When exploring the history of French wine, the concept of terroir has been used as both a definition for a specific wine’s category within the market and a reflection on the quality of the drink. No matter how wine connoisseurs approach the definition of terroir, it cannot be separated from French wine.
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The unique qualities that have been attributed to the drink represent its integral character and have been used as an explanation of one of the reasons for the current downfall of French wine on the global market of the recent few decades. Therefore, studying the reasons for terroir being used for identifying French wine and the success behind this strategy is essential for understanding the conceivable contributory characteristics that made the product ideal in quality.
In the attempt to capture the economic outlook of France without putting its conservative traditions of culture, the country’s civil leaders embraced modern industrial practices. The exploration of the Burgundian cultural region led to the conception of an idealized “model of federated regional existence”.1 The appealing landscape of the region anchored the expectations of using its geography, rustic imagery, and folklore to create commercial links between regional marketing and popular practices. This is how the idea of terroir was born. According to the definition given by James Wilson, terroir is the “totality of the elements of the vineyard habitat” and mentioned that “Burgundians are very nearly Freudian about the influence of the soil in shaping the characters and the quality of their wine”2.
Therefore, terroir combines the characteristics inherent to the physical side of the region – vine, microclimate, drainage, subsoil, with the spiritual side – the joys, the pride in the craft of winemaking, the sweat of the workers, and the heartbreaks or frustrations that come with it.
The use of terroir as the practice of geographical determinism can explain both social and political practices in France that can be traced back to the sixteenth century. The logic behind terroir lies in capturing the local characteristic inherent to a particular wine and the ultimate quality of the product that is predominantly determined by the human experience accumulated over decades and even centuries. Burgundian wine was the target of the terroir strategy due to the region’s generosity and the plants that have grown there.
The most influential geographer of France, Vidal de la Blanche, wrote that Burgundy had “nutritious substances of the terroirs… [that] communicate a tasty vigor to plants, which passes on to men and animals.”3 In other parts of the country nature did not provide the environment for growing vine or the climate was generous, but people that tended to it were unsophisticated and made unremarkable wine.
For consumers, guaranteeing that a food product has a distinct place of origin grants a sense of authenticity that subsequently becomes an indicator of quality. The process of integrating place-based production into modern food production is an aspect of patrimonialization. The concept refers to the expression of interest associated with close connections between consumers, agricultural producers, traditional food products, and other aspects inherent to both regional and national heritage4.
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The protection of products made on authentic farms or wineries is seen as an effort of safeguarding them against extinction. Such a practice has been implemented not only in France but also in other European countries. However, it was in France where the philosophy of globalization and its impact on agriculture received the most opposition and critique. As mentioned by Gade, “this European land of artisan tradition, well-defined local specificity, and culinary refinement have led the world in the search for ways to ensure and develop authenticity of food production.”5 Thus, the uniqueness of France’s approach to agriculture dictates the approach of its population to the craft of winemaking.
Therefore, the idea of terroir was a completely intentional representation of the wine’s quality as being defined by specific artificial characteristics. Many who have explored the history of French wine pointed out the monopolistic and capitalistic practices. However, the practice of identifying wine based on its geographic origins is old, with high-prestige wine producers dictating market prices and protecting their commercial advantage against the competition from lower-prestige regions.6 While such a practice was used in the Middle Ages and onward, the commercialization of local names is a fairly recent practice.
Indeed, the concept of terroir has been widely debated and applied to a range of different situations as well as generated a variety of interpretations. Some have raised questions regarding whether the natural conditions and the role of wine growers, vignerons, could make a difference in the quality of the wine.7
Others have underlined the importance of terroir in shaping the unique and exclusionary value of Burgundy as a region known as the birthplace of high-quality French wine. Nevertheless, Burgundy and its terroir present a remarkable example of the contradictory influences of globalization as well as the complicated relationship between global and local environments. In most analyses of terroir’s role in shaping the culture of French wine, the combination of culture and nature has played a central role in the majority of analyses, suggesting that a globalized world can be seen as a culture without space.8 Overall, the reinforcement of exclusivity and the uniqueness of wine grown in Burgundy transformed into a selling point, a strategy that has worked for decades.
Selling Points of Terroir and Consumer Behaviors
Terroir has been perceived by consumers as the unique selling point that makes the wine worth purchasing. However, for winemakers, using the concept as the main marketing tactic is challenging due to its invariability. This means that there are no options available for changing the concept to cater to the needs of consumers. Rather, consumers were expected to tune their desires and expectations to what Burgundy has to offer. The entire rationale for effective marketing is significantly limited, leaving advertisers the only option – persuading potential clients that terroir is an important and desirable quality when it comes to purchasing wine.
The explanation behind this strategy is associated with the idea that wines with the brightest expression of terroir at the desirable price for customers will have the highest chances of being purchased. Thus, the aim of marketing is promoting terroir, which is a challenging notion for buyers to understand. The challenges associated with marketing terroir are linked to how well a consumer can evaluate its benefits from picking up a wine bottle.
The practices implemented for ensuring that people gain an interest in terroir as a unique selling point have been predominantly associated with creating an image of an authentic experience. An example of this is the image of Burgundy’s modernized vigneronne that was adopted by the Ministry of Agriculture and the 1937 Paris Exposition as “Marianne vandangeuse, the conventional anthropomorphization of France harvesting grapes.”9 The imagery was intended to appeal to a wide audience and communicate the richness that Burgundy offers in terms of vine production. The popularity of folkloric tropes inherent to the character of Marianne led to its modernization and the establishment of a place within the national agenda of Burgundy.
Controlled Appellation of Origin
The Controlled Appellation of Origin (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée; AOC) is important to understand in the discussion about the role of terroir in French winemaking. AOC is a system that has been widely used for regulating local traditions as well as promoting the interests of winegrowers and France in a globalized environment10. As a result of the system’s implementation, France’s integration into the global market became stronger and validated by the ‘drink better, but less’ campaign that AOC promoted.
In the 1960s, winegrowers supported by appellations had the opportunity to represent France within the global economy successfully. Instead of drinking industrial-grade wine, people drank more appellation wine but less overall, thus pointing to the success of the campaign. Regardless of the challenges, such as the 1976 triumph of Californian wine over French in the Paris Tasting, the appellation system transformed into a gold standard for international winemaking. Beginning in 1970, producers started obtaining appellation labels, which reduced its status significantly.
Therefore, the appellation system grew into a big business that increased the production of wine in terms of both industrial and AOC kinds. France remains one of the most impactful producers of wine, with policymakers (including European ones) continuing to subsidize efforts to “uproot vines and distill the oversupply for making spirits and for industrial use.”11 AOC can be considered as an invention of French policymakers to protect the wine production of the country from the first waves of European integration and the subsequent globalization.
The notion of terroir ties in with the AOC because both ideas share the same philosophy: addressing the economic and ethical issues that can arise from the modern industrial production system. Thus, the AOC represents a significant mark on global capitalism in terms of ensuring that France stays relevant in the context of wine production.
Terroir’s Success as a Strategy
Wine, which is the quintessential product of terroir, has received both symbolic and emotional appeal and served as both political and social tools in France of modern times. The culture of wine consumption and the geography of its most popular region became the main references for France’s identity at the beginning of the twentieth century. The effectiveness of terroir as the vehicle for characterizing French wine as an important player of the international industry.
Regionalism and folklore contributed to the shaping of the concept of terroir and giving it the appeal inherent to the identity of the French. In the 1920s, Gabriel Jeanton studied the phenomenon to reveal that the communal practices, traditions, folklore, the relations within urban and rural areas had all created an appealing image of the winemaking country. Importantly, traces of Celtic origin in France’s history have contributed to the ongoing tradition of winemaking that was made richer by longstanding traditions.
The experience of terroir helped Jeanton to “rediscover memories – happy times without a name – when, as a child, he would return with grape harvesters…” he also “remembered the wine days as merciless sources of happy memories.”12 Therefore, the spirit of the past enriched the concept of terroir and gave it a meaning that was different based on people’s perceptions, experiences, and knowledge of winemaking.
The effectiveness of terroir as a strategy is therefore rooted in the rich history of France and the neo-Romantic moral discourse attributed to the origins of the region as a whole. The connections between the work of peasants in the open fields of Burgundy and the agrarian folklore reinforced the labor practices. The imaginative and idyllic depictions of the village life of Burgundy created a storyline in which the terroir was shaped with the help of not only the geography but also rural folklore. The glorification of countryside values was unique to France and presented opposition to the modern trends and developments that came with globalization.
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If to evaluate the success of terrain as a strategy for identifying French wines, it must be mentioned that the categorization of wine based on its geographic location is not a long-lasting advantage. As evidenced by the 1976 tasting in Paris, terroir may not always represent the highest standard of winemaking, with the image being created with the help of inspirational storytelling incapable of guaranteeing the best experience associated with winemaking. From the perspective of those who buy wine, the purchasing cue of terroir must represent an opportunity to learn what it means that what has gone into shaping it. Consequently, despite the history behind terroir and its role in putting Burgundy wine on a high pedestal, its impact has diminished with the severe effects of globalization.
Undoubtedly, the concept of terroir is complex and enigmatic, dating back centuries. In Burgundy, the anthropological investigation of both the region’s geography and its culture resulted in the emergence of the concept, the meaning of which has been widely discussed and debated. In terms of terroir being implemented as a strategy for characterizing French wine and the standards of quality behind it, the uniqueness of the concept was complex to actual customers despite the rich history of winemaking’s development that went into it.
A clear recommendation for French winemakers that can be made at the end of the current exploration of terroir is twofold. First, to use terroir as a unique selling point and a description of French wine, the concept must be reintroduced to the modern market as a representation of a specific geographic location in the country. Second, such an explanation should be clear, with consumers being able to identify and compare it to other wine qualities that already exist in their minds. However, the present analysis was concerned with studying the idea behind terroir and its contribution to the history of winemaking, which means that customers’ demands play a secondary role.
The story of terroir and winemaking has unspoken historical meanings about relations of power, representational meanings, and the use of folkloric imagery. For seamlessly incorporating the various knowledge strata into a complete understanding of terroir, it is necessary to account for the narratives, perspectives, and practices that went into its conception. Overall, the current analysis revealed the complicated nature of terroir as a fundamental aspect of French winemaking.
Bohling, Joseph. “Drink Better, but Less”: The Rise of France’s Appellation System in the European Community, 1946–1976.” French Historical Studies, vol. 37, no. 3 (2014): 501-530.
Demossier, Marion. “Beyond Terroir: Territorial Construction, Hegemonic Discourses, and French Wine Culture.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, no. 17 (2011): 685-705.
Fourcade, Marion. “The Vile and the Noble: On the Relation between Natural and Social Classifications in the French Wine World.” The Sociological Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 4 (2012): 524-545.
Gade, Daniel. “Tradition, Territory, and Terroir in French Viniculture: Cassis, France, and Appellation Contrôlé.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, vol. 94, no. 4 (2004): 848-867.
Whalen, Philip. “A Merciless Source of Happy Memories”: Gaston Roupnel and the Folklore of Burgundian Terroir.” Journal of Folklore Research, vol. 44, no. 1 (2007): 21-40.
- Philip Whalen, “A Merciless Source of Happy Memories”: Gaston Roupnel and the Folklore of Burgundian Terroir,” Journal of Folklore Research, vol. 44, no. 1 (2007): 23.
- Whalen, “A Merciless Source of Happy Memories”: Gaston Roupnel and the Folklore of Burgundian Terroir,” 23.
- Marion Fourcade, “The Vile and the Noble: On the Relation between Natural and Social Classifications in the French Wine World,” The Sociological Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 4 (2012): 526.
- Daniel Gade, “Tradition, Territory, and Terroir in French Viniculture: Cassis, France, and Appellation Contrôlé,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, vol. 94, no. 4 (2004): 848.
- Gade, “Tradition, Territory, and Terroir in French Viniculture: Cassis, France, and Appellation Contrôlé,” 848.
- Fourcade, “The Vile and the Noble: On the Relation between Natural and Social Classifications in the French Wine World,” 526.
- Marion Demossier, “Beyond Terroir: Territorial Construction, Hegemonic Discourses, and French Wine Culture,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, no. 17 (2011): 686.
- Demossier, “Beyond Terroir: Territorial Construction, Hegemonic Discourses, and French Wine Culture,” 687.
- Whalen, “A Merciless Source of Happy Memories”: Gaston Roupnel and the Folklore of Burgundian Terroir,” 34.
- Joseph Bohling, “Drink Better, but Less”: The Rise of France’s Appellation System in the European Community, 1946–1976.” French Historical Studies, vol. 37, no. 3 (2014): 501.
- Bohling, “Drink Better, but Less”: The Rise of France’s Appellation System in the European Community, 1946–1976,” 529.
- Whalen, “A Merciless Source of Happy Memories”: Gaston Roupnel and the Folklore of Burgundian Terroir,” 26.