Cannabis Terroir: Connecting the Earth's Essence with the Grower's Soul

marijuana-field-terroir-By Anton Watman
Photo by Anton Watman/ shutterstock

Have you ever wondered why corn from a stall at the local farmer's market tastes sweeter than the others? Why maple syrup from Vermont has a one-of-a-kind buttery-sweet flavor? Or why it's illegal in some countries to label sparkling wine as "champagne" if the grapes weren't grown in the Champagne region of France? The simple answer: terroir.

Now, thanks in part to the recent updates to Proposition 64 in California and the Mendocino Appellations Project, a movement toward cannabis terroir is spiking interest industry-wide.

Terroir: A Brief History

Loosely translated from the French, terroir means a "taste or sense of place." This gets to the heart of the concept. How the "place" where something is grown and cultivated imparts the distinct flavor profiles of that crop.

There exists a connection between la Terre (the earth) and the quality of the final product, argues the centuries-old idea of terroir. The concept of terroir dates to the "old country."

Some wine historians give credit to the order of Cistercian monks in the Burgundy region of France for developing the idea. The monks conducted elaborate research. They found that the quality of wine was primarily based on the variety of grapes. It was also due to the different sections of land where the grapes were grown. To this day, the monks' observations help define terroir across the globe.

Some factors that influence terroir include:

  • Soil composition
  • Climate
  • Temperature fluctuations
  • Precipitation
  • Altitude
  • Microbial makeup or microbiome
  • The topography of the land
  • Tradition and culture

In his witty guide to the "flavor landscapes" found across the United States author Rowan Jacobsen describes terroir as "a partnership between person, plant, and environment to bring something unique into the world.

The soil and climate set the conditions; the plants, animals, and fungi respond to them; and then people determine how to bring out the goodness..." (American Terroir, Bloomsbury, 2010)

That's precisely what a group of marijuana growers in California's Emerald Triangle has been doing for decades.

Mendocino Made

The American landscape has a rich history of farming and cultivation. There are stories in the soil. In some areas, these tales date back generations.

In the minds of a group of California pot farmers, those stories deserve protection. Their goal is to get approval for appellations in regions of Mendocino County. This will allow them to highlight, brand, and label their unique cannabis terroir.

The appellations prevent large corporations from using designated geographical regions in promotional materials. They also limit other late-to-the-Mendocino-party operations from advertising as a Mendo-brand. Naming, labeling, and advertising products with a Mendocino association are exclusive. It’s left to the farms located within one of the 11 regions included in the appellations.

As Justin Calvino — the farmer who founded MAP — told the Ukiah Daily Journal, he'd like to see the heritage of Northern California cannabis growers safeguarded. He's lobbying for a "Mendocino Made" type of certification.

Stay informed about their progress. Check out the Mendocino Appellations Project Facebook page.

Is It Possible to Express Cannabis Terroir?

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Image: Marijuana Growing
at Farm
There are wine connoisseurs who, from aromatics alone, know the type of grapes used. Based on earthy, floral or fruity tones they can pinpoint the exact region from where a vintage comes. The impact of terroir is significant. Two wines produced from neighboring wineries can have very different characteristics. The cause can be as subtle as a minor variation in soil composition.

Is it the same case for strains of marijuana? Does terroir influence the quality and chemical composition of marijuana plants? Based on science alone, the answer is yes.

A study published by EDP Sciences found a direct link between terroir and terpene levels. Scientists showed that terroir "significantly affected" the concentrations of various terpene compounds.

Cannabis strains, like grapes, exhibit their scents and tastes via terpenes.

The Cannabis Horticultural Association agrees. Cannabis terroir is more than the nuances of differing growing processes. They’ve found that terroir interacts with the genetics of the plants. The expression of these interactions is "in the terpene profile and cannabinoid percentages."

Prohibition forced many growing operations indoors. The question, one that continues to cause debate, is whether indoor-grown weed can express cannabis terroir. The fact that conditions are entirely controlled ? artificial lighting on timers, strict temperature and humidity guidelines, soil that does not have the history of generations of cultivation ? continues to fuel the debate.

The Soul of a Nation

A terroir is an art form. Geography is the canvas. Regional differences ? soil, climate, topography ? are the implements. And the final product ? the masterpiece ? comes from the heart and soul of the artist.

No longer the "forbidden herb," the momentum of legalization moving across the nation (and the globe) is opening doors. The art of expressing cannabis terroir is really in it's beginning stages. However, it holds the promise of redefining the global marijuana marketplace.

Jacobsen summarizes it perfectly:

"We have a long way to go to tease out the best expressions of the terroir of many places, and an even longer way to go to cultivate a society that appreciates the attempt, but the past few years have seen such a blossoming of enthusiasm and creativity that I feel confident in asserting the American terroir's time has come."

Looking to branch out and try some new strains of marijuana? Use our Marijuana Finder to locate the different varieties of cannabis available in your area.