Book review: an historical look at the concept of terroir

Le goût du Terroir : Histoire d’une idée française

translated by Philippe Barré from the English language original: Tasting French Terroir: The History of an Idea.

The irony of this particular book review is that it was initially written in English by an American university professor and first published by the University of California in 2015, and yet I have just read the recently translated French edition which was published jointly by Presses Universitaires de Rennes and Presses Universitaires François Rabelais in 2017. And I am reviewing it in English. Why not make things more complicated than they already are? I have often felt that this was a typically French attitude, and now here I am falling headfirst into the trap !

And a most interesting and serious piece of work this book is! Of its 250 pages, 50 alone are consecrated to a very complete bibliography, and copious footnotes fill the base of most pages. Investigating all aspects of the notions that surround this untranslatable word « terroir » in written work that concerns many aspects of life in France (food, wine, language, politics and sociology, to name the main ones), it’s historical scope stretches from Rabelais to the early part of the 20th century. The subject matter does not only concern food and wine, but also language, social and cultural identity, whether regional or even national. So this is not a book solely aimed at wine specialists. It’s scope is far wider, even if it does touch on wine and the evolving visions that various writers in France have had of wine.

For the purpose of this review, and to try to show something of the ideas of the author, I will take examples of texts from which the author quotes or to which he refers and which concern, to some extent, wine, although I insist on the fact that this book looks at many other fields than the alimentary, liquid or solid. François Rabelais, author and doctor during the Renaissance period, is frequently cited as a fervent proponent of « eat, drink and be merry ». Yet Rabelais’ fictitious characters, such as the giant Gargantua, did not seem to derive any particular pleasure from the geographical origin of their foods and wines: it was essentially the quantity that counted, even if he mentions the grape variety that he calls « le breton » (cabernet franc).  The earliest French book entirely devoted to wine dates from 1549, by Jacques Gahory, and is called Devis sur la vigne, le vin et les vendanges. The author idealizes wine whilst referring to classical authors such as Hippocratus, Aristotle or Galien. He considers that the best grape variety is the Morillon (another name for Chardonnay) and that a good vineyard should be dry and well drained. One of the key issues at this period is the emergence of the French language, as opposed to Latin, as a medium capable of covering both technical and literary subjects, and Gahory contributes to this emergence. Language as one aspect of terroir, and thus of identity, is part of the author’s thesis.

In 1554, Estienne and Liebault published an amended French version of Estienne’s original Latin book: L’Agriculture et Maison Rustique. This book was a huge success as it was reprinted five times during the 16th century. The authors clearly consider that the character of a wine owes a lot to the soil and climate. Thomas Parker is clearly not a wine specialist as he comments that the authors do not consider the grape variety to be an important factor. What he does not realize is that most vineyards at that period were co-planted with several different varieties, and that not all of these were clearly identified. It would therefore have been totally impossible, in many cases, to attribute a clear rôle to the grape variety. We can also see that these authors have a somewhat sociological and even chauvinistic attitude to wine as they consider the wines from around Paris to be the best for non-working people and intellectuals, whereas wines from Gascony or Spain burn the stomach and blur the intellects of those who consume them!

Montaigne considered that the territory and the climate has a considerable influence on the nature of humans, although he modulated this opinion by saying that education was necessary to temper and polish this « natural » nature. But Montaigne is not entirely determinist as he recognizes that men change their nature when they change their environments. I would have been tempted here to form a parallel with wine and grapes, but the author does not take this road. One of the most influential books on agriculture was published in 1600 by Olivier de Serres. This was clearly a foundation stone in the concept of terroir and its effect on plants of all kinds. De Serres was a protestant landowner in southern France and considered that the aristocracy should pay more attention to production techniques and the choice of the right plants for different terroirs on their land-holdings. The notion of terroir and its individuality was thus central.

But this gradual evolution of the importance of nature in providing flavour and quality in agricultural produce was, for a while, nipped in the bud by the growing centralization of the country under the reign of Louis XIV. For the next 100 years or so, the word terroir became synonymous with rusticity and lack of refinement. A look at the gardens of Versailles and indeed the kitchen garden that supplied fruit and vegetables to the inhabitants of the palace (Le Potager du Roi) makes this very clear. The king imposed his law on nature as he did on his people: everything was lined-up, closely trimmed and controlled and, with the help of glass houses, fruit and vegetables of all kinds could be produced in any season. Claude and Pierre Perrault, in « Oeuvres diverses de physique et de mécanique » published in 1663 even say that the terroir « corrupts » taste and that everything that shows terroir, earth or minerals produces deviance in people’s tastes. Taste, like language, should be neutral, pure, and « free from stains ». Authors such as Saint Evremont considered that the best wines were those that had absolutely no taste of terroir. For Saint Evremont, for example, this meant that the best wines came from Aÿ and a couple of other villages in Champagne as they tasted pure and in no way « earthy ». During this 17th century of absolutism and elitism, a few authors, including Montesquieu and the lesser-known Buffier, maintained the « terroir attitude », as did some doctors, including Fagon who persuaded Louis XV that only wines from Burgundy were good for his majesty’s health. The fact that Fagon was Burgundian of course had nothing to do with this!

Two famous authors of the 18th century were totally opposed on this question: Voltaire and Rousseau (above). Voltaire considered that terroir had a corrupting influence on water, as on his writing style. Rousseau had other preoccupations: in his book called l’Emile, he considers that mixtures between races make each one lose its identity that derives in turn from its terroir. This attitude makes me think that certain passages from this book, which go even further down this rocky road, could even have inspired the nazis! He certainly adopts a form of climatic determinism and clearly recognizes the influence of place. Three years after the publication of l’Emile, Louis de Jaucourt wrote the 17th article, called « Vin« , in the encyclopedia of Diderot and d’Alembert, in which this passage clearly shows the adoption of a modern concept of terroir: « a good wine of Moselle should taste of slate, because these vineyards are fertilized with powdered slate that resembles a sort of clay paste ». Individual flavours are clearly attributed to the nature of the soil.

Finally, one of the most interesting features of the use of this word terroir is how the very subject matter that it is supposed to cover constantly changes and expands. From climate it moves to the land, and from that to all kinds of produce of the land. It also evolves to describe human morphology, behaviour and language, and even political opinions and the construction of nationalism as well as regionalism. All of these aspects are thoroughly documented in this remarkable work that shows the author’s reading, patience and rigour.

Good reading!

David Cobbold






5 réflexions sur “Book review: an historical look at the concept of terroir

  1. Hervé LALAU

    Ce que je trouve marrant, c’est que « French terroir » ait été traduit par « Le goût du terroir », comme si le terroir était français, par définition.

    Je suis Français et j’adore mon pays, mais tout de même…


  2. Le thèse de l’auteur est que le concept même de l’influence du terroir, avec ses acceptions variées, aurait été élaboré en France, certes avec des points d’appui dans la littérature de la Rome Antique. Bien entendu, si on se réfère au sens que je donne personnellement à ce terme, c’est à dire tout le milieu naturel (enfin, plus ou moins naturel) et rien que cela, le concept est applicable partout. Mais la lente construction du concept a surement été le fait, pour une très bonne part du moins, d’auteurs français, puis ce concept a été repris ensuite ailleurs.

    Pour ma part, j’aime certains aspects de plusieurs pays, mais je ne pourrais jamais dire que j’adore mon pays, quel qu’il soit. C’est pour cela que je ne suis pas espion, par exemple.


    1. D’accord sur le contenu; mais le titre aurait pu être traduit par « Le goût du terroir français », c’eût été plus juste.
      Dans la version française, c’est l’idée qui devient française, ce qui n’est pas la même chose. Je peux appliquer l’idée française à tous les terroirs du monde, et je ne me prive pas de le faire.
      Par ailleurs, comme tu le fais remarquer, on pourrait au moins associer Rousseau, et donc la Suisse, à la popularisation du concept…


  3. Philippe Barré

    En tant que traducteur du livre de Thomas Parker, je voudrais préciser que l’ensemble du texte français a été relu attentivement par plusieurs personnes aussi comptétentes que qualifiées, et que si certains passages ont fait l’objet de discussions, le titre choisi n’a pas soulévé d’objection. Comme le fait remarquer David Cobold, l’auteur étudie l’évolution de la notion de terroir telle qu’elle a été élaborée essentiellement (mais pas uniquement) en France. Il évoque ce sujet au cours d’un entretien accordé aux «Nuits de France Culture* ».  Le livre n’est donc nullement une « histoire du terroir français », ni une étude du « goût du terroir français », mais bien l’histoire d’une idée française.



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