Overstating terroir: the effacing of the vigneron

Unlike other agricultural product, bar the most niche of fruit and vegetables, a wine’s origin is commonly touted as a quasi-mystical, inimitable, and imminent source of quality and character. Increasingly, we are led to believe that great wine is simply site revealed, that great wine is strictly unadulterated, transparent and without signature. Jancis Robinson notes terroir to be a vines ‘total natural growing environment‘. While some consider farming practices a function of terroir, for the most part, it is inclusive of place not person. This notion predates French romanticism by some time. The Ancient Greeks were known to stamp amphorae with a seal of origin, the result being that regions established differing reputations. But one need not look to Ancient Greece to observe the importance of place. Anybody who has planted in their own garden will recognise that particular spots perform better, yielding more fruitful crops, than others. This notwithstanding, winegrowing differs greatly to almost all other agricultural endeavours. The sheer volume of practical decisions and their stark ramifications are such that one must ask themselves to what extent terroir ought to be credited for the splendour of a finished wine. When even ‘small’ decisions ramify to such notable extent, is the notion of terroir as a defining quality marker a plausible proposition? Does fetishising terroir subordinate the role of the farmer? My thoughts on this within.

The much alluring nature of terroir

Archaeological evidence reveals wine was consumed in Georgia as early as 6000BC, 5000BC in Iran, and 4000BC in Sicily. As empires grew, wine was traded throughout the Mediterranean. Winegrowing was advanced notably by both the Romans and the Greeks, whose literature is abundant with oenological references. Further, wine has long played an important role in religious ceremony and scripture. Red wine was associated with blood by the ancient Egyptians and was used by both the Greek cult of Dionysus and the Romans in their Bacchanalia. Perhaps most notably, the Roman Catholic Church supported wine production in order to supply the clergy, who required it for mass. For centuries, members of the Benedictine and Cistercian orders cultivated grapes in Burgundy. These monks are said to have conducted large-scale observations, recording the influences they perceived varying parcels of land to have on the wine produced from them. Over time, the monks established boundaries, demarcating these plots. It is here that the notion of terroir takes on a new life, reified by French winemakers through the following centuries.

For much of history wine was not especially enjoyable. Alternative beverages such as water and milk were disease-ridden. Alcohol served as a built-in disinfectant. Consumption of wine was for the most part born not out of desire but instead of necessity. Eric Asimov notes that according to Paul Lukacs it was ‘not until the Renaissance that notions of discrimination came to be‘. Only then did astute wine drinkers begin to perceive that some wines could be appreciated intellectually and emotionally rather than just physically. He adds that it was during the Enlightenment in the 18th century when a series of revolutions began that transformed our understanding of grape-growing, wine production and wine storage. As global trade increased and both winemaking and viticulture grew more informed, the market for wine became increasingly stratified, wine was commoditised and regions, sub-regions, vineyards and producers gained recognition for quality and desirability.

Some sites are better suited to viticulture, and/or are capable of yielding better quality fruit, than others. Further, there is little doubt that the romanticism of terroir often serves to ‘pin up’ the ‘brand’ of a place or site. The mystical notion that the land itself conveys something spectacular and inimitable to a wine is an almost infallible method of maintaining the belief that one’s own wine is ultimately superior to that of another. Whilst, in theory, terroir, can simply refer to the growing conditions of any given place, today, it is almost explicitly used to communicate the positive qualities lent to wine by that place.

Though in reality, winegrowing is resource-intensive and requires strenuous manual labour. Left to its own devices the vine would grow uncontrollably, making all aspects of conventional viticulture particularly difficult. The process relies heavily upon both intuition and increasingly, scientific endeavour. At its core, wine is a product of agriculture. However, compared to most agricultural products, not only can the price of wine be astronomical, competition in the sector is fierce. For this reason, importers, and more frequently winemakers, are required to tell stories. Now more than than ever, branding and storytelling are of great importance. Alas, agriculture is mot particularly easy to sell, nor is tilling, rootstock or hedging particularly alluring to most. The mystical nature of terroir, however, makes for something infinitely for romantic. In overstating the role of terroir, wine has become detached from agriculture, and by extension from the human hand.

Subordination of the farmer

In overstating the role of terroir, wine communicators have to some degree subordinated the importance of winegrowing. Understating the manner in which a farming strategy influences the raw material and with that, a finished wine. We do a disservice to the complexity of viticulture, to the ability of the farmer to entirely shift the phenotype of their crop, to craft a wine of skill and do away with hierarchies built upon preconceived notions of ‘ideal’ terroir.

Below is a rather striking image shared by William Kelley. The image shows three very different Chardonnay bunches picked from three contiguous parcels with three different farming strategies. On the left, a low-yielding selection with small, open clusters, farmed with high canopies, resulting in high levels of dry extract, and already fully mature at around 13% potential alcohol. In the middle, a heavily fertilised parcel, trimmed low, promoting lateral growth and vegetative vigour, resulting in higher, more herbaceous yields which are far from ripe. And on the right, young vines of a higher-yielding selection with better-balanced canopies than those of the middle cluster, but much lower solids-to-juice ratio than the first, making for a rounder, softer finished wine. The differences here are fundamental, both aesthetically and in how they manifest in the finished wine.

terroir-burgundy
3 different bunches from the 3 contiguous parcels photographed above

Kelley also describes stark differences in Pinot Noir, similar to those observable above. In addition to vine genetics and selection, variations in phenotype can be pinned specifically to well-documented farming strategies. When a growers farming strategy results in such stark differences in stylistic variables such as juice-to-solid ratio, ripeness, bunch size, and phenolic ripeness, how then can wine from any particular site represent that place? Whilst I do not deny the geographical qualities of a particular site are at times favourable or congruent to ‘better’ wine, the site is then also modulated heavily by decisions taken in the vineyard. Where a grower is able to so drastically alter their crop, to what extent does a wine ever taste of a place?

The notion of terroir as an immutable characteristic is challenged further by climate change. As much of the Old World warms, sites previously touted as possessing terroir congruent with making superior wine have in recent years shifted somewhat. An example of this can be found in Rabaja which sits in a mostly South-west facing basin above Martinenga. Here long, protracted ripening has has been fundamental in producing some of the most compelling Barbaresco. However, as Ian D’Agata has pointed out, warming in recent vintages has meant Rabaja has shed some of its elegance, replaced in some cases by over-ripe fruit. Whilst the Piedmontese are adopting precautionary measures in the vineyard, it is without question that climate change will drastically change our perception of particular sites and places. One ought to consider if ‘terroir’ is a variable notion to what extent ought we credit it with the quality of a wine in place of the vigneron.

Great wine doesn’t make itself

When buying a vehicle it is of only limited value to know the type of material used in its construction. What buyers really want, and need, to know is who built the vehicle. Who was responsible for construction serves as a helpful indicator of quality, craftsmanship and reliability. The same can be said when buying wine. Terroir is for the most part unhelpful. Who made the wine, how it was treated, is what buyers really need to know. Nowhere is this more necessary than in Burgundy, the spiritual home of terroir. Here we can see just how unhelpful the notion of terroir can be in conveying anything of real value to the consumer. One need look no further than the ‘great’ vineyards of Burgundy to note the striking variance in quality born of identical terroir. This variation depends almost entirely upon who cultivates the vine, and who makes the wine. Here, terroir serves not as a reliable indicator of quality, but instead as a romantic summary of the land itself, with individual producers able to trump terroir in almost every case.

Perhaps the most striking example of this is Clos de Vougeot. The 50ha Grand Cru vineyard is famous for the sheer number of vigneron with a plot inside its historic walls, totalling more than 80. Conventionally it is said that the best wines come from the well-drained upper third of the vineyard, and the least compelling from the wettest third by the main road. Although Jean Grivot, whose parcel is adjacent to the road, may contest this. So unhelpful is Clos de Vougeot as an overarching denomination, producers like Benjamin Leroux opt to denote the exact parcel of their grapes, for Leroux, it is Le Petit Maupertuis. Whilst some may argue it is, in fact, the unique terroir of each parcel which determines quality, there is little to substantiate this. Stephen Skelton MW notes that of Joseph Drouhin’s two plots, the lower is planted with the slope (north-south) whereas the upper is planted east-west because here the plot is too narrow in the north-south direction. Even though both are in all other aspects the same, this difference in row orientation seems to account somewhat for the contrasting style of each wine, an argument that the soil and the site are not perhaps as important as the decisions of the vigneron.

terroir-burgundy

Jasper Morris MW has said, in summarising an all-encompassing tasting of Clos de Vougeot, it was, for him, the producer who trumped terroir. Consider for a moment the stark differences in vinification amongst winemakers bottling Clos de Vougeot. Benjamin Leroux opts for 25% whole cluster, indigenous yeast fermentation, 3-week maceration, 18 months ageing in 50% new oak, and no fining or filtration. Meanwhile, Domaine Mugneret-Gibourg (farming two separate plots) destems entirely, cold-macerates for 4-5 days, ferments on indigenous yeast, and ages in 70% new oak. Finally, Joseph Drouhin opts for a significantly lower amount of new oak, around 20% in most vintages. With these variations in mind, which of these wines shows the ‘character’ of Clos de Vougeot? While the microclimate may indeed contribute particular characteristics to the vine’s fruit, these contributions are almost certainly modulated by farming and winemaking, such that one must see them in context to accurately predict what to expect from a wine.

Reflect upon the plethora of options available to the vigneron and how each produces wine so distinct that astute tasters are able to identify a ‘producers signature’ blind. While some argue these decisions ‘coax out the terroir’ it seems more realistic to say they shape the overall wine. Whether or not to crush grapes, how hard to press them, how to manage the cap, which temperature to ferment at, which vessel to ferment in, how high to fill your barrels, how long to wait before racking, and how much new oak to use. The number of decisions and possible combinations are almost endless. With this in mind, one ought to consider whether terroir-centric wine communications are really much more than romance. To those looking for a reliable indication of what to expect, terroir offers very little. To what extent it lends quality is difficult to ascertain; however, on the surface, it appears it is certainly not the most important attribute in crafting great wine.

The product of human endeavour

‘I don’t care for natural wine, I want to taste the human wine’ Gaia Gaja told me in London last year. Despite a deep respect for both the Langhe and her vineyards, in both her speech and her work, she acknowledges that it is only together, by the hand of man, that wine is shaped. An altogether more compelling, romantic, and useful notion than one in which the role of the farmer is subjugated and terroir considered an immutable, mystical, and often hierarchical characteristic.

Perhaps, as William suggests, a more helpful philosophy is captured by the phrase ‘terre à vignes‘ which loosely translates to ‘a place where vines grow‘. Whilst not possessing the same brand strength, the concept seems less obfuscating and unhelpful. Instead, it encourages a more holistic, nuanced consideration with a greater focus on the whole at the time of being. Although this topic may seem inconsequential, there are vocal appeals for segments of the wine industry to avoid detaching itself from agriculture, for communication to become more practical and less mystical and romantic. Alluring though it may be, terroir ought in the least not be considered mystical, nor an immutable characteristic to which the farmer is merely a subordinate. Although seemingly complex, wine communication requires we pay dividends to the hard work of those in the vineyard and consider the extent to which wine is a significant human endeavour.

8 thoughts

  1. Very interesting. I will leave three pieces here:
    1. A summary of the history of terroir (which I developed over a number of posts)
    2. A brief History of Terroir (drawn from Lukac’s Reinventing Wine)
    3. My thoughts on terroir (every wine is a terroir wine) and why, after great agony< i decided to omit the winemaker from the equation)

    https://mowse.blogspot.com/2016/11/timeline-of-history-of-concept-of.html

    https://mowse.blogspot.com/2014/04/a-brief-history-of-terroir-after-lukacs.html

    https://mowse.blogspot.com/2015/11/every-wine-is-terroir-wine.html

  2. I guess we can say that the terrior gives us great fruit but we still need a good winemaker to produce a great wine from it

  3. Fantastic post, as usual! Reading your material is an entertaining and enlightening experience between mountains of journal articles and papers which need grading.

    I also have a few (positive and reflective) comments as well!

    1. “In overstating the role of terroir, wine communicators have to some extent subordinated the importance of decisions made in the vineyard. Understating the manner in which a farming strategy influences the raw material and with that, a finished wine. We do a disservice to the complexity of viticulture, to the ability of the farmer to entirely shift the phenotype of their crop, to craft a wine of skill and do away with hierarchies built upon preconceived notions of ‘ideal terroir’.” I totally agree with this. However, as you make clear, it is much easier to construct an identify of place with a consumer than sharing technical wine-making details. Even now when I or my friends enter a wine shop, I instinctively associate regions like Bordeaux or Burgundy with a perceived expectation of quality which likely differ from, say, Niagara VQA here in Canada.

    However, I think the evolution of the beer and coffee industries in North America and Europe (especially the former) proves that there is genuine, perhaps untapped consumer desire to learn more about the technical, practical side of wine-making. While coffee certainly emphasizes terroir, there is also interest in where, when, and how the beans were farmed, roasted, stored etc. Vignerons certainly have significant responsibilities and the wine-making process is complex, but other alcoholic industries have proven consumers enjoy access to this knowledge. That being said, might it be in the marketing interest of the current players in the competitive wine industry to maintain the imagined allure of wine through emphasis on terroir? Or might there be a shift toward greater knowledge-diffusion about the entire wine-making process? I’m hoping for the latter, as the hard-working teams from the vineyard to the cellar all deserve recognition for their role in creating high quality wines.

    2. “While her deep respect for both the Langhe and her vineyards is immediately evident in both her speech and her work, she acknowledges that it is only together, by the hand of man, that wine is shaped.” I think this is an incredibly insightful and forward-thinking approach! And again, this is also an approach which recognizes the real human labour which goes into creating enjoyable, high quality products. I also think this line of thought reflects broader discussions of ecocentric approaches to agriculture. To be specific, approaches to farming and cultivation which recognize the holistic value and role of human and natural intervention (without the problematic anthropocentrism of biodynamic approaches).

    3. “Perhaps, as William suggested to me, a more helpful philosophy is captured by the phrase ‘terre à vignes‘ which loosely translates to ‘a place where vines grow‘.” I love this phrase!

    Cheers!

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