts) in earthen pits, they grind the piñas (many still use stone wheels turned by a horse), they ferment the mash, distill it in small copper or clay pot stills, and bottle it. It’s all local (how could it be anything else), and can be pretty different from batch to batch. This isn’t looked upon as a flaw, but rather what makes it interesting and exciting. That’s terroir.
Mezcal Vago’s Mexicano is produced by Mezcalero Aquilino Garcia from the wild grown Mexicano Agave. This Agave takes 8-10 years to mature before it can be harvested, and is native to the hillside it grows on. The resulting Mezcal is silky and fruity, with notes of peach and spices. If the popularity of Mezcal continues to skyrocket, it’s hard to imagine we’ll be able to easily find ones like this for very long, although they are protected by designation of origin laws not unlike France’s AOC. But just in case, perhaps we should soak up the terroir while it lasts.
Terroir By Design
Another way to look at terroir, and one that defies the strict, wine derived definition, is that of terroir by design. Herbal liqueurs have, for centuries, been expressing a strong sense of place by incorporating local herbs and botanicals, truly giving taste to a place.
Herbal liqueurs have always been produced throughout Europe, but have been celebrated perhaps most heartily in the Aperitivo and Digestivo culture of Italy (and France as well), in their bittersweet Amari. An Amaro (Italian for “bitter”) is any Liqueur that uses a maceration of various herbs, and almost always involves a bitter element (hence the name), generally Gentian root, Chinchona bark, or bitter orange peel. The other herbs and botanicals are generally particular to the area, and the liqueurs retain a strong association with the village they hail from. Traveling throughout Italy, it’s hard to find a town or village without their own proprietary Amaro, and you would be foolish to pass up an opportunity to drink these delightful potions on their home turf.
Braulio is an Amaro that has been made in the town of Bormio, in the Alps near the Swiss border, since 1826. It’s in the Alpine style, and although most Amari keep their blend of herbs a closely guarded secret, we know it at least contains gentian, juniper, wormwood, and yarrow. The taste is definitively alpine, sharing many flavors with other alpine Amari and herbal liqueurs, but is also distinctly its own. It has a minty character that is both heavy and refreshing, and lingers into a long bitter finish. Not terroir in a true sense, but I defy anyone to take a sip of Braulio without feeling like they are hiking high up in the alps.
Gin can also exemplify this terroir by design idea, taking a column distilled neutral spirit (in most cases), and distilling it a second time in a pot still with various botanicals suspended in a basket in the head of the still, infusing the spirit with their flavor during the second distillation. London Dry style gins generally stick to a few standard ingredients, such as juniper (a required ingredient for any gin), citrus peel, Angelica root, and orris root. Modern gins often like to step out a bit, however, and use botanicals that are redolent of the area they are produced in.
One of the most notable and unique examples of this is St. George Spirits’ aptly named Terroir Gin, which is flavored with botanicals that are all commonly found on and in the area surrounding Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County, California. These include Douglas fir, bay laurel, and coastal sage, which combine to create a deeply herbaceous and earthy gin. It really tastes like you’ve taken a sip straight out of California’s rugged coastline, rocks, trees, and all. Certainly not an ordinary gin, and not one to be called for in an ordinary drink, but rather to bring a kind of newfangled sense of terroir to cocktails. And the winos will just have to deal with it.