Master of Wine John Atkinson has one of the most insightful discussions of terroir I’ve read in a long while. And that is not only because he manages to reference Thomas Kuhn, Friedrich Nietzche, and Gilles Deleuze, all philosophers who have been important to me at various times in my career.
As Atkinson points out, the different regions of the wine world employ quite different production methods most of which have long histories. Making wine in Bordeaux is much different from making wine in Jerez and has been for centuries. That fact, then, launches his probe:
So my opening question is, how does a bunch of grapes suggest this process? Does Palomino – or, for that matter, the Andalusian landscape – suggest a solera? Is there something specific to Touriga Nacional that suggests foot-treading and arrested fermentation?
In other words, someone had to decide to employ the distinctive techniques exhibited in each region. You can’t separate winemaking from culture, a point which doesn’t sit well with the reigning ideology that wine should express terroir, the geography and geology of the vineyard, not the decisions of winemakers.
Atkinson’s main point of reference is Burgundy, which he calls the “poster-boy” for the notion that “wine makes itself”. But this celebration of passivity in the face of nature is also something that has a history, one he traces to the medieval world in Burgundy (and much of Europe) where God’s creation ruled every moment of one’s life.
God’s omnipotence was invoked at every opportunity. Curiosity was a sin, measurement discouraged, and interest couldn’t be levied on loans, as it was a charge on time, and time was only God’s to give. France, like the rest of Europe, was becalmed for centuries.
In a world that was so completely given and ordained, opportunities for human expression were limited, or when they did occur, weren’t recognized as such.
We are just spectators of God’s creation. The vignerons had little to do with the final product; it was all God’s work.
Contrary to popular perception, that legacy of passivity was not entirely swept away by the Enlightenment; it became secularized in the form of a recognition of human weakness and limitation-a form of asceticism as Nietzche pointed out. What was left over, as the dominance of Christianity eroded in the modern world, were the systems of power and hierarchies perpetuated by the social and economic system. In the wine trade:
…there’s all the history, the habituation to vocabularies, ways of doing and thinking, tight communities of sensing, rootstocks, clones, barrels and, of course, regulations. Control and power is dispersed over different agencies and through different actors. Terroir, we might argue, is institutionalized, but not theorized…
Terroir becomes what Deleuze calls a code, a system of imperatives kept in place by people who benefit from it.
Viticulture and enology only appear as the enemy if they’re threatening to undermine a hierarchy from which you profit. Irrigation would certainly improve the fortunes of most of Burgundy’s vineyards, just as it would benefit plantings of similarly anisohydric merlot in Bordeaux, but in so doing it would smooth out some of the differences between crus.
Atkinson reports on several tasting contexts in which what appeared to be environmentally-influenced properties of the wines they were tasting turned out to be a product of culturally-induced, “nomadic”, expertise. The demand that differences be attributable to geography rather than expertise distorts our ability to understand wine regions:
When divergent styles emerge from the same origin – two phenotypes sharing the same genotype, to use our analogy, we feel pressured into a choice. If we want to hold onto the immanence, exchangeability and proximity of the Environment ⇌ Sensation relation absolutely, we have to nominate one wine as the phenotype and the other as an imposter, or, in the Australian example, as ersatz Burgundy.
His example is Aussie Chardonnay, rich and buttery in the 1990’s, leaner and more “Burgundian” today:
Faced with making a decision between the two opposing wine styles, our Master of Wine deferred to his belief (as we did when setting the exam) that the richer, less-reductive style of Australian Chardonnay is more authentic rendition of its environment – because he believes the actions and decisions of the winemakers are compelled by their surroundings. In other words, today’s winemakers should be coerced by the environment just as the Cistercians, in their time, erroneously believed they were coerced by God
Medieval passivity is restored.
At this point, Atkinson seems to come down on the side of terroir as a prophylactic marketing device:
Other people will have their own theories about this, but I suspect that what we’re seeing is a reaction to the war of words between the New World – conspicuously, Australia – and France in the 1990s. With its market share under threat, France claimed terroir was a point of difference setting it apart from, and above, the New world’s offering. Australia retaliated, and claimed terroir was just marketing. The whole debacle brought terroir to the consciousness of consumers and producers, but given the looseness of the definition – its lack of rigour – soon everybody was claiming it.
He goes through several current definitions of terroir pointing out that, if all one has to do to exhibit terroir is plant vines, then everyone has terroir and the concept is too vacuous to be meaningful. The opposing alternative is to suggest only some very special locations can exhibit terroir, a view which he he also rejects:
…not only are we being told what the model of terroir should be, we’re also being told what wine ought to be. The past has done its job with Burgundy, now we just need to correct the errant ways of fallen appellations.
He champions the idea that human beings, soil and environment all play a role in the finished product with the specific contribution differing by region, subregion and ultimately the producer:
I think we underestimate the isolation of wine regions historically, even within the same country. Champagne, Jerez, and Bordeaux just went about things in different ways, they formed distinct networks of production; there’s no sense in which they expediently departed the true path to authenticity and purity taken by the Côte de Nuits’ vignerons.
In other words, even an appeal to tradition will not reveal a single, authentic way of making wine. As for Burgundy:
Burgundy’s inordinately long two thousand-year timeline helped capture some of these differences empirically and structurally. Walls surrounded Chambertin as early as the 7thCentury, and the sustained patronage of dukes, princes and the church provided the region with the stability and resources to flourish. What was bad for peasants was good for wine. There was no opportunity cost attached to centuries spent comparing climats.
Geology and geography matters but even for regions steeped in tradition, the effects of nature are passed through human cultures where they are shaped by contingent, historical factors.Shared and rudimentary vinicultural methods and techniques brought consistency and aesthetic visibility to, what was, God’s creation. For two millennia the effects of geology trickled down through Burgundy’s human strata, recurring tropes and intensities augmenting the vineyards in which they worked.
Referencing the famed Clos Vougeot vineyard he writes:
Clos Vougeot is notoriously divergent…the territory could be sub-divided in alternative ways to yield different but equally interesting variations on a Burgundian theme. Difference precedes identity, if you like.
Accidents of who owned what, the size of the plots and the locations in which walls were built determined the Burgundian system of climates (vineyard plots)—not some magical features of the soil. Only in recent decades when “the rewards for selling in small volumes began to exceed those derived from selling to negociants” , did growers begin to emphasize the distinctiveness of their vineyards. The current fascination with terroir has its origin in the move toward Domaine bottling, a relatively recent phenomenon.
If I read him correctly, Atkinson is not denying the existence of terroir. Everyone knows geography and geology matters. What he denies is that terroir is the whole story. Culture matters.
Coche and Lafon both see themselves as revealing the phenotype of Meursault Genevrières, though the two wines are very different, the expression of house style trumping vineyard designation as a source of similarities and differences. To stretch the genetic analogy, what we have now, with the generation of new possibilities and mutations, looks far more like a form of sexual reproduction that cloning.
The reference in this quote to sexual reproduction is important. Sexual reproduction is imperfect; it creates mutations that send species in new directions. Those differences that subtle variations in winemaking and viticultural techniques introduce are continually redefining regional identities. Whatever terroir is, it’s a moving target as winemakers come up with innovative ways to solve problems and to differentiate their product. It’s the intersection of nature’s creativity and human creativity that creates the differentiations that wine lovers seek, not some essential properties buried in the soil. We should seek difference wherever we can find it.
Atkinson closes, however, on a rather un-Deleuzian note.
Identifying a phenomenon that is ‘Chambertin’ has arguably become harder in recent years as domaine have become more autonomous. Notwithstanding this, those making and those of us tasting Chambertin will continue our vane pursuit of its essence. Phenomena may elude us, but essence will continue to exert a siren force over us.
It seems the search for “the one true way”, another part of our Christian heritage, just won’t be put to rest. That would be a tragedy extending far beyond the world of wine.