Heirloom Tomatoes and Terroir

Because heirloom tomatoes are delicious; because they come in so many flavors, colors, shapes and sizes and because buying the seeds helps keep regional seed companies in business, heirlooms are what we mostly grow. There are about 150 possibilities, so we try a few new ones every year. Only a few; lion’s share of the space goes to essentials like Brandywine, the tomato that (deservedly) put heirlooms on the map.

The essentials list is rich with possessives: Pruden’s Purple – Brandywine-ish, but earlier and usually smaller; Kellogg’s Breakfast – fat, juicy and orange, named for a railroad man, not Mr. Cereal; and Aunt Ruby’s German Green, which after trying many ripe-when-green tomatoes we have concluded is best.

There is also a must-have hybrid: Sun Gold, a yellow cherry tomato unmatched for sweet fruit, disease resistance and mind-bending productivity. One plant could feed the multitudes if it were happy and given free rein to grow as large as it wanted ( and if rain didn’t crack all the fruit, a very common misfortune)


left to right: Kellogg’s Breakfast, Aunt Ruby’s German Green, Pruden’s Purple, White Wonder, Japanese Black Trifele. The little guys are White Currant

Where does the terroir come in? Because we grow the same varieties in both gardens but they don’t taste the same. The New York Brandywines, for instance, are sweeter than the Maine ones, while the Maine Green Grapes are swoonworthy compared to those from New York.

We’ve never tried a blindfold test and they do vary from year to year, but you can usually taste when you taste them the elusive “somewhereness” that wine writer Matt Kramer has used as a rough translation of “gout de terroir,” a staple term in winespeak. It can refer only to mineral flavors but just as often means “everything about a place that affects taste in ways that make that taste unique.”

The more literal translation is “taste of earth ( or soil),” though how and why – and if – it exists is a subject of some contention, especially in the wake of a debunking story in the New York Times ( Talk Dirt to Me) by Harold McGee
and Daniel Patterson.

To me it seems like a no-brainer, given all the ways – completely apart from the genetics of regional adaptation – that place matters to the taste of fruit: differences in soil lead to differences in nutrient uptake; differences in climate affect not only the plants themselves but also the likely assortment of pests and diseases and by extension the steps taken to combat them – or not.

The problem may be that in most cases you can’t compare growing places without comparing growers and the differences between them can easily trump everything else.

But not in our case. We are us in both places and our plants are as close to being the same plants as non-hybrid plants can be: all 70 of the seedlings we start with come from the same set of seeds and are grown by the same person at the same place (Jan MacDonald, at Barley Joe Farm in Warren Maine).


Maine babies about to hit the road for New York.

Oh, one more very important thing: we don’t make tomato wine and introduce all those variables, so my use of terroir for tomatoes can ( and no doubt will) be dismissed as apples and oranges. But if the taste of the fruit matters that little to the taste of wine, the dismissers are in a lot bigger trouble than anything I can cause.

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  • Erroll Said,

    I’m growing tomatoes, yellow cherry tomatoes called Gold Nugget, to make white wine this year. I’ve never made or tasted tomato wine before, so I don’t know if it will work out. If it does, I’d like to make a red next year, and for that, I’ll need the smallest, darkest skinned tomatoes I can get. There are three I’m considering: Black Russian, Black Cherry, Brown Berry. I don’t know very much about them yet except that they are smaller and darker than most tomatoes.

    I’m trying to find out more about them, and I wonder if you can help. How well would they grow near Seattle, WA? Do they require anything out of the ordinary? Are their any other varietals that you would recommend?

  • leslie Said,

    Hi Erroll,

    Interesting to hear about the tomato wine; confess I was mentioning it mostly to make the point; not being big fans of fruit wines with food (about the only time we drink wine except at other people’s parties) we’ve never thought about making any.

    I HAVE made “tomato figs,” a 19th century preserve that’s essentially candied tomatoes. They were pretty good, but there’s just so much candied fruit you can eat, even counting the Christmas baking.

    Returning to the wine question, Black Russian is the only tomato on your list that we have grown. It was ok, but not as good as Black Prince or Black from Tula, and they in turn were less delicious than the Japanese Black Trifele that is our current standby. It’s much darker than it looks in the picture, and very prolific. It is also on the small side, though not as small as your recipe seems to be requiring. ( Black Russian is no beefsteak; but it’s a full size tomato.)

    As far as Seattle goes, the only problem I can imagine is insufficient heat and sun for whatever tomato you grew to do its best for you.

    After reading your comment, I looked briefly at some tomato wine recipes and notice those for red tomato wine include different flavoring agents than those suggested for white. I would guess that those agents are the only thing that makes red tomato wine taste different from white.

    Unlike grapes, tomatoes do not have skins that that affect flavor. The red in the red ones comes from carotinoids, primarily lycopene, that are present in very small amounts and seem to have little influence on taste , which in tomatoes comes primarily from sugars and acids.

    In purified form, red tomato carotinoids are sold as flavorless natural coloring agents. A lot better than Red #2 – http://www.lycored.com/web/content/colorant-tomat-o-red.asp – if you’re curious.

    Please let us know how the white comes out – especially compared to other unusual wines, if you make them too.

  • Erroll Said,

    Thank you for looking into this for me. It looks like I should strike Black Russian from my list. Skins are very important in red wine, and a pound of smaller fruit has more skin than a pound of larger fruit.

    When you say that tomato skins don’t affect the flavor, that could scuttle the whole project. The flavonoids in grape skins provide red wine with it’s characteristic flavor, and I would need them, even if they were different types and in different concentrations, to make a red wine from tomatoes. Some of my books go into the composition of grapes, but I haven’t been able to find similar information about tomatoes. Do you know of a good book or web site?

    I’m not using a recipe. Instead, I intend to make the tomato wine the same way you would make a grape wine. For the white, that would mean extracting the juice, adjusting the sugar and acid, then fermenting. No added water and no flavoring agents. I’ve outlined my plan in more detail here. My plans for red wine are more fuzzy, but I hope to make it as much like a red grape wine as possible. That Tomat-O-Red might come in handy if color extraction isn’t very good.

  • leslie Said,

    Hi again, Errol

    Your plan outline makes it clear you know much more than I do about what you’re looking for — you don’t say anything about the tannins in grape skins, for instance, which I would have thought were relevant.

    In case they are, tomatoes don’t have ’em. Maybe it would make sense for you to taste the tomato skins before bothering to make the wine. If you want to do that without the changes heat would create , you can get the tomato skins this way:

    freeze whole tomato until completely solid. Hold frozen tomato under running water (temp doesn’t matter) for a few seconds. Skin will slip right off.

    google is rich with academic deconstructions of tomatoes btw; a lot of research has been done , especially on the flavonoids.

    Good point on your blog about the denigration implied in “fruit wine,” given that grapes are themselves fruits. On the other hand, I think grapes are universally understood to be the basis of “wine.” Saying “fruit wine” saves us all from having to say “otherfruit wine” when we want to be sure everybody knows we’re not talking about the grape kind (or sake).

  • Erroll Said,

    There are high quality tannins available as additives, and Tomat-O-Red could make up for poor color extraction. But I can’t just reach for the bottle of “red wine flavor” to make up for that deficiency. So I’ll taste the skins and go from there.

    Red tomato wine would be a big project. As with the white, it would start with seeds in early spring. After tending the plants and harvesting in the summer, I’d start making the wine. It would need to age for a year or two. If I do all that, it will be with open eyes, thanks to you. If not, you may have saved me a lot of trouble.

    So thank you!

  • leslie Said,

    You’re more than welcome. It’s been fun for me to participate — so painlessly! — in your big project. Please let us all know how the white comes out, and keep us abreast of developments if you do go forward with the red.

  • Graham Said,

    What a fantastic website – congratulations – quite breathtaking.

  • I’m looking for a recipe for candied tomato relish with jalapenos…do you know one??

  • leslie Said,


    my (very) belated thanks… your comment somehow slipped in under the radar.


    Sorry I don’t know a recipe for the relish… but it does sound interesting. Maybe I’ll try to cook one up when tomato season finally comes and in the meantime – good luck; pLease let us know if you find one that works as you’re hoping.

  • Jane Said,

    absolutely loved reading this. we are growing heirlooms in the foothills of Los Angeles and wish we could trade with east coasters for a tasting of tomato terroir!

    Welcome, Jane,
    and thanks for a truly nifty idea. Now all we have to do is figure out how to put it together!

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