‘That’s one of the best olive oils I’ve had,’ announced Olly, my travel companion. It was our second day in Chania, a quaint little town on the island of Crete, and we had been told to check out Salis, a restaurant down by the harbor.
Olly, a food buyer for one of the top hotels in London, had just a week earlier spent an arduous day tasting olive oils—close to 30 types, I’d heard. So it was with very high expectations that I tipped the beautiful white ceramic bottle over and mopped up the golden liquid on my plate with a chunk of Cretan rusk. Olly sprinkled a pinch of sea salt from the matching jar on top.
‘Oh, wow,’ I said.
‘Now with the wine.’
‘We have to find out where it’s from.’
‘Terroir, by Alexandra Manousakis,’ I read from the lettering on the bottle and jar.
‘Manousakis… Isn’t that the winery we’re going to visit tomorrow?’
Indeed it was. And that is how we came to sip wine under the shade of the Manousakis’ lemon trees (the fact that we had to drive back from the winery conveniently forgotten) with the mysterious Alexandra herself and her husband Afshin. The relaxed warmth of this foodie couple was infectious and we found ourselves chatting about how everything began.
Alexandra’s father started Manousakis Winery in 1993, convinced that the microclimate and ecosystem of the Lefka Ori mountain range would add a unique dimension to the grapes they cultivated—one that would set their wines apart from others and put them on an international playing field. And it did—the Manousakis wines were and still are a huge success.
When Alexandra returned from the US to take over management of the winery, she thought, ‘Why not show others exactly what this “terroir” is?’ Based on her father’s philosophy, she started the Terroir range with olive oil and sea salt ‘to showcase the cascading olive groves that exist literally everywhere and the Mediterranean Sea encircling the island.’ Afshin’s restaurant Salis is an extension of this philosophy.
While the term ‘terroir’ is often dropped casually and commonly in conversation among wine lovers, it’s a concept that was totally new to me at the time. My unexpected chat with Alexandra and Afshin taught me its meaning and importance. It all started when French winemakers observed the differences in wines from different regions, vineyards and sometimes even different sections of the same vineyard. They termed the phenomenon terroir—which literally translates as earth (or soil). Terroir is now used in the winemaking world to describe the unique characteristics of a place that influence the wine made there.
This concept of terroir doesn’t stop at wine, however. It also applies to all sorts of food: tea, coffee, hops, chocolate, rice, cheese, even chili peppers—basically anything that grows or feeds off the land indirectly. Terroir doesn’t only include the soil in a region, but the climate, altitude, surrounding land and anything else that can possibly differentiate one piece of land from another.
India’s famous Darjeeling tea is a perfect illustration of the concept of terroir in tea. Grown at an elevation of 7,000 feet, Darjeeling plants produce more chlorophyll in their leaves. This higher concentration of chlorophyll is what contributes to the distinctive taste of high-altitude teas. A tea plant dug up from the Himalayan foothills and moved to lower ground will no longer have the characteristic Darjeeling taste and fragrance when it’s harvested a year later. Similarly, oolong teas from Dayuling, the highest tea-growing peak in Taiwan, are some of the most coveted in the world and fetch suitably premium prices.
Besides soil and altitude, the local ecosystem is also an important factor in the flavor of teas. Pine, mushroom, tulsi and flowers often impart flavor elements to wild-picked teas. The same variety of tea plant will produce completely different experiences when grown within different ecosystems. For instance, Tie Guan Yin grown in various Chinese provinces have unique attributes (called yun in Chinese) based on their terroir; Xiping Tie Guan Yin is clear, fresh and smooth in the mouth, while Gande teas have a bolder, floral aroma.
Winemakers have gone further with this idea by protecting their wines as geographical indicators, the most famous being champagne, from the Champagne region of France. No other wine, even if it is made from the same grape variety and by the same method, can be called ‘Champagne.’ This fierce protection of the quality, reputation and characteristics of produce that’s linked directly to the land is also found in a product that’s closer to home—rice. Much like Champagne, basmati rice is exclusively associated with India and Pakistan. The unique terroir of the Himalayan foothills is one of the key factors contributing to its distinct heavenly fragrance and taste.
Most of us today are far removed from the original source of our food. The concept of terroir will likely be alien for those of us living in cities, where a casual stroll doesn’t exactly present us with beautiful olive trees or other reminders of our connection to the land. You might forget this article tomorrow, but I’m hoping a few food lovers out there will be taking their morning sip of Darjeeling tea or Finca Mauritania coffee with a fresh appreciation for the producers and the land they call home.
Tell us about produce you’ve tasted that’s been directly influenced by its terroir with #momentumtravel.