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? 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?
Wine is 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, 1905 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. There are 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 overanalysis, 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 Australian growers were bruiting that there was no such thing as terroir – 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 only so far, after all, (go figure) and the importance of provenance and origin was duly realised. Yes, originality was finally original! The various New World countries discovered – or rediscovered – their own terroir. Vineyard names and personal back stories too began to appear on bottles. The newest colour was the local colour.
Preferable as this new direction is, it is largely 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.
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 and then we should proceed to investigate whether the resultant wine is made sympathetically, sans numerous aggressive interventions or 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…
…wait for Part Deux to find out….