terroir: What makes my fruit so flavorful? Why does my apple tree grown here in California produce apples that taste so much different than when I tasted them as a child in New England? The answers may not be as simple as you would like. There are many factors that make your fruit flavorful and distinct. Researching the unique varieties of fruit trees before planting may help so that you can have optimal results which translate to delicious fruit!
Some of these factors often discussed are sunlight, irrigation practices, pruning, or soil composition. Also the harvest decision is often subjective and differences in how the apples are stored emerge. But another concept to consider would be terroir. Terroir is often discussed referring to vineyards, especially older vineyards in Europe. However, it is also believed that terroir affects the taste of other crops in addition to grapes (Trubek, A 2008, Jacobsen, R. 2010). Terroir is the sum of the complete environmental conditions in which a particular fruit is grown. Soil, topography, and climate especially influence unique characteristics of fruit. The belief is that flavor of the fruit reflects the soil and climate of the region it is grown.
Geography and geomorphology affects the availability of different minerals, soil and water pH, water quality, slope and aspect of the land which the crop is grown. Geographically, soils differ in their chemical and physical properties. However, physical properties (ex. clay vs. alluvial soils) may affect fruit more than the chemical since the physical properties of soil is what help move the water supply to the roots and eventually to the fruit. Physical properties may also affect the structure of the tree. The roots may grow deeper into the soil and tap into a higher water table or have access to more nutritive soils. The chemical properties of soil is also important, but mainly if there are deficiencies or excess components (ex nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium etc. ).
Climate is a very important factor that may drastically change the flavor or the amount of fruit (and your tree’s overall ability to be prolific). Fruit, nut trees and vines require a minimum of 6 hours of sun per day and some can use even more. Temperatures that are too low delay ripening, but temperatures that are too high promote early ripening, higher sugar content, less acidity and thicker skins which certianly impact the fruit charcteristics.
Water drastically changes the flavors of fruit. In drought conditions, most fruit may taste sweeter because there's less dilution. The sugary taste is enhanced because there's less water in the actual fruit. However, this may lead to smaller fruit size, which is not optimal for grocery stores, but is an advantage of having your own garden or orchard. Water quality affects the flavor based on its pH and its minerals (together with the pH and makeup of the soil).
In California, terroir for fruit trees is amplified with our incredibly diverse microclimates. Lounging on a warm sunny beach and playing in the snow covered hills in the same day is a reality in California so you can imagine the contrasting growing condition. For example, we live a few miles away from hundreds of acres of avocados which will not tolerate temperatures dropping below freezing for an extended period, but in winter our nursery will drop below 32 most every night in January and February, thanks to our specific microclimate.
There are always exciting new surprises in our orchard. I’ve found the best apples for us are often the English apple varieties despite our extreme summer temperatures which often reach 110. The Ashmeads Kernel, Bramley Seedling, Cox Orange Pippin, Golden Noble and Laxtons Fortune thrive in our climate and I wring my hands with excitement as the fruit ripens. So it’s always exciting to discover what pulses with flavor when we plant a heirloom tree that originated from a land far away. We never know, despite the origin, exactly how well a fruit tree will perform and taste in your terroir.
Essentially, terroir is a perfect way to describe distinctive flavors given to food based on where it grows. This concept inspires our family to continue to taste the fruit of the region when we travel, so we can taste the distinctive flavors of the fruit expressed from the earth and sky.
Anesi et al. 2015 . Towards a scientific interpretation of the terroir concept: plasticity of the grape berry metabolome. BMC Plant Biol. 2015; 15: 191. Aug 7. doi: 10.1186/s12870-015-0584-4
Trubek, A. B.: Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir, University of California Press, 15 Berkeley and Los Angeles, California, 2008.
Jacobsen, R.: American Terroir: Savoring the Flavors of Our Woods, Waters, and Fields, 20 Bloomsbury USA, New York, 2010.