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Terroir: What does this typical French word mean?

Terroir: What does this typical French word mean?

Published on December 15, 2011
Terroir is the French notion that represents at the same time specific geological, hydrological, soil and climatic characteristics and human influence (savoir-faire). Agriculture is the heart of the expression of Terroir.
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Terroir, a magical French word! French people talk about it all the time - how much terroir is important for the quality of a wine or a cheese, how a recipe is a recette de terroir … But what exactly do we mean when we use this word?

terroir is a mix between a geographical definition and a cultural one. It is a geographical area with specific geological, hydrological, soil and climate characteristics. But it is more than that. The terroir has a strong cultural side. It is the reflection of the human societies that work its land. Different societies produce different terroir with the same territory. The notion of terroir is strongly linked with agricultural production. Indeed, agriculture is also the reflection of the natural conditions and the ways human societies work with them. Making the most of one’s land is the common goal of farmers and the heart of the notion of terroir.

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Terroir : a combination of land specificity and human savoir-faire
Source: French Ministry of Agriculture

To give a more practical example, let’s focus on a French cheese like Roquefort. It can only be produced in a small area, because the natural conditions influence the grass and flora that the sheep eat and therefore the milk they produce. But it is also the “savoir faire” of the people from the area of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon and the way that they make the cheese that is inimitable. The combination of those two factors, geophysical and human, make that Roquefort can only be produced in this specific “terroir.”

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Roquefort Cheese AOC
Source: French Ministry of Agriculture - Pascal Xicluna

The most striking example remains wines terroir. In France, people don’t only refer to wines according to the type of grape they were made of but principally according to the terroir. Indeed, some natural conditions like the type of soil or the exposition to the sun or what is called microclimate have a great influence on the quality of the wine. The area where the grape grew and the methods of its production (put in barrels or not, how long …), the art of making wine – “l’art d’élaborer le vin” - are essential factors. This is the reason why there are so many names for our French wines. Every area is unique and therefore deserves to be recognized for its own value.

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Source: French Ministry of Agriculture

Terroir is also an important tradition to pass on. The skills require making a special product, a recipe using ingredients from a special area like cassoulet (southwest of France) or choucroute (East of France). Therefore, French people as well as policy makers want to preserve this amazing heritage. The creation of denomination of origin, or the compilation of terroir recipes through the National Program for Food are examples of the actions keeping this tradition and notion alive!

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Sheep at Mont Saint Michel
Source: French Ministry of Agriculture - Xavier Remongin

You might also be interested in these articles:
- The French “art de vivre”: The Special Bond of French People with their Food
- The National Program for Food: A Government Action - Eating well is everyone’s business
- Diversity and Quality symbols: The Agricultural Roots that make French Cuisine so Special
- The Hidden World of Parisian Wines (Video)

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48,9% of French production is under a controlled designation of origin