Terroir – the unique assemblage of cultural, geophysical, and ecological conditions that define a place – has been described simultaneously as both a social and scientific mechanism through which food products become authentic, edible reflections of their origins. While etymologically French, the concept is perhaps as old as agriculture itself (ancient Greeks, for example, labeled wines by their sites of origin to prevent fraud). Today, the concept has inspired international specialty food producers and consumers, resulting in an assortment of policy frameworks that use terroir to protect and label foods by their origin (e.g., Darjeeling tea, Champagne). Although a variety of physical factors influence agricultural origins, equally important are the culturally-informed elements of terroir: identity, taste, and authenticity. Through protectionist labeling policy schemes, these inherently subjective qualities of a particular place-based food are commodified and protected as intellectual property, giving terroir legal expression (Josling 2006).
Scholars problematize these policies and the selling of terroir foods for their obscuring of labor (Besky 2013), conflation of producer and product in geographic branding (Brulotte and Giovine 2014), arbitrarily-defined “traditional” products and modes of production (Trubek 2008), obfuscating of historical social relations (Ulin 2013), and the impossibility of copywriting sensory experiences (taste) (Gangjee 2012). The dominance of familiar geographies and terroir, and the standardization of “good tastes” has also been critiqued for historical contingency: in mid-18th century France, capitalizing on claims to unique ecologies (and linking them to flavors) led to the perpetuation of existing power structures and the status of elites (Demossier 2011, Ulin 2013, Guy 2007). For this reason, anthropologists critique geographical branding and the employment of terroir for necessarily excluding those historically without resources or global familiarity (Jung 2014, Ulin 2013).
Hungary, with the second oldest 'proto-GI' in the world, joined the European Union in 2004. In 2008, Austrian activists boycotted the Hungarian production of traditional libamáj (foie gras), for implications of animal cruelty — an “obstacle for Hungary to be accepted as civilizationally European” (Gille 2009:1); in the same year, French President Sarkozy vowed to apply for the inclusion of French fois gras in the protected UN's World Heritage List. In this way, foods originating in Hungary and other Central and Eastern European (CEE) states are disproportionately scrutinized, labeled suspect, unhealthy, or unsafe for import by Western Europe (Caldwell 2009, Gille 2009). Despite this, few have addressed where that might leave such “off the map” terroir products that rely specifically on the desirability and reputation of their geographic origins. Nowhere does this appear so strongly in the “New Old World” as in wine: the iconic place-based taste. As such, Hungary is an ideal site for this research.
Data come from a 14-month ethnographic study in the Tokaj wine region and Budapest, Hungary, which was primarily funded through a Fulbright Study Award (September 2016 - May 2017) and a Mellon-CES Fellowship (June 2018-May 2019), which currently supports analysis and writing. Data include: semi-structured, informant-led interview-tastings and vineyard/cellar tours with Tokaj wine producers and wine professionals, participant observation in taste courses and in vineyards (audio/video and field notes), policy narratives (content analysis of historic and contemporary Tokaj PDO-related policy and publications), as well as content analysis of marketing materials from the Tokaj region and its constituent villages. Transcriptions and translations have been cross-checked with native Hungarian speakers to ensure accuracy and retain nuance.
This research merges three previously disparate directions in the literature: 1) anthropology of the senses, 2) political ecology of food and agriculture (including consumer vs. producer approaches), and 3) post-socialist transitions. It makes a case for studying terroir-making in the post-socialist context as a socio-political-ecological project of affective ecologies, foregrounding the socio-political life of taste as it inspires action that, in turn, shapes agroecologies.