This “Defense” of Anti-Terroirism is a Disaster

terroir2There are legitimate and interesting debates in the wine world about the nature of terroir. How should we define it? Should it include human inputs or not? What is the relative contribution of soil vs. climate in determining the character of wine? Which wines effectively display terroir and which ones are better understood as reflecting choices made in the winery?

But too many discussions of terroir are nothing but screed consisting of a series of strawperson arguments, non-sequiturs, and insults. The latest in this genre is from Zach Gebelle, entitled “The Single-Vineyard Wine Scam,” in which he claims that all talk of terroir is nothing but clever marketing.

Entire generations of wine drinkers are now busy obsessing over subtle soil differences in Champagne, with nary a mention of the fact that almost all Champagne is a blend of dozens of different wines from different vintages that then goes through a highly impactful secondary aging process.

This is likely a strawperson argument. (An argument that contains an intentionally misrepresented claim that is easier to defeat than an opponent’s real argument.)

Most of the people who talk about soil differences in Champagne are interested in the burgeoning phenomenon of grower and  single-vineyard Champagne for which discussions of terroir are important. As Gebelle asserts, most wines from the big Champagne houses are blends of several vineyards and vintages, but even that fact doesn’t make talk of Champagne terroir irrelevant. Surely the  distinctive style of sparkling wine made in Champagne is influenced by the cool weather and limestone soils of the region. There is regional terroir and vineyard terroir. In cases where vineyard terroir is not relevant, regional terroir may well be.

Next up is the non-sequitur. (A conclusion that does not follow logically from the premises.)

The problem is that calling your wine a wine of terroir has become a get-out-of-jail-free card for those throughout the wine industry. Did your grapes fail to ripen properly? That’s just your terroir speaking. Did you just plant a vineyard three years ago and the results are underwhelming, but you’ve got bills to pay? Slap on a single-vineyard designation and charge big bucks because you’re exploring the terroir of your little corner of nowhere. Did raging forest fires leave your wine tasting like an ashtray? Terroir!

From the fact that some winemakers make bad wine and find excuses for their failure does not entail or even suggest that terroir does not exist or is not a useful way of understanding wine quality. The two points are entirely unrelated.

And then strawperson comes up to bat again.

It’s also the work of sommeliers, wine writers, and others who either have bought into the mythos or see it as an easy shortcut to sales or clicks….Saying that a wine is great because it comes from the same place that made great wine in the past is a hell of a lot easier than actually tasting the stuff and making decisions about its quality. Just because a bunch of monks in the 1400s thought this particular part of a hill in Burgundy made the best wine, we’re still slavishly adhering to their hierarchies centuries later?

So are we to understand that sommeliers or wine writers who enjoy Burgundy, Barolo, Saint Emilion, or the Mosel don’t blind taste wines from these regions and make judgments based on experience rather than reputation. This is utter nonsense asserted without evidence. The ancient hierarchies do exist and play a large role in marketing and determining prices. Because terroir has become one locus of intense interest in the wine world, it obviously will be used for marketing purposes and to establish price differentials. But it is simply false that no one critically challenges this hierarchy. The most common comment I hear from people who taste widely is that many Burgundian wines are inconsistent and seldom worth their astronomical price.

But please enlighten me. If there is somewhere other than the hilltop villages of Piemonte that can make Nebbiolo taste like that, I’m dying to know about it.

Then we have an Ignoratio Elenchi (a failure of relevance otherwise known as changing the subject)

I’m sympathetic to the notion that there might be great unappreciated — or even unplanted — vineyards throughout the grape-growing world. I’m equally skeptical that there are nearly as many as the terroiristas seem to believe. If this were just a flight of fancy I wouldn’t care, but it’s convincing several generations of wine drinkers that wine somehow makes itself with little or no human intervention.

Gebelle is likely right that some emerging wine regions may turn out to make undistinguished wine. But we won’t know that for several decades. It takes decades to cultivate mature vineyards and many more years for regions to settle on a flavor profile. Gebelle can’t have it both ways. He can’t complain about old hierarchies and then complain about emerging regions attempting to subvert those hierarchies.

But what does this have to do with the ludicrous claim that wine makes itself with no human intervention? This is another strawperson. There are many proponents of the view that great wine is made in the vineyard rather than the winery. But who believes work in the vineyard is not performed by humans? Low intervention winemaking refers to restraint in using chemical additives, commercial yeast, excessive sulfur, filtering, heavy use of wood products, etc. It emphatically does not mean a laissez-faire attitude toward the condition of your vines and soils. If you believe that the key to good winemaking is bringing healthy grapes to the crush pad, you better be applying effort, attention, and intelligence to the vineyard work. The debate about terroir is really only tangentially related to the debate about low intervention winemaking.

He does get one thing right.

One fact that terroir die-hards are being forced to face up to is that climate change is laying waste to many of the finest vineyard sites in the world. The heartland of terroir, Burgundy, might soon be forced to rip out its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and plant more heat-resistant varieties. Napa Valley might be too hot for Cabernet Sauvignon within a few decades. Perhaps we’ll soon be regaled with tales of how La Romanée is the ideal site for Syrah or how Mt. Veeder was always meant to be planted to Touriga Nacional.

No doubt climate change will scramble the wine map. But that doesn’t show terroir is irrelevant. It in fact proves just the opposite. The influence of climate change on traditional wine regions demonstrates the importance of local weather conditions on wine quality. It shows not that terroir doesn’t exist but that it is a moving target which is exactly what terroirists find fascinating about it.

This article is a mess. If the anti-terroirists wish to advance their cause they need better advocates.

One comment

  1. Dwight – You hit the nail on the head or rather multiple nails multiple heads one at a time. It behooves all wine lovers to grasp the true meaning of terroir beyond just the dirt where the vine grows. It is a complex web of interconnected components that are not duplicated elsewhere. The article you cite is full of misconceptions for sure, but most importantly is is written by one who neither understands or appreciates the concept of terroir or its importance in the world of wine.

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