The culture, geography and biology of a place give unique flavors to local food products, a concept that could help a group of small Wisconsin cheesemakers in its search to carve out a niche in the crowded marketplace for cheese.

The concept of terroir, or "taste of place," could help the cheesemakers promote products from a specific region — such as the driftless region in southwestern Wisconsin, experts say.

Cheesemakers met Feb. 3 in Potosi at a seminar sponsored by the Driftless Food and Farming Project, a collaboration of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems and Dairy Business Innovation Center, with support from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The driftless region, named for the absence of terrain-flattening glaciers during recent ice ages, reaches 57 counties in Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota and Iowa. With hilly terrain that is more conducive to grazing than row crops, the driftless region accounts for 70 percent of small-producer Wisconsin cheese and has other organic farms and artisanal businesses, says Michelle Miller, associate director of the Center for Integrated Agriculture Systems at UW-Madison.

"The driftless is a separate bioregion, with a separate set of opportunities and challenges," she said.

Cheesemakers are central to the regional economy, Miller said.

"What does this bioregion produce well, and how can it sustainably feed into the global market and provide rural income to maintain people on the land? That's the importance of cheesemakers to the region, given that the ideal crop is growing grass on hilly slopes," she said.

Soil is the origin of terroir, said Monique Jamet Hooker, a chef and writer living in western Wisconsin. "This is part of the whole phenomenon of coming back to the land, and that's what terroir is, going back to where you came from. What is the food like? What is the earth like?"

Terroir was originally applied to local French wines such as Champagne or Burgundy, which by law must come from specific regions, said Gersende Cazaux, a French graduate student doing her fieldwork through the Dairy Business Innovation Center in Madison. "Terroir is a French concept, but each country has its own values. What is done in France can't be done in other countries, and what is being done here is to adapt terroir to the concept of a 'taste of place.'"

"Taste of place" is being used in Vermont, for example, to promote maple syrup.

Via computer linkup, Ivan Larcher, a French technical consultant to cheesemakers, discussed how biology affects the taste of cheese. The identity of the dozens of types of bacteria, yeasts and molds that enter milk before and during the cheesemaking process, "is different on different farms, even if they are only one mile apart," Larcher said. "Each farm has its own spectrum ... and the dream of every cheesemaker is to develop their own spectrum of bacteria, to make a personal signature. The spectrum is directly related to the place you live, and this is the concept of terroir, to make something different based on where you are."

"Ivan is telling us something we have known for a long time," said Chris Roelli, a fourth-generation Wisconsin cheesemaker from Roelli Cheese Haus in Shullsberg, "and it has started to gain traction in this business." Microbes from the air, water and soil all play a role, he added. "I am a firm believer that what is in the air, the water and the earth in your particular area greatly influences the flavor of cheese. The minerals in the earth are in the grass that's eaten by the cow, and we take her milk and make it into cheese, and that taste progresses from the ground to the consumer."

The discussion, at the National Brewery Museum, moved to the challenge of bringing that value to the marketplace. "It's interesting to be ahead of the consumer," said one participant. "There is a lot of education needed in the market. We are starting from scratch on a 50-year project."

But terroir offers something that consumers want, said Cazaux. "There is this shared value in the driftless region; it's about sustaining community, about grazing instead of row cropping, and when you associate the driftless name to the cheese, you are associating your product with these values."