The Terroir Idea and French Wines Identifying

Introduction

Global trade leads to large-scale transfers of cheaply and efficiently processed foodstuffs from unidentified sources to foreign markets. This situation has resulted in growing concerns about the disappearance of local food traditions, reduction in the quality and safety, and detachment between food production and consumption. As a result, a counter-trend to fight this homogenizing tendency emerged some decades ago and insisted on “applying geographical indication to specific food products” thus protecting such foodstuff’s defined uniqueness against counterfeits produced elsewhere, and help to evoke the feeling of authenticity in the consumers1.

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This practice of entrenching traditional geographical-based productions into modern economies comprises one aspect of patrimonialization. The concept articulates “the concerted interest of some scholars, urban consumers, and agricultural syndicates in protecting rural landscapes, traditional food products and other core elements of national or regional heritage”2. France brags about a great artisan history, unique local specificity, and culinary sophistication. The country has been on the forefront of implementing this patrimonial principle, mainly concerning searching for methods to ensure and improve the authenticity of food production3.

This endeavor revolves around the model of terroir, a view, which holds that “the special quality of an agricultural product is determined by the character of the place from which it comes”4. The objective of this paper is to examine how this idea of terroir has been used to identify French wines, one of the agricultural commodities.

Terroir Concept

Terroir depicts the relationship between the physical features of a place and the qualities of its final products. In this system, complex interactions are created between an array of human factors, agricultural production, and physical milieu5. The place factor includes interconnections of edaphic and climatic factors, experience or skills passed on from one generation to the next and the exposure that aid in creating suitable growing conditions for a crop or an animal6.

Terroir has been a rural custom, often depicted as harmonious, coherent, veritable, and threatened, a location in which people and spatiotemporal elements are organically connected7. Although it is viewed as a legacy, it primarily focuses on an active and conscious social construction of the past that helps to shape the present place-based identity8.

Alongside terroir is the concept of the economy of qualities, a process that establishes product identity via an intimate association between consumer expectation and the products offered. According to this view, the quality of a product, the way it is marketed, its appeal to uniqueness and the reputation of its place of origin have positive correlations9. Furthermore, the attributes of goods are not merely evaluated by the consumer, but they are also validated through checks, trials and organized measurements supported by recognized social or legal structures10.

Terroir and AOC system

Concerning French wine, place-of-origin labeling (controlled appellation) is the legal framework that links the buyer and the producer and attaches a distinctive, place-based quality to a product11. The Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) assures place of origin and stipulates a set of production requirements12. A second body, the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO) is concerned with exposing and preventing fraud and helps to implement quality standards13.

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This institution shields high-quality wines from unfair competition arising from cheap wines with deflowered value due to mixing or use of cheaper production methods. The AOCs developed from central government’s endeavor to regulate the quality of agricultural produce, and from a sequence of grassroots movements among groups of property holders14. Through it, terroir attained both a legal definition and further positive reference. Also, the AOC system demanded a strict regional delineation of the high-quality wine production areas and controlled the vine varietals, viticultural techniques and winemaking processes employed in those regions15.

Consequently, the French wine became more focused. Communities began to specialize in specific wine types, e.g., Burgundy region in making white wines, Bordeaux in red wines with excellent durability, Tavel in rose wines and Cassis with a mixture of both16. The idea was to narrow the range of possible wine types from a particular terroir for the wines to command more respect and gain more popularity. Eventually, hundreds of French wines received the AOC designation, and presently, new ones continue to be added yearly17.

In addition, the AOC system led to reshaping of the market making it suitable for landowners of fine wines and to a redefinition of the product18. Similarly, the system helped to cement the mythological image of a terroir producing wine with a taste unaffected since ancient times19. It has also been a significant element in the conception of a picture of the wine producer as the epitome of traditional agrarian morals and a patron of quality20.

Up to date, regions have to follow a long and wearisome certification criterion with a national panel to attain AOC status recognition21. The process involves collectively organizing local producers into a group, availing proof of historical reputation, and showcasing a product’s typicality and its connection to the human and natural factors of the terroir22.

A Tool of Social Hierarchy

In the 1930s, the concept of terroir was infiltrated with scientific arguments and sociopolitical justifications which greatly influenced the INAO’s efforts to categorize vineyards23. Quality was not only expressed through the language of distinction and refinement but also through association with the elite cliques. Thus, it is not surprising that the assets that gave French wines their reputation for quality were possessions of the richest and the highly ranked society members24.

It is not only hard for people to distinguish the natural origins of wines through the senses of sight, smell and taste but also to agree on quality rankings25. All the same, wines have unique flavors, depending on grape varieties and blending, climate, region, vintage and viticultural practices26.

Also, a small number of old and rare wines provoke extraordinary reverence and are very costly. Given the huge monetary and symbolic repercussions of these judgments of worth, there is heightened competition over the human processes that make wines27. Therefore, the inflexible system of the place-based qualifications, a feature of terroir, slowly arose from engrained political conflicts over the economic advantages that were to be obtained from the trade of wine, and its critiques view it as a monopolistic institution to protect producers28.

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That is why producers in high-prestige areas that yield expensive wines have been battling to protect their trade advantages over large volumes of wines coming from lower-standing localities. This scenario implies that terroir is about asserting and validating contrasts at local levels and eventually about gaining communal, economic, and political advantages from such claims29.

Evidence from a retrospective analysis of the establishment of terroir and the AOC legislation in France’s wine growing areas indicate that the wealthiest landowners dominated the restructuring of the market, defined the idea of quality, taste, geographical origin, and ensured the consolidation of the hierarchies that had been created30. Also, terroir is not only a “ a vibrant, constantly changing discursive strategy for advancing the claims of the individual, regional, and even national interests” but also a way of championing for change by attaching French wine in a fixed and territorially demarcated conception of nature31.

Identity of French Wines

Past scholars on the impact of terroir on wines were interested to know why the French vineyards were located where they are, and how one site could yield superior wine than the other yet the sites look similar or are adjacent32. Literary evidence on the subject indicate that it is not only wine production but also other agents – marketers, consumers, political, legal institutions – that are involved in the building of a marketable product based on the concept of terroir33.

Wine, as an essential product of terroir, has long been bestowed with symbolic and emotional allure and functions as a potent social and political tool in the contemporary France34. This admiration is expressed in the infamous supposition that “great wines come from great terroirs, and that great terroirs are made of – but also make – great people”35. Such a belief derives its validity from earlier studies on champagne production, which confirmed the use of wine and the concept of terroir as vital references for the collective French identity36.

Factors such as source, rarity, and the expensiveness determine the quality of French wine37. The physical elements of the source, i.e., the soil, topography and climate influence the taste of grapes, and thus the flavor of wines38. Similarly, the flavor of wine has its full significance only if it can be placed in an environment of source and history39. The legendary 1855 categorization of Medoc wines by the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce is an example of terroir and the AOC at work40.

Then, the attempt was aimed at selecting wines for the universal exposition in Paris. The chamber singled out 57 wines and accorded them the label of crus classes41. These were further discriminated from one another by their position in a ladder of five divisions (first to fifth). Below them were the crus bourgeois, which were also different from conventional wines (crus paysans). Vineyards were also classified as grand cru, premier cru, and commune, depending on the quality of wine they produced42.

This categorical attitude to rankings in wine and wineries, and its particular shape have apparent social origins, and apart from Bordeaux, the approach was embraced by other regions such as Sauternes and Barsac as well43. Quality rankings are unique in that they become customary through the activities of people who perceive them as unbiased realities. Hence, despite attempts at evaluation of these classificatory schemes and hierarchies, these revisions prove futile due to continued market forces that utilize the rankings as an easily identifiable categorical framework for selling wines44. Thus, appellation wine became a symbol of economic status and a luxury as citizens could express their identity and class through its consumption45.

Also, the idea of terroir has been exploited by wine marketers in some ways. Marketers recognize the importance of cultural and physiological elements in determining the quality and in the presentation of wine to the world46.

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Because of heated competition within the wine category, and the need to establish brand loyalty, marketers have utilized the concept to highlight a unique variance between a producer’s wine and all other competing options47. Given that region, brand and price are the primary cues on which consumers base their decisions upon while purchasing wine, the idea of terroir has been employed to bestow identity to wines with significant levels of economic success48.

Therefore, the marketers have embraced a niche strategy in selling wines. In this approach, marketers target a unique clique of financially viable consumers who have a desire for a uniquely different product from others available on the market shelves49.

Equally, the distinction is essential to the geographical winery from both economic and reputation stances. This uniqueness of a region or terroir is fostered by the passion and the collaboration among wine growers to produce excellent wine possible. Such partnerships help in sustaining and enhancing terroir, which reciprocally assists in maintaining pride and passion.

Conclusion

In addition to being an object of sensory fine-tuning and a means of socialization, wine also derives its relevance in place identity, geology, and history. There is a unique, differentiated taste of wine connected with the features of the region or people. The idea of terroir, whether connected to wine, chateau, or a vineyard, represents a somewhat spiritual level of quality. In economic viewpoint, the symbol of terroir significantly affects consumer decision, i.e., how wines from different areas, specific vineyards, and growers are received in the markets. Cumulatively, terroir has helped to bestow unique identities to wines from various regions in France by eliciting the regional differences in wine quality. This isolation factor has been very helpful in marketing and achievement of local recognition of this beverage.

Bibliography

Bohling, Joseph. ““Drink Better, but Less”: The Rise of France’s Appellation System in the European Community, 1946–1976.” French Historical Studies 37, no. 3 (2014): 501- 530. Web.

Demossier, Marion. “Beyond Terroir: Territorial Construction, Hegemonic Discourses, and French Wine Culture.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 17, no. 1 (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 53, no. 4 (2012): 524-545. Web.

Gade, Daniel W. “Tradition, Territory, and Terroir in French Viniculture: Cassis, France, and Appellation Contrôlée.Annals of the Association of American Geographers 94, no. 4 (2004): 848-867. Web.

Whalen, Philip. “”A Merciless Source of Happy Memories”: Gaston Roupnel and the Folklore of Burgundian Terroir.” Journal of Folklore Research 44, no. 1 (2007): 21- 40. Web.

Footnotes

  1. Daniel W. Gade, “Tradition, Territory, and Terroir in French Viniculture: Cassis, France, and Appellation Contrôlée.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 94, no. 4 (2014): 848.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 849.
  5. Marion Demossier, “Beyond Terroir: Territorial Construction, Hegemonic Discourses, and French Wine Culture.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 17, no. 1 (2011): 685.
  6. Gade, “Tradition,”849.
  7. Demossier, “Beyond Terroir,” 687.
  8. Gade, “Tradition,”849.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Gade, “Tradition,”849.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Marion Fourcade, “The Vile and the Noble: On the Relation between Natural and Social Classifications in the French Wine World.” The Sociological Quarterly 53, no.4 (2012): 525.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Philip Whalen, ““A Merciless Source of Happy Memories”: Gaston Roupnel and the Folklore of Burgundian Terroir.” Journal of Folklore Research 44, no. 1 (2007): 22.
  19. Whalen, “A Merciless Source,” 22.
  20. Ibid., 23.
  21. Gade, “Tradition,” 850.
  22. Whalen, “A Merciless Source,” 24.
  23. Fourcade, “The Vile,”525.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid., 26.
  28. Ibid., 26.
  29. Whalen, “A Merciless Source,” 24.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Ibid., 25.
  32. Demossier, “Beyond Terroir,” 686.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Whalen, “A Merciless Source,” 24.
  35. Fourcade, “The Vile,” 526.
  36. Ibid.
  37. Joseph Bohling, ““Drink Better, but Less”: The Rise of France’s Appellation System in the European Community, 1946–1976.” French Historical Studies 37, no. 3 (2014): 502.
  38. Ibid.
  39. Ibid.
  40. Demossier, “Beyond Terroir,” 689.
  41. Ibid.
  42. Fourcade, “The Vile,”527.
  43. Ibid.
  44. Demossier, “Beyond Terroir,” 689.
  45. Bohling, “Drink Better,” 503.
  46. Ibid.
  47. Ibid., 504.
  48. Ibid.
  49. Fourcade, “The Vile,”528.
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StudyCorgi. (2021, February 15). The Terroir Idea and French Wines Identifying. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/the-terroir-idea-and-french-wines-identifying/

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StudyCorgi. "The Terroir Idea and French Wines Identifying." February 15, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/the-terroir-idea-and-french-wines-identifying/.

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