VII: Topsoil

Let's talk about whether or not terroir exists

VII: Topsoil
Scooping that soil. Photo by Markus Spiske / Unsplash

Good morning. Today is septidi, the 7th of Nivôse, Year CCXXXI. We celebrate la terre végétale, dirt that's ready to make things grow.

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Of all the resources we might run out of on this planet, I never thought dirt would make the list. But true topsoil – the stuff that is full of decomposed plant and animal matter and therefore ready to feed the next generation of life – is on the decline. This has been true in the past, when stuff wasn't carted around worldwide as easily. David Montgomery argues in his book Dirt: the erosion of civilizations that ancient Rome and Greece declined as much for want of arable soil as any military conquest. The good news this time around is that science is discovering ways to drastically speed up the process that turns mere rock particulate into fertile soil, so we may hit a renewable stasis yet. Whether that will matter given everything else we're depleting is another question.

Is terroir real? The French government definitely thinks so, defining and enforcing several appellations on the basis of terroir, including, famously, champagne. But questions abound about the precise definition of "terroir" since what matters seems to fit whatever unique features a particular location seeks to tout. Sometimes terroir comes from the soil, sometimes the water, sometimes the pitch of the slope, and sometimes the mineral composition of the bedrock.

If we're feeling frisky, we could say it's an "all of the above" situation, where terroir is comprised of all the factors that combine to make a spot on Earth unique. But do these vibes really impart anything measurable to the food grown there? Or are we just giving ourselves a pleasurable placebo?

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