Chapter Two: The Reign of Terroir: Part One

by blog on October 19, 2018

Read Chapter One Parts One, Two and Three.

My agent narrowed his eyes and bit down on the end of an unfeasibly large cheroot.

“Look, kid. You’re meant to be writing a book about Lez Caves of Pie-reen. (Is that the name of your hero? Strange name.) My readers want a story with a beginning, middle and end, sex, drugs and rock n roll, the secrets of your excess, and you’ve given me this abstract crap about terr-wah.

“Terroir,” I said portentously, rolling the rs across the room, “is the holy grail of wine. It is what every noble wine grower is truly seeking.”

“Hmm. Holy grail? That could work. Lots of jousting knights, pretty dames, sword fights, tales of derring-do”.

“Yes, exactly that.”

Wine: Noble beverage, drawing its tonics from the minerals of the earth
its balm from the sun, sheltered by the vineyard;
Its diversity of fragrances from the breezes that caress its flowers,
delight of epicurean palates, honey of dreams,
culmination of intelligences, light which illumines the spirit,
our lips kiss it, our minds meditate on it.

–Pablo Morande

Some people ask us what we specialise in. There comes a time when a wine company has to decide if it is purely focused on buying and selling wines from a particular region or country, or whether it would aspire to be the “one-stop shop”, providing wines from all places at all prices for all dispositions and occasions.

Despite our company name, we are no longer exclusively tethered to our south-west French origins. We have sought, however, to be masters of all trades, and thus to adhere to a consistent qualitative theme in our buying. The philosophy that wine comes from a particular place is very important to us. Wine has this unique capacity to capture the interaction between the vine and its environment and that is something we wish to celebrate–and sell.

We named our first wine bar Terroirs, of course. But then again, we called the second one after a piece of offal.

What is terroir?

The vines, and the wine it produces, are two great mysteries. Alone in the vegetable kingdom, the vine makes the true savour of the earth intelligible to man. With what fidelity it makes the translation! It senses, then expresses, in its clusters of fruits the secrets of the soil. The flint, through the vine, tells us that it is living, fusible, a giver of nourishment. Only in wine does the ungrateful chalk pour out its tears…

–Colette, Earliest Wine Memories

Terroir is usually (simply) defined as “the sense of place”. In wine, it is the perception (real or otherwise) that a particular wine fluently expresses its place of origin. Terroir will be the aggregate of climate (the greater macro-climate, the meso-climate of the sub-region or valley, and the micro-climate of a particular vineyard or even a row of vines), and incorporates aspect and orientation, the amount of sunlight the vines receive during the day, altitude, top-and-sub-soil of the vineyard and biodiversity (the nature of the local plants, trees, flowers as it may impact the vines). We should also factor in the age of the vines and the nature of farming and the diversity of local populations of yeasts. Terroir, as a term, is sometimes used interchangeably with typicity; most people, from the farmers to those who drink their wines, would perceive terroir as specifically the unique signature of the vineyard, and more generally, the characteristics of wines from a particular area or region.

Terroir: Soil Associations!

Cervantes, through Don Quixote, wrote: “But now by the remembrance of her you love best, pray thee tell me, is not this your right Ciudad wine?”  “Thou hast a rare palate,’ answered the Squire of the Wood. “It is the very same, and of a good age too.”  “I thought so,” said Sancho. “But is it not strange now, that but turn me loose among a parcel of wine I shall find the difference? Adad! sir, I no sooner clap my nose to a taster of wine, but I can tell the place, the grape, the flavour, the age, the strength, and the qualities of the parcel: and all this is natural to me, sir.”

Do you believe in terroir? Is it something to believe in? Or is it as vague and questionable as The Great Pumpkin, The Loch Ness Monster and The Moral Rectitude of Bankers? Is it the fabulous invention of a band of fanatical medieval monks to market the wares of their monasteries? Would you seek to verify each and every protoplasmic primordial atomic globule of evidence to reach a definitive conclusion about the subject, or do you accept that terroir is intuitively part and parcel of wine as we know it?

The concept of terroir developed through centuries of French winemaking based on observation of what made wines from different regions, vineyards or even different sections of the same vineyard so different from each other. The French began to crystallize the concept of terroir as a way of describing the unique aspects of a place that influences and shapes the wine made from it. Long before the French, the winemaking regions of the ancient world already developed a concept of different regions having the potential to create very different and distinct wines, even from the same grapes. The Ancient Greeks would stamp amphorae with the seal of the region they came from and soon different regions established reputations based on the quality of their wines. For most of its history, Burgundy was cultivated by the literate and disciplined members of the Benedictine and Cistercian orders. With vast land holdings, the monks were able to conduct large scale observation of the influences that various parcels of land had on the wine it produced. Some legends have the monks going as far as “tasting” the soil. Over time the monks compiled their observations and began to establish the boundaries of different terroirs-many of which still exist today as the Grand Cru vineyards of Burgundy.

Then there is Pliny. We will return to him later.

Do you believe in terroir? Is it something to believe in? Or is it as vague and questionable as The Great Pumpkin, The Loch Ness Monster and The Moral Rectitude of Bankers?

Wine is often viewed by scientists as the product of microbiological determinism. It is an odd decontextualisation of a subject, stripping away the human and indefinable element to create a notion of absolute quantitative-and-qualitative-ness, of good and bad, of truth and falsehood. Henri Poincarré in his essay Science and Hypothesis, remarked that science is built up of facts, as a house is built of stones; but an accumulation of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house. Perhaps, when we discuss certain abstract notions regarding human responses to wine we should not seek to nail them like butterflies to a wheel. Facts are not science, as the dictionary is not literature. Scientists are inclined to reduce every abstraction, every intuition and every philosophical uncertainty to a series of soulless chemical equations and formulae. Those scientists become professional naysayers who don the mantle of scepticism as if this entitles them to be automatically ranged with the battalions of truth against the ignorant armies of wine romantics; in the final over-analysis, they do not seek to explain, but rather explain away, to sanitise the pleasure of drinking by removing every vestige of magic and mystery. Wine is written and talked about extensively, empirically measured and evaluated to the nth degree, boxed off and treated as a product, something forever to be circumscribed, rather than to be appreciated for its inviolable unknowability, its singular quiddity.

For all that, many so-called scientific assertions are disingenuous to say the least. About twenty years ago a bunch of Australian growers were bruiting that there was no such thing as “terroir” (heavy inverted commas), and that good wine could be made from dirt (or pay dirt in the case of certain factory farms), that the varietal was king, queen and jack, and the oenologist was the ace in the shed. Casually debunking two thousand years of European vine-growing and exalting the winemaking process was THE ARTICLE OF NEW WORLD MARKETING FAITH. Unlike the vines, however, the idea took hold and put down temporary roots – it was accepted in certain critical and oenological circles that quality wine could only be made by due process, and therefore should be as “faultily faultless, icily regular and splendidly null” as inhumanly possible. Wine thus existed to attain the consistency of a manufactured product and typicity became conflated with predictability.

The wheel turned, as wheels do, and marketing bodies who, like nature, abhorring a vacuum, sensed new opportunities to repackage wine. Homogeneity and predictability could be taken only so far, after all, (go figure) and the importance of provenance and origin was duly realised. Yes, originality was finally original! Various New World countries discovered – or rediscovered – their own fabulous terroir. Vineyard names and personal back stories began to appear on bottles. The newest colour was the local colour.

Preferable as this new direction is, much of it is nothing more than “wine trending”, in other words identifying a new marketing destination and tacking towards it with alacrity and multiple image-rebrandings. So, whereas the concept of terroir qua terroir, once fell foul of the bandwagon jumpers (I recall one writer saying scornfully that the term was an invention of the French to invest their wines with some quasi-mystical profundity), now it is almost universally accepted and the word sprayed around willy-nilly in conversation and print. Perhaps the claim to terroir requires greater rigour, for although wines may come from a specific place, whether they convey that sense of place is questionable. Furthermore, we need to ask what it is that facilitates the impression that a wine possesses particular terroir aromatics and flavours.

So, whereas the concept of terroir qua terroir, once fell foul of the bandwagon jumpers, now it is almost universally accepted and the word sprayed around willy-nilly in conversation and print. 

For terroir to truly flourish, the vines must come from vineyards liberated by progressive farming techniques (organic or biodynamic) with living soils and vibrant yeast populations. If that is a given then we may proceed to investigate whether the resultant wine is made sympathetically, sans numerous aggressive interventions and obfuscating oenological tropes.

It is one thing to have healthy vineyards and work positively in the winery to nurture the best natural flavours, but that still leaves unanswered the question relating to the connection between what is physically present in the wine and what may apparently be perceived by a normal palate. The biggest bone – or stone – of contention is minerality. We use the “min” word maximally (and vaguely, it should be conceded) to indicate a sensation of stoniness, steeliness or smokiness, but if, as some suggest, this minerality is not physically present in any measurable way, then you might well wonder how the seeming flavour of stones or shells is actually transmitted into wine…

Salts of the earth 

It’s tempting to correlate the impression of saltiness found in specific wines with certain soils types, old vines with deep root systems, and natural ferments. It seems that organic and biodynamic farming encourages organisms that break down the soil and promote strong yeast populations that help confer “mineral life” to the wine.

It is also surely a nonsense to say that the impression of minerality is solely caused (as some would have it) by reductive winemaking, although that may indeed help to intensify the impression. One argument against this, is the fact that any wine, including oxidative wines, may convey the impression of minerality.

The descriptors I normally associate with minerality are stoniness, metallic, shell-like, salty and earthy notes, intensified – and I use that word advisedly – by focused acidity or low PH. Minerals and stones do have an intrinsic taste sensation. Consider the metallic undertones in certain wines from Friuli and Slovenia, taste the almost rusty earthiness in the Fer-influenced (iron) wines of Gaillac and Marcillac deriving from the famous rougier soils, or notice how the unique terroir on the hill of Mas de Daumas-Gassac plays a role in establishing the distinctive minerality of the famous red wine from that domaine.

Some argue that the minerality one detects on the palate is actually a lack of fruit ripeness; in other words, the absence of ripeness manifests itself as an appearance of minerality. This is a specious inference. If one examines wines from cooler climates such as Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé (and even Marlborough) from a long growing season it is not unripeness, but rather physiological maturity, that allows the maximum expression of minerality. The same applies to warm climates such as the Roussillon. The wines of that region may possess an extraordinary mineral structure precisely because of the unique alliance of terroir, old vines and physiological ripeness. Minerality is the result of balance, something which starts with farming and the vineyard, and manifests in the wine in a unique fashion. Minerality is the backbone given to the wine by the influence of the terroir; it buttresses the flavours with a determined structure.

As usual the argument revolves around (or degenerates into) a cross-purposes discussion of what minerality is. The holy scripture argument is that Emile Peynaud did not use the word, as if absence of evidence in one man’s language is evidence of absence! By all means let us define our terms but let us not say that those terms can’t be defined. Just as people dispute the existence and influence of terroir because it can’t be precisely calibrated, so discussions inevitably boil down to what you taste – and what you think you can taste.

I am indebted to Tom Lubbe of Domaine Matassa for his following comments on the subject:

I don’t think I am tasting/smelling calcium or potassium when I am drinking what I think of as a mineral wine. Minerality in wine is not for me a specific note but a sensory experience that is thrilling to the palate and beyond.

A grape is the result of its growing conditions and a vine needs a healthy, microbiologically diverse soil to absorb the naturally occurring, available mineral elements in that soil.

Wine made from well-nourished grapes has sufficient energy to not require most or any of the 200-odd wine-making add-in “aids” or props available to the modern wine-maker.

Ceasing to use chemical fertilisers and systemic chemicals which destroy soil life will see a corresponding drop in wine PH. The wine becomes noticeably fresher/more refreshing on the palate and more stable in elevage and bottle. The wine’s natural qualities of preservation are increased: i.e. it will age better. Contrary to popular belief a wine’s ageing potential is not tied to its free-sulphur levels. (Incidentally this is one mineral that is easily identified by the drinker, and I have often heard heavily sulphured wines being described as “mineral”. Usually by the winemaker.)

The wonderful thing about talking minerality is that it must eventually make people think about soil life. It is possibly true that Peynaud and others did not talk about minerality thirty years ago, but it has to be said that this was a period of terrible agricultural cretinism, the effects of which we are still suffering today. It was a period where wine-makers were taught to believe that they could make up for any physical shortcomings in their primary material by technical thuggery in the cellar. Certain media colluded to convince people that they should drink poison and like it too. Loving wine became a complex rite only understood by an initiated few (masochists). As grapes became the secondary material real flavours became absent or fleeting to be replaced by oak, residual sugar, confected “fruit” and sulphur. The mighty Sir Albert Howard talked about the relationship between minerality and flavour back in the 1920?s and 30?s, and how this was made possible, sustainably, through good composting (of course). A more sensible visionary, but who nonetheless wrongly believed that the war against “chemicals” had been won by the 1950?s!

Minerality in a wine is something that can be perceived, if not described, by the average drinker. It cannot be described by the average writer. I have heard so many people say “I love that salty finish that makes me want to drink more ….” This is usually said with a big smile. As a wine-maker, sorry, vigneron, that is enough of a description of minerality for me.

The exalted impression of one characteristic is often due to the reduction of impediments. (A different sort of reduction). Terroir can undoubtedly be tricked out of a wine, the result of a systemic denaturing process. Minerality is the very backbone, the seam of a great wine; it binds the whole, it brings focus and clarity, it signifies the migration of the life of the soil into the soul of the wine.

When you stand in a vineyard for a while, you acquire a sense of what a wine from there might be like.

Matthia Bianchi organises an event called DIRT at his London restaurant Shawarma Bar. He, and his guests, select, pour and talk/banter about wines that seem to capture an elemental aspect of terroir (Salt would include maritime-influenced wines; Magma, vines that grow on volcanic soils and Peak, wines from high-altitude vineyards). In a recent interview with Mattia for the Les Caves website, this is how he answered the question about what minerality means to him:

I’d like to answer with a couple of quotes:

Alice Feiring: Looking for clues from the soil, even if you don’t find them, heightens your tasting sensitivity and increases enjoyments.

Jimmy Van Heusen: Imagination is funny, it makes a cloudy day sunny.

The wine buyers at Les Caves have always been ‘grailing on the terroir trail. When you stand in a vineyard for a while, you acquire a sense of what a wine from there might be like and begin to comprehend that vignerons who spend time in their vineyards intuitively understand the highly particular signatures of these places. To have the soil under your feet, and migrating onto your shoes, to stroke a vine, to smell the air of the vineyard – that is something special, a momentary rooting. There is even something about a wine that transports you immediately to a place, even though you’ve never been there. Certain aromatics unlock the doors of our imagination.

Terroir matters

I was weaned on James Frazer: “The propensity to excessive simplification is indeed natural to the mind of man, since it is only by abstraction and generalisation, which necessarily imply the neglect of a multitude of particulars, that he can stretch his puny faculties so as to embrace a minute portion of the illimitable vastness of the universe.”

The other thing about generalisations is that they steamroll over complex issues.

I read a headline the other day: “Customers don’t care about terroir.” Part of me thinks that’s sort of true, whilst part of me thinks “maybe, they should care.” And the main part of me thinks it’s a faux-controversial excessively simplistic statement that needs to be gently eviscerated.

As economists like to say, the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.” As far as I know nobody has surveyed the general public in depth about what they consider to be the most significant criteria when they choose a wine to drink. Note the words in depth, as shallow questions tend to elicit correspondingly shallow responses. As a result, we discover much to our lack-of-surprise that the findings of such enquiries are that people, on the whole, choose their wine on the basis of its colour, grape variety or country. Perceptions, and expectations, of wine, are therefore not rooted in a deep knowledge, or a desire for such knowledge, but largely governed by previous experiences or hearsay.

“They don’t care” is a default argument that posits the majority of consumers are lazy and uninterested and that we don’t need to bother to explain where wine comes from. However, just because information is not offered or is not obviously in the public domain (it is), does not mean that information is trifling or irrelevant to our needs. To care about terroir is to want to understand how a wine comes to exist in its present form. Knowing what one is eating and drinking allows one to make more informed decisions, and to be able to discern that which is authentic and original from that which is a chemical facsimile.

Once you explain the notion of terroir to most individuals, not as an abstract concept, but something real and vital to the personality of the wine that they enjoy drinking, then these people do care. And yes, terroir matters.

There are some who dispute that terroir exists or that you can taste it in the alcoholic molecules of wine. If terroir is climate, allied to grape, allied to vintage, allied to exposure, aspect, soils, subsoil, biodiversity, ambient yeasts and the very individual nature of fermentation and transformation, then it is the very heart and soul of the wine.

Our commitment to wine as a beverage (as opposed to beer, spirits, cider, alcopops or Coca Cola) is a distinct choice. We have chosen to ingest it above all others. What we should ask what this liquid that we allow inside our bodies comprises. Is it more than booze – fermented grape juice with added chemicals? Is it the result of farming and careful winemaking, is it crafted by artisans, the product of culture and place? What is about this drink that elevates it above others, that has inspired poetry and prose, art, and music for hundreds/thousands of years? If it does not matter to us, why does the origin and personality of wine matter to other people?

“Customers don’t care”. The stereotypical passive consumer who slavishly follow trends is a caricature, but one that has become a convenient for consumer acceptance panels, commentators, appellation controllers, people and organisations that want to have a handle on “taste.” People, if I may generalise positively, are not cyphers, but are individuals capable of interrogating or absorbing information and changing taste accordingly. There is a lot of talk of “my customers think this”, “my customers would not like that,” which is to suggest that people have identical opinions (so identical that they morph into an average consumer).

It is important to convey meaningful information and to challenge so-called passive consumer acceptance of the status quo. Might it concern a drinker, any drinker, that potentially toxic chemicals are being sprayed over the vines from which the grapes will be used to make the wine? Were you to see a list of chemical additives on a wine label, how would that affect your buying choice? We are led to believe that consumers make active choices, so why wouldn’t we care about whether, for example, a wine was made from organically-farmed grapes?

With this assumption in mind is provenance any less relevant than the nature of farming and the additives that might be used in the winery? Certainly, provenance cannot be codified in the same way with a certification on the label. However, it underpins everything that used to validate appellation – that a wine hails from a particular place which has its own particular character. To say that people don’t care is misleading – we have a rudimentary sense that vintage matters – and that is one of the elements of terroir. We know that wines from certain regions and that certain vineyards are particularly prized. Rather than relying on half-truths and fuzzy feelings, it adds to our armoury of knowledge if we aim to understand that quality is conferred and flavour is transmitted by a combination of intrinsic factors (the shorthand for which is “terroir”).

Let’s rephrase this whole argument. Once you explain the notion of terroir to most individuals, not as an abstract concept, but something real and vital to the personality of the wine that they enjoy drinking, then these people do care. And yes, terroir matters.

While it is relatively easy to recognize the perennial grasses and seed-eating sparrows as characteristic of meadows, the ecosystems exist in their fullest sense underground. What we see aboveground is only the outer margin of an ecosystem that explodes in intricacy and life below.” –Amy Seidl, Early Spring: An Ecologist and Her Children Wake to a Warming World

To be continued in Part Two…

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