A New Breed of Anti-Terroirist?

clos de vougeot 2I must confess I don’t quite get this argument from Word on the Grapevine entitled “Overstating Terroir: Effacing the Vigneron.”

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?

No doubt the premises of this argument are true. There are hundreds of decisions made in the vineyard that significantly affect the final product. But I don’t think I’ve ever talked to a terroir-focused winemaker who did not emphasize the important role of farming. The post scratches where it doesn’t itch.

He thinks of terroir as a mystical notion used to sell wine.

The mystical notion that the land conveys something spectacular to a wine which cannot be emulated elsewhere is an almost infallible method of maintaining the belief that one’s own wine is ultimately superior to that of another.

No doubt the concept is used to sell wine but I fail to see what’s mystical about soil composition, drainage characteristics, topography, the microbiome or climate. There is much we don’t know about these inputs but a lack of knowledge doesn’t make something “mystical.”

We do a disservice to the complexity of viticulture, to the ability of the farmer to entirely shift the phenotype of their crop, to craft a wine of skill and do away with hierarchies built upon preconceived notions of ‘ideal terroir’.

If it were possible for a farmer to “entirely shift the phenotype of their crop” then we would find wines from Lessona rivaling the Barolos from Cannubi and Marsannay outpacing Chambertin. After all, farming methods are not secrets. Vignerons, in theory, have access to any farming techniques they want to use. Yet there are still differences between wine regions using similar grape varietals. Granted it takes skill, especially observational skill, to apply farming techniques. But given the price of prime vineyard land, I’m sure the lesser sites would attract plenty of talent if all it takes is skillful farming to make great wine.

His example of the irrelevance of terroir is, surprisingly, the famous Clos de Vougeot vineyard in Burgundy, which is usually trotted out as evidence of the importance of terroir. With parcels owned by 80 producers, the vineyard produces stunning variations from its 50 hectares. He writes:

Whilst some may argue it is, in fact, the unique terroir of each parcel which determines quality, there is little to substantiate this.

His example is telling:

Stephen Skelton MW notes that of Joseph Drouhin’s two plots, the lower is planted with the slope (north-south) whereas the upper is planted east-west because here the plot is too narrow in the north-south direction. Even though both are in all other aspects the same, this difference in row orientation seems to account somewhat for the contrasting style of each wine, an argument that the soil and the site are not perhaps as important as the decisions of the vigneron.

Aspect to sun, airflow, and drainage characteristics, all influenced by row orientation,  are elements of terroir. The example demonstrates terroir’s importance; not its irrelevance! True, there is a human decision to plant rows with different orientations. But that decision is precisely to take advantage of the characteristics of terroir, which is what decisions in the vineyard are all about—recognizing the features of terroir and taking advantage of them.

I cannot see the point of driving a wedge between farming and terroir. Terroir is a handy way of referring to geographical features of a site. It cannot be expressed in the finished wine without good decisions in the vineyard. But if those decisions are insensitive to the elements of terroir, the result will not be quality wine.

We may someday reach to the point where a vineyard is like clay in the hands of the  technology of viticulture. But we are not there yet.

3 comments

  1. I freely admit to being a complete terroiriste, and usually describe terroir to novice winos as “the total environment in which the vine/grapes grow” then go on to expand that in terms of the usual soil, slope, aspect, drainage, temperature range, rainfall yada yada. But, conversations with winemaker friends in Pommard and a few articles from winemaker professions expand my definition to be “the total environment in which the vines grow and the wine is made”. My conversations with burgundy winemakers again have left a lasting impression of Pinot Noir being more expressive of the first terroir definition with minimal winemaker intervention, but Chardonnay being less so and more “manipulated” by the winemaker in terms of malolactic or not, oak or not etc. So, if the use of terroir in the wider sense is good enough for these winemaker friends it’s good enough for me 👍🍷

  2. Yes. There is a longstanding debate about what should be included in the notion of terroir. I suppose there is some value in having a term that specifically refers to climate, soil, and other geographical features. But of course someone has to decide how to make use of those factors in their winemaking so you can’t really exclude culture from the picture entirely.

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