If a recent article in the New York Times‘ Style Magazine is right, then everything you think you know about terroir may be wrong. The article — Talk Dirt to Me — takes aim at some long-held thinking about the stuff that makes a wine’s flavor what it is: dirt.

When terroir was first associated with wine, in the 17th-century phrase goût de terroir (literally, “taste of the earth”), it was not intended as a compliment. Its meaning began to change in 1831, when Dr. Morelot, a wealthy landowner in Burgundy, observed in his “Statistique de la Vigne Dans le Département de la Côte-d’Or” that all of the wineries in Burgundy made wine essentially the same way, so the reason some tasted better than others must be due to the terroir — specifically, the substrata underneath the topsoil of a vineyard. Wine, he claimed, derived its flavor from the site’s geology: in essence, from rocks.

The concept of terroir is not the sole domain of the wine enthusiast, and neither are those misconceptions that may have commingled with it. The world of specialty coffee, too, has long grokked the notion of a “taste of place,” though its interpretation is frequently more nuanced, less rigidly constructionist than it appears in the world of wine.

In recent years, the concept that one can taste rocks and soil in a wine has become popular with wine writers, importers and sommeliers. “Wines express their source with exquisite definition,” asserts Matt Kramer in his book “Making Sense of Wine.” “They allow us to eavesdrop on the murmurings of the earth.” Of a California vineyard’s highly regarded chardonnays, he writes, there is “powerful flavor of the soil: the limestone speaks.” The sommelier Paul Grieco, in his wine list at Hearth in New York, writes of rieslings that “the glory of the varietal is in its transparency, its ability to truly reflect the soil in which it is grown.” In his February newsletter, Kermit Lynch, one of the most respected importers of French wine, returns repeatedly to the stony flavors in various white wines from a “terroirist” winemaker in Alsace: “When he speaks of a granitic soil, the wine in your glass tastes of it.”

When a “greenie” — a buyer of green coffees (as opposed to a “brownie,” or roaster of those coffees) — talks of terroir, he or she almost invariably takes a more holistic point of view than a vintner. To be sure, rocks and dirt have a starring role: rich, well-drained soil — not infrequently volcanic in origin — is a must for any region suitable for growing specialty coffee.Coffee seedlings in the rich, volcanic soil of Antigua, Guatemala But a greenie is keenly and necessarily aware of other elements that are not, strictly speaking, goût de terroir.

Consider Guatemala. Of Guatemala’s seven distinctive coffee growing regions, four — Atitlan, Antigua, Fraijanes and San Marcos — have highly enriched volcanic soils, naturally, as each is practically encircled by active volcanoes. Two — Huehuetenango and Coban — are comprised largely of limestone soils, and one — Oriente — features metamorphic rock (stuff that’s formed from ancient and extinct volcanoes) and clay.

The nascent terroirist might reasonably assume that Guatemala’s four volcanic growing regions would most closely share flavor characteristics, or that coffees from Huehuetenango and Coban would invoke a shared something on the palate. Reasonable, yes. But wrong.

The savvy greenie knows that terroir only begins with soil. Rainfall plays a significant role; among Guatemala’s volcanic regions alone, annual rainfall measures vary from as little as 800mm a year (Antigua) to as much as 5000mm (San Marcos.) Temperature and humidity factor in, too, but arguably the most significant element isn’t elemental… it’s altitude. Among Guatemala’s specialty coffee growing regions, altitudes vary from as low as 1,300 meters to as high as 2000 meters (or 4,300 to 6,500 feet). Where coffee is concerned, higher is better. In fact, the difference between low-gown and high-grown coffee in the same coffee growing region is often the defining difference between run-of-the-mill commodity-grade coffee (destined for a can of pre-ground… something) and specialty-grade beans destined for a lofty coffee emporium.

A nagging question remains, however, for coffee enthusiasts as for wine lovers: is terroir a “direct expression of nature,” alone? Of earth and rock? Of rain and wind and sun? Of altitude? What of the coffee grower? What about processing and milling and drying the coffee bean? What about roasting (and when are the brownies gonna get some respect?)

Okay, that’s more than one nagging question. That’s a bunch. And I’ll try to address each and every one in my next installment. 😉

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