Terroir is the wine world’s favourite word. It’s that delicious je ne sais quoi factor that sets great wines apart from their lesser brethren of the same (grape) stock. The word, as countless wine experts have dinned into us hapless Indians, is of French origin and imbues places (regions, particular vineyards etc) with unique characteristics of soil and climate that influence the way grapes grown there taste when they are vinified. Now, however, terroir has stepped out of the oenophiles’ private club into the hullabaloo of everyday life.

This fact was brought home to me twice in the space of a few hours last Wednesday. In the morning I was thrilled to see an ad in The Times of India announcing that Darjeeling tea has been “registered as a GI (geographical indication) in India” which in plain English means that only tea grown in Darjeeling will henceforth be allowed to be called Darjeeling tea. Like champagne can only be called that if made in the Champagne region of France; similarly it’s only cognac if it’s from Cognac.

Otherwise they are just sparkling wine and brandy, respectively. The relevant segment of the WTO-TRIPS agreement on protection of geographical indications (thoughtfully inserted into the ad) makes it all pretty clear: “Any product that originates in a country or region thereof and whose quality, reputation or other characteristic is attributable to its geographical origin, is regarded as GI and is protected internationally”. In other words, terroir is now accepted worldwide as a determinant of characteristics and quality.

But terroir connections go much further than wine, tea and the legal labyrinths of WTO. Later on the same day as I was talking to Chef Tuomas Heikkinen, who has breathed a new life into The Oberoi New Delhi’s Travertino restaurant, terroir struck again. “I have been using only Alpine butter for my tortellini….” enthused the young Finn with a flair for Italian cuisine. “Alpine butter??” I asked, remembering long-ago tales of Heidi’s wholesome fare of bread and butter when living with her grandpa in the Alps.

“We import it,” said Tuomas, warming to his subject. “It’s golden and made from the milk of cows feeding at high altitudes on lush green grass. So it’s much richer in vitamins….” Different from other butters made from the milk of the same breed of cows in other places, no doubt. So it’s a unique combination of place, climate, altitude, etc — in other words, terroir. Only we were talking about butter, not wine or tea.

part 2 to follow