Exploring Cannabis Terroir

August 16, 2023
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Exploring Cannabis Terroir: The Impact of Growing Conditions

As cannabis products gain increasing acceptance, a number of craft or boutique cannabis growers have emerged to cater to consumers looking for a higher quality, better-tasting product. Along with those growers are a host of “ganjiers,” certified cannabis experts who approach the plant in the same spirit that sommeliers might approach wine.

Some of the language of the wine world has made its way into the cannabis space as well. “Terroir,” for example, is a French word often used by wine tasters to describe wines with a “sense of place,” according to wine, beer, and spirit culture outlet VinePair.

“When someone says a wine exhibits terroir, all they mean is that the wine they are drinking tastes the way a wine grown and made in the region where it was grown and made should taste,” Vinepair explains.

In this article, we’ll explore terroir in relation to cannabis, including how differences in terroir can change effects and flavor of cannabis products. We’ll also examine one particular proposed terroir product: Moroccan hashish.

What is cannabis terroir?

Put simply, terroir is the combined result of the “soil type, climate (sunlight, temperature, and rainfall) and topography” where the grapes were grown. The same can be said for cannabis, especially when it is grown outdoors.

While academic literature on cannabis and terroir is somewhat limited — it is, after all, difficult to establish a formal and widely accepted concept of terroir when you’re cultivating a historically illegal plant — Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy, a researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research, has published several articles on the subject in recent years. 

Chouvy is quick to complicate our understanding of terroir as a concept. For him, terroir is not just about the environment in which a cannabis plant is grown. At least as important are a variety of human factors.

“A terroir is necessarily associated to a know-how, a collective knowledge that is not innate but results from an evolving process of accumulation of individual and collective experiences over time,” Chouvy writes.

“Terroir [is] the product of a collective cultural heritage, that is, of the cultural knowledge of a given society or social group, often that of a peasantry. In that sense, a terroir results from a system of interactions between environmental factors (soil, climate, topography, hydrography, flora, fauna, micro-organisms, etc.) and human factors (economic, social, political, and cultural characteristics, crop cultivation and livestock production systems, production practices and techniques, skills, etc.),” he explains.

Many regions historically renowned for cannabis cultivation, such as Afghanistan, India, Mexico, Morocco, Jamaica, and Mexico (this is by no means an exhaustive list), are likely to be home to at least one terroir that can be formally designated. 

The concept of cannabis terroir is further complicated by the ways global prohibition efforts have driven growing practices, processing techniques, and other human aspects of cannabis cultivation and consumption underground. Cannabis professionals interested in exploring a way to treat terroir for cannabis in a manner similar to terroir for wine are faced with a complex challenge rife with environmental and political hazards.

Does terroir impact cannabinoids and terpenes?

While, as Chouvy argues, cannabis enthusiasts and professionals in the Global North tend to place a premium on a plant's genetics when looking for their ideal phenotypes and chemotypes, terroir also likely plays a significant role in the effects and taste of the end product after cannabis flower has been harvested and processed.

The scientific evidence confirming the effects of terroir on individual plants’ chemotypes remains limited, but the cannabis industry widely acknowledges that soil and other environmental factors influence the end product. 

For a bit of supporting anecdotal evidence, we can turn to operations like Colorado’s Verde Natural, operated by grower Chuck Blackton, who uses his claim to have mastered the knowledge typical of what we might call California’s Humboldt County terroir as a selling point for his company’s products.

Evidence from indoor growers further supports the notion that environmental factors, as well as human cultivation practices, have a significant impact on the final product. One study published in 1998 in the Journal of the International Hemp Association, for example, found that factors as basic as the amount of time remaining before full maturity when the flowers are harvested, the density with which plants are placed, and the local weather all play a significant role in the quality of the end product.

Chouvy uses the differences between hashish manufactured in Morocco and Afghanistan to illustrate how regional differences in climate, soil, processing technique, and so on are made apparent in the final product. 

Moroccan hashish, grown in the northern Rif region, “is best described as dry and powdery, often brittle (it is pressed into bricks), greenish to brown, very aromatic and smooth, and much less spicy (easy on the throat) than hashish from other countries. It produces short uplifting effects (‘high’) due to rather mild concentrations of THC, ” he explains.

“In comparison, Afghan hashish (chars) is more diverse (various cultigens of the indica type in various regions of production) but can generally be said to be brownish-red, soft, easily kneaded (it is kneaded, not pressed as in Morocco), and very spicy (hard on the throat). It produces long and strong, almost narcotic effects (‘stone’).”

Case study: Moroccan hashish

To better understand how the concept of terroir can be extremely important in relation to a specific cannabis product, we’ll examine Morocco's famous hashish — one terroir product that Chouvy has specifically advocated for due to the risk that it might be crushed by competition from commercially grown and processed cannabis products from the same region, as Morocco expands its legal cannabis industry.

In discussing Moroccan hashish, Chouvy insists on an important connection between the local landrace cannabis cultivar, called kif, that has grown in Morocco for centuries and the environment of that region, arguing that “it has adapted to the natural (edaphic and climatic characteristics) and cultural (cultivation techniques and selection for particular uses) environment of the Rif, in part due to the region’s relative geographical isolation.”

This cultivar, with a long history in the region and subsequent adaptations, stands in stark contrast to the modern cannabis hybrids that have been brought to the region but are ill-suited to the environment due to their relatively much higher need for water, Chouvy states. 

These new hybrid cultivars have “jeopardized the ecological balance of a region that is fragile in various respects,” he adds.

In summary, according to Chouvy, the establishment and understanding of cannabis terroirs provides an avenue for the preservation of sustainable growing practices and cultural traditions related to processing and consumption. 

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