What French Winemakers Can Teach Us About Our Land
In French winemaking, land plays as big a part in the finished wine as the grapes do. Here’s why we should learn their philosophy of respecting the land.
There is a term in the winemaking world: Terroir. It’s the idea that land influences the outcome of the wine. There could be two plots of land side-by-side, same grapes growing, but the wines will have completely different flavor profiles, even if they’re tended to in the same way. This idea is also true of all kinds of other things, from scallops to mushrooms, that where they’re grown influences the end result.
It’s for this reason that wines of some regions, like Burgundy, are more prized than others.
History and geography matter
In traditional winemaking and agriculture, all kinds of things can influence flavor outcomes. Perhaps that plot of land next door was ground-zero of a rockfall centuries ago, and today the soil is the result of centuries of churning that rockfall debris into the soil, creating perfect drainage for the vines while also exposing it to sun-baked-stones that result in a smoky complexity for a bold red wine.
Maybe there’s a wind that channels through the valley and hits that plot just perfectly every single night, cooling off the grapes and keeping the wine acidic and crisp.
There are so many factors that influence the outcome of those grapes that it’s as much art and fortune of geography as it is science to help those yields reach their best.
All land is not equal
“Terroir” is an idea that we’ve not really embraced in North America. We like to think land is universal. This soil is that soil is that soil — it’s all soil. Our inability to realize ecosystems influence produce tends to play right into the hands of big business, both in development and in agriculture.
It’s in Big Food’s favor that we fail to celebrate terroir and how it influences food. It’s easier to crank out generic blueberries than to admit that any one farmer might be better managing his crops than others and creating something superior to that which could be grown by Big Agriculture.
And that’s too bad. Some agricultural regions are special, and we’re losing more and more of them as cities sprawl.
Tasty legacies lost(?)
The reality is, when quality farmland is bought up and turned into homes, we lose what might have been a uniquely opportune place to grow certain foods.
But here’s the thing. The land isn’t completely gone. It’s just been parcelled up. Perhaps your property was once great farmland. Maybe that tasty legacy is still under your feet. Maybe there are centuries of natural history waiting to be untapped beneath your yard.
Have you ever inquired with local archives, the library, and agricultural communities to see what perhaps might have thrived once where you are?
What if your very own grounds have the predisposition to produce amazing potatoes or strawberries? What untold agricultural secrets have you yet to discover about your property?
Winning with “victory gardens”
Today, growing your own food is becoming a sought-after practice for many. Often we think in terms of what it is we’d like to eat, what we’d like to see in our fridge, before we plant. The idea of terroir, though, is that the land should help you decide what crops are best-suited for your conditions, as opposed to you pre-deciding what to plant and then just going ahead with it.
If you’ve got a larger yard and would like to know more about your land and the conditions it offers, it might be wise to do your research to find out the history of what was where you are, how that can work well with crops that could be productive on your land, and you may even want to call in a consultation from a local agricultural expert.
Understanding the lay of the land
Whether your property is shaded, sunny, well-drained, damp, or whatever the situation is, there’s always going to be something you can do to grow some food. With proper research, an understanding of the conditions your land offers, knowledge of local history, and maybe some input from local greenthumbs in the know, this could be the year that you find out the perfect agricultural use for your terroir.