Terroir (tair-wahr) is a French word denoting influence of place on the overall taste experience of an agricultural product. Used exclusively for wine until recently, the term terroir is nowadays applied to many products such as tea, chocolate, cheese, honey, olive oil and especially coffee. A product is said to have terroir when a unique coalescence of environmental factors gives it a positive character that cannot be reproduced elsewhere. Soil, climate, altitude, topography, exposure to sun, the local micro-organisms, available water and anything else in a plant’s environment are all involved. Without the right location a coffee will be limited to ordinary.
The term terroir was refined and given deeper meaning in the nineteenth century, as fine wine came to be appreciated by a widening, richer and ever more sophisticated consumer base. It was first primarily focused on soil. This was, after all, what gave primary sustenance to the plant via its roots, the soil’s special contents fueling unique nuances in the plant’s expression. Already in the Middle Ages Cistercian monks had realized that the grapes from certain tiny plots of land in Burgundy repeatedly produced discernable differences in wine from adjacent, apparently identical plots, something that could only be attributed to differences that lay beneath the vines. Specialty coffee is a long way from that kind of laser-like focus on soil which the Cistercian monks of Burgundy exercised in their communal vineyards, but it seems appropriate to begin exploring where a farmer should plant coffee by briefly examining soil first, where the tree seeks nutritional sustenance.