The Gift of Terroir

With the holidays around the corner, folks should focus on terroir-based gifts for friends and family.

by Bradley Beam
Bradley Beam, left, of Spoon River Junction in Canton and Doug Abbott of Mockingbird Vineyards in Spring Lake press St. Croix grapes from the 2020 harvest. Photography by Lisa Brown
Bradley Beam, left, of Spoon River Junction in Canton and Doug Abbott of Mockingbird Vineyards in Spring Lake press St. Croix grapes from the 2020 harvest. Photography by Lisa Brown

No, not the gift of terror—2020 has already provided enough of that. Terroir (pronounced “ter-wah”) is a French term used in the wine world which loosely translates into “a sense of place.” More specifically, terroir is how a region’s climate, topography, soil, grape varieties, production traditions and people all work together to produce something truly unique: a bottle of wine that tells a story about that region through its sensory attributes. 

For example, our own central Illinois is defined by hot and humid summers, rich soil, generous rainfall, and very cold winters. While these conditions are great for annual row crops, they are challenging for the reliable production of a perennial crop like grapes and require cold-hardy, disease-resistant cultivars. The varieties grown in central Illinois may be less familiar than Cabernet or Chardonnay, but grapes like Marquette, Itasca and Petite Pearl have tons of potential to produce world-class wines.

Bradley Beam of Spoon River Junction was Illinois' state wine specialist from 2006 to 2018.
Bradley Beam of Spoon River Junction was Illinois' state wine specialist from 2006 to 2018. 

Unique Windows Into Life
It takes a pretty serious wine enthusiast to pick up terroir-based differences with the senses alone, and the science of terroir is still debated in academic circles. However, the definition of terroir is not just agricultural, but societal as well. The people of the region and their traditions are critical to the development of terroir in a wine. “A sense of place” means more than just what a region looks like, but how it feels to be in a specific place and time. 

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately, as everyone struggles to stay connected to friends and family. It reminds me of leaving the nest for the first time, heading off to college in the early 1990s. Keeping in touch wasn’t quite as easy then as it is today, but I remember sending and receiving mixtapes to and from friends regularly. Those cassette tapes were great gifts because each opened a unique window into the life and experience of others from a distance, sharing a little of the local terroir. I still keep some of these antiquated artifacts, despite being unable to play them on anything anymore! That’s the impact of something handmade, regional and truly unique.

Supporting Local
With the holidays around the corner, folks should focus on terroir-based gifts to send to friends and family this year—including local music and visual arts, restaurants, gift shops, and local food and beverages. For example, I know a lot of people who send Kitchen Cooked potato chips to family members who are out of state. Let’s do the same thing with local art, music, books and wine! Central Illinois winemaking traditions are still developing, but there are now at least eight local wine producers within an hour of Peoria. Wineries can ship wines on your behalf, and most also support local food producers, artists and musicians. 

The newest of these central Illinois wineries, Spoon River Junction in Fulton County, was started as an answer to the many “what if we tried…” questions I’ve asked myself over the last decade or so, when I was Illinois’ enology specialist and advisor to the state’s wine industry. SRJX is constantly trying out new ideas and wine styles—things we want to see in the world of wine that may not yet exist. In short, we produce creative wines for adventurous people. You can learn more about this project at spoonriverjunction.com. Thanks for checking it out, and for supporting your local artisans this holiday season. Cheers! PM

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