Terroir is one of those cerebral concepts that many — even top wine and food experts — find difficult to explain. It’s so difficult that we use a French word for it: There is no exact translation in Italian or English, for that matter. Some people use the word territorio in Italian but the meaning is much more generic and elastic than the French terroir.
From a technical standpoint, terroir is the unique confluence of geography, topography, soil type, climate, exposure (to the sun), and agri-culture. I hyphenate the word agriculture because many forget that human intervention and human culture are key elements in terroir.
As we understand it, terroir can’t happen in a vacuum: Nature provides the land but human intervention is what ultimately shapes the outcome. An example of this is the fact that a grape can fall from the vine by itself and when its skin cracks, the sugar in the fruit can begin to ferment spontaneously thanks to yeast present in the environment. But without human intervention, it will turn into vinegar and not wine.
One of the world’s greatest examples of terroir (and terroir expression or expression of place, as many call it) is Parmigiano Reggiano, the unique cheese made in the provinces of Parma and Reggio Emilia.
People all over the world have attempted to recreate the formula for producing Parmigiano Reggiano. And they succeed in every way except for one thing: No matter how carefully the follow the Parmigiano Reggiano formula and model, the resulting cheese never achieves the same crumbly, flakey character or the rich, nutty flavor that makes the original from Parma and Reggio Emilia so distinctive.
So the next time someone asks you to explain what terroir is, just hand them a shard of Parmigiano Reggiano. And then pair with its sine qua non wine pairing: Lambrusco.