Compound drinker

In this month's exploration of the world beyond beer, Rachel Hendry explores the complex and often elusive concept of terroir


Terroir, then. The idea that a drink has a characteristic taste that has been formed through the soil, topography and climate of its “complete” natural environment. Place, therefore, is intrinsic to terroir; a glass of wine, cider or beer would not taste the very specific way it does if it were not for the very specific place it were from. 

But how do drinks become synonymous with certain regions in the first place? What happens when you look at terroir as a case of nature versus nurture? When you start to analyse the way people have meddled with place—as they are so often prone to doing—and how this has affected style and taste? How have social and historical movements impacted where and how our drinks are made?

Well let’s start with tax, shall we?

It is perhaps apt that Port – a Portuguese fortified wine that has become as quintessentially “British” as the Stilton and the Quality Streets it is wheeled out with at Christmastime – originates not only in a country tied to Britain’s trade routes but from a gap in the market caused by Britain’s administrative obsession with taxation. 

Port is strictly associated with place, not for the way that the layered schist soil or the classically continental Douro climate has contributed towards its taste, but because of the way the ports themselves have. In the Seventeenth Century, King William III, growing weary of the endless commercial arguments with France, introduced large levels of taxation on the French wine growing in popularity amongst the British upper classes. But making Claret harder to get hold of didn’t reduce the demand for it, so wine merchants took their trade further south, to Portugal. 

It is there that they discovered wines of the Douro, but as tasty as they were to drink in Portugal, the wines suffered under the long, hot voyages back to British shores. It is in this transportation that fortification of the wine became necessary and then commonplace. Port, therefore, a culmination of both place and of people. 

And this theory of mine doesn’t begin and end with wine. The mythology behind Barleywine shares some striking similarities. I first tried Barleywine when working at a craft beer bar. “Here, thought you might like this, it's got wine in the name” a colleague told me whilst presenting me with a glass of Barleywine. Which is, as a version of the story goes, more or less the thought process behind Barleywine coming about. 

Occurring between 1803 and 1815, the Napoleonic Wars was a source of major global conflict that resulted in the deaths of millions of people. A comparatively small side effect of this fight for Supremacy was, once again, the restriction on French wine being imported into Britain. The tale then goes that the British brewing industry created Barleywine, an ale with a strength and complexity to match the tannic, red wines of Europe, as a replacement for the wines loved and lost. So much so that Barleywine was drunk from goblets as an act of patriotism.

Now I’m no beer historian, and as Bass Brewery didn’t coin the term Barleywine until the 1850s, which is sometime later than the Napoleonic Wars, I’m not entirely convinced. But the question remains: if wines being drunk, imported to and then restricted from Britain weren’t the complex, red, high alcohol wines they were, would there be a market for Barleywine at all? What styles would not exist without a predecessor of sorts? 

For our beers and our wines and our ciders can carry all the terroir in the world and each glass can contain a minutely specific sense of place, but it doesn’t answer the question of why? Why that drink in that location? What was it about these complete natural environments that inspired the people living there?

Climate has a huge part to play in this, of course, and it would be remiss of me to not acknowledge that the reason terroir has such a prominent amount of influence on taste is because certain apples, grapes, hops and barley can only grow in certain places. The magic, then, only really happens when these plants, places and people sing in perfect harmony. Pilsner, actually, is a perfect example of this.  

When the beer quality of Pilsen took a real turn for the worse – enough for 36 barrels to be deemed undrinkable and drain poured down the town square – it was up to Bavarian brewer Josef Groll to come to the rescue. Now Pilsen could have the best brewer in the world, and the most up to date brewing technology money could buy, but if it wasn’t for the quality of the malt and the hops as a result of the local terroir would Pilsner Urquell be the smash hit it turned out to be? But if that were the case why did they previously reach a point of drinkable brews? What, then, if the ingredients and the brewing processes were top class but the people in charge didn’t have a clue? It’s the magical communion of people and place – that dance between nature and nurture – that really brings a drink into its own. 

And it’s when one terroir influences another, when people get involved and when drinks are moved and adapted, that’s where things get intriguing.

The invention of the Champagne Method is fascinating in this regard. Before the fizz and the fun, Champagne was originally a still wine and terroir is an interesting concept here in that both the terroir of Champagne and the terroir of England impacted the creation of the famous sparkle. Allow me to explain myself.

The original still wines of Champagne were made in such a cool climate that the fermentation was often put to a halt by the chill of winter before it had a chance to finish. These partly fermented wines were then sold and transported to England. As winter softly blossomed into Spring, it is the climate of the English springtime that coaxed the fermentation back into motion and who discovered the carbonation that formed as a result. It was also England – its cider makers, to be specific – who used their experiences of fermenting and bottling, stemming from their place in this world, to introduce Champagne to glass bottles strong enough to handle a second fermentation. Et voilà! Secondary fermentation – or Champagne method as it is known – was born. 

It’s in starting to look at terroir as a combination of nature versus nurture and in the breaking down of people’s impact on produce and place that the concept of Old World and New World begins to feel somewhat preposterous to me. 

If you are perhaps new to the concept of Old World and New World allow me. In viticultural terms Old World refers to wine growing regions in Europe that are referred to as “traditional”. New World, then, covers wine making regions of Australia, Africa, South and North America that had wine making “introduced” to them. 

My issue with these terms is that it implies a purity of place, of colony versus coloniser, of some countries' regional hierarchy over another that just doesn’t sit well with me. 

You may have noticed that all of the examples I have given above – across beer, wine & cider – are all European, all “traditional” but who, nevertheless, have all required some level of socio-historic influence or introduction in order to fully form each style. It feels hypocritical then, to imply that these regions and styles are all of untainted happenstance, that are as traditional and naturally intended to be of the “old world” and that anything they have influenced through colonialism is to be of a distinctly, indebted “new” world. 

No matter where a drink is from – whether from a complete and local natural environment to a recreation of a drink originating an entire hemisphere away – there is nothing that is drunk today that hasn’t been influenced in some way or another. The purity of terroir, enough to distinguish and categorise between regions, is vital to understanding place and our planet, but it musn’t come at the cost or ignorance of the people whose movements and labour have formed what is drunk. 

Terroir is as intrinsic to taste as place is to terroir, but so are people, let’s not forget them, too. 

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