Legally, you can’t market sparkling wine as “champagne” unless the wine’s source of origin is in Champagne, France. This law derives from terroir, the concept that the soil, climate and other characteristics of a particular location or region affect the plants grown there. Could the same be true of a cannabis plant’s geographically precise source of origin? More and more people are starting to say “yes.”
Setting up a social pedestal for weed beside wine’s centuries-old pedestal is a rather bold move. Top-shelf wine has long conferred a sense of sophistication, especially among people impressed by connoisseurs who can call out a wine’s “youthful earthy tones” and whatnot.
By contrast, cannabis has been denigrated relentlessly in Western culture for at least 100 years. As a consequence, associating weed with the lofty notion of terroir is unthinkable to people unacquainted with what is undeniably a miraculous plant. Nevertheless, cannabis terroir is gaining traction legally. And whether you’re a cannabis grower, consumer or advocate, this is great news for all kinds of reasons.
What is cannabis terroir?
For any type of terroir (pronounced “tare-WAHR”), the environmental factors that impart special traits to a particular crop, whether it be grapes, coffee beans, tobacco or anything else, are:
- Climate (especially precipitation levels and patterns).
- Elevation (for sunlight and water absorption).
- Farming methods (fertilizer use, irrigation, pruning style, etc.).
- Soil composition (minerals and microbial makeup).
- Terrain (natural topographical features).
In the case of cannabis, the place where a plant is grown directly influences the density, flavor, and terpene and cannabinoid profiles of the bud. (To compare this to the related concept of landraces, read this article by “Terpenes and Testing Magazine.”) Missouri Marijuana Card explains that cannabis terroir entails genetics, soil composition, nutrient schedules, climate, elevation, slope, solar orientation and geological factors, among other things.
Geographer and CNRS Research Fellow Dr. Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy simplifies the concept by identifying three factors whose interaction creates a defined typicity unique to a terroir in the context of cannabis cultivation:
- Physical and biological environment (soil, climate, surrounding livestock, etc.).
- Collective production knowledge (economic, social, political and other characteristics developed over time).
- Crop specificity/diversity (landraces, heirlooms, hybrids, etc.).
According to cannabis cultivator and seller Abide Napa, the four things that determine cannabis terroir in particular are:
- Where the cannabis was grown.
- When the cannabis was grown.
- A grower’s unique cultivation process.
- How the cannabis plant is harvested.
Once that has been established, the authenticity of a terroir-developed cannabis product can be verified if its cannabis source was cultivated outdoors, grown in the ground and grown in full sunlight.
Is cannabis terroir pseudoscience or legit?
Is the concept of cannabis terroir just a hoax being perpetrated to hike up (legal) weed prices though? Some people are persuaded that it is, but these cynics tend to use wine grapes as a universal metric – which is hardly scientific.
In light of the aforementioned complexity of terroir, it seems like an oversimplification to limit cannabis terroir’s validity to its resemblance (or lack thereof) to wine terroir. However, here are the two points made that are worth acknowledging.
First, given that cannabis is an annual plant that dies each year, some suspect that it doesn’t have the time needed to establish terroir. By contrast, grapevines live for decades, so they can interact with, affect and be affected by all the facets of their natural and cultural environments. To the dismay of those who believe that cannabis needs a longer life cycle to create terroir though, this notion is refuted through the epigenetics of cannabis (more on that later).
Second, cannabis can be grown indoors with hydroponic cultivation, which uses a water-based nutrient solution in place of soil. Thus, if cannabis does not rely on outdoor cultivation like grapes do, it must not be capable of expressing terroir at a fundamental level.
One should pause to consider, however, that if grapes were illegal to grow like cannabis is in many places, innovative ways of growing them indoors might emerge out of necessity too. Otherwise put, the incentive, not the ingenuity, is what’s missing for soil-less vineyards. And those who declare that grapes are limited to soil because grapes have been thus far seem disingenuous.
After all, it’s said that the best wine comes from grapes grown in bad soil. So, who’s to say that finding an alternative means of cultivating grapes – the emperors of terroir – is impossible?
The rebuttal to those (and any other) objections begins with examining terpenes. Found in all plants, flowers and fruits, terpenes are the organic compounds responsible for generating unique scents and flavors. According to The Cannabis Industry, most of what you think you’re tasting when you’re drinking wine or smoking pot is actually what you’re smelling. So, terpenes are essentially what steer the sensory experience you have with plants, flowers and fruits.
Terpenes’ significance is reflected in the fact that labels on cannabis products are more commonly specifying which terpenes are in them. When making that observation in a marketing report, New Frontier Data researcher Oliver Bennett said: “As the industry grows, terpenes may well become one of the most important factors in customers’ purchasing practices. After all, in the old days of illicit cannabis, to smell the produce was one of the most crucial tests that a buyer could undertake.”
Each cannabis plant’s terpene profile (aroma, flavor and color) is directly influenced by the plant’s terroir. The latter includes temperature fluctuations, soil composition, altitude, sun exposure and a host of other things. And within each cannabis strain, each terpenoid compound interacts differently with the plant’s cannabinoids, such as cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), achieving a variety of entourage effects.
In simpler terms, specific combinations of these generate specific effects when consumed. For instance, some terpenes induce relaxation in your mind and body. Owing to this, growers have learned to cultivate strains with deliberately crafted terpene profiles. The most common profiles are:
- Camphene (forests and fir tree flavors).
- Humulene (earthy hops and spices).
- Limonene (sweet fruits and citrus flavors).
- Linalool (flowery flavors).
- Myrcene (musky, herbal flavors).
- Phellandrene (peppermint and citrus).
- Pinene (pine flavors).
- Terpineol (lilacs and other floral flavors).
- Terpinolene (herbal, sage, rosemary).
This is why distinct flavors, potency and other qualities are strikingly different among cannabis plants grown in Afghanistan, Thailand, California and Morocco. It’s undeniable that location (terroir) matters. That’s not just a theory; it was proven in Turkey and recorded in a 2015 BIO Web of Conferences article. The Cannabis Horticultural Association provides corroborating evidence in its own (less formal) analysis, too.
If you need a deeper scientific analysis though, consider the cannabis plant’s phenotypic plasticity, or its ability to adapt over time to thrive in certain soils and temperate zones. That cellular intelligence indicates an inextricable relationship with environment, regardless of cannabis’s relatively brief lifespan.
Add to that the plant’s epigenetics, or its ability to modify its phenotypes such that subsequent generations of the same plant grow with enhanced abilities to survive. The latter of these is activated by soil, which is why there’s a higher premium on outdoor cannabis farms.
Employing epigenetics, a feeble cannabis plant grown in a windy area will leave messages (in layman’s terms) in the soil for the next plant to grow with greater mass to resist wind damage. This too is indicative of an inborn biological association with the cannabis plant’s environment.
Factoring in these phenomena, a presentation given at the Oct. 24, 2017, meeting of The Geological Society of America in Seattle, Washington, concluded the following about cannabis terroir:
“Thousands of years ago, ancestral varieties of cannabis evolved independently across Asia, a direct response to diverse environments. Human cultivation of the plant has resulted in a proliferation of cannabis strains selected for specific genetic traits. While the genotype determines the range of possible traits that a plant may have, growth conditions determine where they will be on the spectrum of possibilities. It is expected that clones with the same genetics grown by multiple farmers will express different phenotypes because of epigenetic changes that take place as plants adapt to their unique environment, the essence of terroir. … While the presence of specific organic compounds seems tied to genetics, preliminary data suggest that the relative abundance of those compounds among plants from unique farms may be related to differences in growing methods and terroir.”
What does this mean in practical terms?
Cannabis terroir makes for an interesting philosophical discussion, but it’s actually a functional concept too. The way of making it useful is to establish a way to apply it in an appellation system for cannabis, designed like the appellation system in place for wine.
An appellation is simply the name of the legally defined and protected geographic location where a given wine’s grapes were grown, such as Champagne. In his article on regional cannabis, “Cannabis Business Times” contributor Kenneth Morrow said the following regarding creating an appellation system for cannabis:
“Appellations may become an important consideration and designation, especially once cannabis is legalized at the federal level and interstate commerce becomes a reality. I could foresee an industry-wide, multi-level system that denotes exactly where the cannabis was produced; which natural factors affected its production (e.g., coastal marine layers); who produced it; and how it was produced, such as indoor versus outdoor, and whether it was produced sustainably (e.g., in small, no-till garden beds). … Possibly the best aspects of the aforementioned proposals can be formulated to create a new, consumer-friendly system to easily translate exactly where and how a given product of a batch of cannabis was produced.”
In September 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom laid the foundation for the world’s first cannabis appellation system when he established the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s (CDFA) Cannabis Appellations Program. This won’t create a definitive strain claiming all of California as its terroir.
Rather, certain counties – particularly those in the famed Emerald Triangle – will be able to build up their individual brand names. Other states have yet to follow suit, and there’s the lingering issue of the federal government’s conditional objection to cannabis as a Schedule I drug, but this is an important first step.
Why does any of this matter to cannabis growers/sellers and consumers?
As stated in the opening, formally recognizing cannabis terroir benefits cannabis growers and consumers, as well as anyone who’s simply pro-weed. At the state level, this means receiving more in taxes, for one thing. Adding to that, a new source of tourism revenue can emerge as destination cannabis farms make names for themselves. The Emerald Triangle’s cannabis farms could eventually host elaborate tours in the same way that Napa vineyards do, for instance. This gives the state more money, while also boosting farmers’ revenues and reputations.
That’s of magnified importance to small, disadvantaged farms. Terroir has even been credited by Chouvy with potentially preserving the livelihoods of some of the world’s poorest farmers. Wilfred Franklin expands on Chouvy’s optimistic prediction in his own article on cannabis terroir:
“I believe terroir can be very useful, if not essential to a thriving cannabis industry. Moreover, it just might be the key to the long-term health of small, family-owned cannabis farms across California. If cannabis becomes just another consumable ‘commodity,’ economies of scale will likely drive cannabis agriculture to consolidate and strip small rural communities of an important economic base. In other words, terroir in cannabis, can save small producers and growers like it has helped keep small boutique wine producers and growers alive in every part of California.”
In addition, growers benefit from applying their branding skills and being able to create a high-end product grown in the native soil, without using synthetic fertilizers or chemicals. Advantages such as those are critical to farms whose workers labor to establish reliable quality, only to have counterfeit strains claim association with them. Similarly, appellations protect workers and business owners by preventing larger corporations from using the name of their area while selling products not produced in that area. Swami Chaitanya goes into great detail on that in an article of his in Ganjier.
Also, with appellations derived from terroir, consumers benefit from being certain that the cannabis product they purchase is pure, has the flavor they’re expecting, and is free of contaminants. The latter is crucial regarding certain fertilizers and pesticides, which can leave nearly 70% of their substance into what goes on to be smoked in a joint.
At the highest level though, the cannabis species wins if terroir is acknowledged for cannabis and an appellation system spreads worldwide. Chouvy emphasizes the importance of these things to cannabis conservation:
“In the end, acknowledging the existence of, and actively conserving cannabis terroirs and landraces, can only come to benefit as a form of conservation and promotion of biological, cultural, and sensorial (especially through varied flavours and aromas) diversity. … Protecting terroirs can … [p]romote typicity in a consumer-led market that veers towards standardisation and commodification; [p]romote low-input and low-carbon farming systems, building on local knowledge and practices; [m]ake ecologically coherent farming systems possible, transforming small farming into more financially viable ventures; [and] [v]alue and respect geohistorical specificities, traditions and heritages (landraces developed in isolated areas partly because of prohibition) without denying progress and economic development.”
A cannabis plant incorporates climate and soil into its growth in the same way that grapes do. By extension, grapes’ appellation system could confer far-reaching benefits upon cannabis if it is adapted to weed.
As consumers have become more knowledgeable about cannabis, growers and sellers have been finding better ways to communicate their products’ quality, and terroir (codified via appellations) could fast-track that. The days of having two weed options – great or bad – are well behind even the cultures that have yet to openly embrace pot.
Today’s cannabis consumers are interested in things like flavor and scientifically proven, precise effects (e.g., relaxation, nausea prevention). And it’s worth protecting consumers’ safety, safeguarding family-owned farms, and conserving cannabis’s genetic and cultural diversity by acknowledging and building on cannabis terroir.
Kathleen Hearons is a writer, editor, linguist and voice over actor from Los Angeles. She specializes in creative writing and research-intensive analysis and reporting.
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