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terroirThis article in Cosmos magazine is a fascinating and very readable account of new research into the origins of terroir, the regional differences in soils and environment that explain variations in wine flavors.

It has traditionally been assumed that compounds in the soil explain those differences, but the new hypothesis gaining support is that various configurations of microbes—yeasts, bacteria and fungi—explain why a Napa Cabernet differs from a Cab from Stellenbosch.

The article is a great read except for the headline—Is Winemaking an Art or Science?—and the writer’s repeated implication that perhaps once science discovers the origins of flavors in wine, winemaking will no longer be an art. This seems to assume that something is an art if we don’t understand how it works. Once we understand why something has the characteristics it has, somehow it loses its ability to stimulate the imagination.

But this assumption is ridiculous. We now know a lot about light, pigment, and how they interact to form colors, and we’ve known about the geometry of figuration and perspective for centuries. Does that mean painting is no longer an art? What matters is how painters put together paint and line to create something intriguing. Science explains what they do but doesn’t harm their ability to do it.

If winemakers learn to manage microbe populations not only will they be better able to protect the expression of terroir in their wines, they will have more tools to creatively shape their product. If they are able to resist the corporate tendency to standardize and homogenize wine flavors to sell to a mass market they will have the control to introduce more differentiation, more subtle distinctions, more original expression, not less.

Art is mysterious because of the profound effect beauty has on the imagination, not because artists don’t understand what they’re materials.

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