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.