Overstating terroir: the effacing of the vigneron

Unlike most other agricultural products, bar the most niche of fruit and vegetable, a wine’s origin, in some cases down to a single acre of land, is touted as a semi-mystical source of quality. Although lacking an exact definition, 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 the place, not the person. It is said that the soil, subsoil, rocks, exposition, mesoclimate, and microclimate of a particular vine, are amongst that which most influence the grapevines phenotype. Although romanticised by the French, recognition of place precedes them by some time. The Ancient Greeks were known to stamp amphorae with a seal of origin, the result being different regions established varying reputations for the quality of their wine. 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 plots, even within a 30m² site, perform better, yielding more fruitful results, than others. However, both viticulture and wine differ greatly from almost all other farming endeavours. The sheer volume of decisions made by the vigneron and the subsequent scale of their influence is so vast that one must wonder to what extent terroir can really be credited for the style of the finished wine. Amongst natural wine circles ‘sense of place‘ has become a hallmark of authenticity. To ‘let the place show‘ is the mantra of the most zen winos. But when these ‘small’ decisions yield such notably broad variance, is this a plausible proposition? Has fetishising terroir obfuscated and subordinated the role of the farmer? A recent conversation with Wine Advocates, Dr William Kelley, stoked my thoughts.

The much alluring nature of terroir

Archaeological evidence suggests wine was consumed in Georgia as early as 6000BC, 5000BC in Iran, and 4000BC in Sicily. As global trade grew and civilisations expanded, wine was traded throughout the Mediterranean. Viticulture and winemaking were advanced notably by both the Romans and the Greeks whose literature is abundant with oenological references. Wine has also 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 because the clergy required it for the mass. For centuries, members of the Benedictine and Cistercian orders cultivated grapes in Burgundy. The monks conducted large-scale observations of the influences they perceived various parcels of land to have on the wine produced from them. Over time the monks compiled their observations and began to establish the boundaries of different plots. It is here the notion of terroir was developed over the following centuries enshrined into the lexicon by French winemakers.

One thing is strikingly clear, 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.

It goes without saying that certain sites are better suited to viticulture, and/or are capable of yielding better quality fruit than others. There is also no doubt that in many cases the romantic notion of terroir can serve as a sort of quasi-brand for a place or site. The mystical notion that the land conveys something spectacular to a wine which cannot be emulated elsewhere 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 embody the growing conditions of any given place, in wine communication, it is almost always used to explicitly describe the positive qualities lent to wine by that place or the superiority of that place in-fitting with given criteria of what ought to be ‘ideal’ for making great wine. This approach has helped create a self-fulfilling hierarchy in regions across the Old World, particularly in Champagne and Burgundy.

Grapegrowing is resource-intensive and requires a great deal of strenuous manual labour. Left to its own devices the vine would grow uncontrollably, making all aspects of conventional viticulture particularly difficult. The process also relies heavily upon both human intuition and increasingly, human scientific endeavour. At its core, wine is a product of agriculture. However, in comparison to the majority of agricultural products, not only does the price of wine span a vast range, but competition in the sector is fierce. There does not exist the same level of competition and demand in the market for asparagus, tomatoes, broccoli, or potatoes, Nor is pricing so stratified as wine. For this reason producers of the aforementioned are not explicitly required to tell a story, or even in most cases have any brand identity at all. More than ever branding and storytelling are of great importance in the wine industry. Unfortunately, agriculture alone may be difficult to sell (although it ought not to be that way), nor is it particularly captivating to the mass market. The mystical nature of terroir, however, makes for something infinitely for romantic. In some cases, particularly that of minerality, it is proposed that terroir lends character directly to the wine. In overstating the role of terroir so, wine has become very much detached from agriculture, detached from the human hand.

Even for, and with, those more enthusiastic, wine communication can, at times, be rather difficult. Wine science intersects a number of disciplines, meaning more often than not topics of discussion are nuanced, dependent on a number of variables, and often rather tricky to broach in absolute terms. Rather unhelpfully, terroir can serve to simplify these discussions, variation is all too often put down to a single function and verbose communication avoided. However alluring it may be, simplification for the sake of avoiding confusion does not appeal to me as reason enough to assign credit to the mystical notion of terroir. Instead, it makes a case for more effective, appealing, and informed communication.

Subordination of the farmer

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’.

Below is a rather striking image shared by William Kelley during this year’s Burgundy harvest. 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 points toward stark differences in Pinot Noir, similar in nature to those outlined above. In addition to vine genetics and selection, observable variations in phenotype can be pinned very 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? With this in mind, I’m reluctant to assign too much to terroir.

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, considered amongst the ‘Grand Cru’ sites of Piedmont, sitting in a mostly South-west facing basin above Martinenga. Here ideal ripening has played a fundamental role in producing some of the most compelling Barbaresco. However, as Ian D’Agata has pointed out, warming in recent vintages has meant Rabaja, left to the elements, has lost some of its elegance, replaced in part by over-ripe fruit. Whilst the Piedmontese are indeed adopting precautionary measures in the vineyard, it is without question that climate change will drastically change what we have to expect from particular sites and places. One ought to consider if ‘terroir’ is a variable subject to change in either direction, to what extent ought we credit it with the quality of a wine in place of the work 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

Toward the end of last year, I spent a little time with Gaia Gaja, the fifth generation of her family to work at the famed Gaja winery. I was immediately struck by her balanced, rational and considered take on wine. ‘I don’t care for natural wine, I want to taste the human wine’ she rather poetically declared. 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. Personally, I find this to be an infinitely more compelling, romantic, and helpful 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 suggested to me, 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 (perhaps why I find it most appealing) the concept is 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.

5 comments

  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

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.