Third place

Poke almost any subject long enough in a wine-savvy crowd, and the sticks and prods will eventually unearth a good old-fashioned terroir debate. I’m not sure how or why this happens, only that after having observed it over and over again, I’ve come to accept that it does. And while I’ve long known that there isn’t anything even vaguely approaching universal agreement on what terroir means, or even whether or not it’s important, I didn’t realize until a recent conversation the breadth of the definitional chasm.

(Clear a spare hour or two from your calendar if you choose to follow that last link, by the way.)

There are, I think, three broad categories of opinion on the subject of what terroir is: cultural, personal, and scientific. The first is, one might say, the traditional usage, because it’s how the term is often employed in its country of origin…though I should note that not all French oenophiles actually use the word this way.

Driving around the French countryside, all those produits du terroir signs mean a little more than a direct translation would suggest. Yes, “products of the land,” but also “products from here” where “here” carries a whole bunch of cultural and historic baggage in its marketable hands. In the traditional French usage, terroir means not only something transparent to the character of a place, but also representative of that place.

This is, incidentally, the reason that the oft-made charge of presumptive hierarchy leveled at terroir-endorsing French winemakers has some validity. When terroir is deployed in this fashion, there must be a history and culture, not just a polygon on a viticultural map. If a young site has only geography, then of course it has no terroir by this definition. Ill feelings on all sides would be diminished if the necessary corollary – “yet” – were appended, but I think that while Old World usage assumes that appendage, New World winemakers hear only the dismissal.

What does the cultural definition of terroir mean for wine? It means that it’s not just about site; in fact, anything but. It allows a great deal of human influence, because traditions are part and parcel of the concept. If an intervention, even a drastic one, is and has been routinely practiced, then that intervention is traditional and must be considered part of the terroir…even if, from an organoleptic standpoint, it interferes with the wine’s ability to express its site. In other words, terroir now embraces the thorny definitional dysfunctions of typicity. And terroir changes if the traditions change.

So there’s the traditional view. How about the “personal” alternative? This is the one that was new to me, until I encountered it in the above-referenced discussion. It has never been a secret that people have their own different notions of what terroir is and isn’t. What surprises me, however, is the extent to which this definitional incompatibility is not only acknowledged, but actively cherished by proponents of the personal.

An example: a definition proposed to me by one such adherent included what I would term “transient” effects. For instance, each vintage’s weather. Pests that may swarm and destroy one year, then absent themselves the next. Yeast populations indigenous to the vineyard, whether or not they’re different from vintage to vintage. Diseases and fungal infections (or the lack thereof). And so forth.

What this and myriad variations on the theme come down to, more or less, is a comfort in identifying wines that speak to one’s personal preferences as “terroir wines.” That seems dismissive, but I don’t mean it to be. There is a natural and in fact unavoidable inclination towards preference in any definition of terroir that presumes it to be identified at the point of tasting, because…well, what is the terroir signature of the Oberhäuser Brücke? Who gets to decide? Dönnhoff? Critics? Do we put it to a vote? What if we can’t agree?

Since subjectivity is inherent when we’re talking about taste, there’s a measure of coherence to this approach. If the terroir of a site can’t be pinned down, nailed to the wall, and then etched in diamond (and from an experiential standpoint, it can’t), but is instead an individuated conversation between wine and taster, then what does it matter if we allow some transience and mutability in the definition? Probably not much.

The third definition is the scientific one, and it’s the one I prefer…irritating empiricist that I am. The goal here is to extract the maximum utility from the word, such that we may say “this is terroir, and this is varietal character, and this is vintage, and this is the winemaker’s hand,” and – while acknowledging that nothing will ever be separable by clean borders in the fashion I just suggested – advance the conversation about each in bounded and comprehensible ways.

The scientific view binds terroir not to the finished wine (it accepts that terroir may be identifiable in the glass, but considers it a separate field of inquiry and not what terroir is), but to the place itself and the products that derive from that place. Ideally, terroir would be identified by the chemical signature of the grapes from a single site, which would then turn their data back on the site to refine its borders. It does not embrace transient effects, considering them to be variables or noise vs. the constant provided by the site. And yes, it is a rigid, relentlessly utilitarian view that attempts to extract the maximum objectivity from a subject inextricably bound to its subjectivity.

Which is to say: even if the scientific view is pursued to its endpoint, and each terroir is identified by chemical analysis and defined to the maximum possible perfection as a consequence, we still go on to drink the resultant wines. And taste, no matter how much science or knowledge we heave in its direction, remains subjective. For though taste is observable by science, its practice is a blend of the scientific, the cultural, and the personal.

Just like terroir.


  • Hoke Harden

    December 7, 2010

    One of the better columns you have written, sir.

    Clear, powerful, precise, and fathomable. Even perceptive.

    And however did you manage such masterful concision? Is this a new Thor?

    Seriously, your definitional divides are lovely, and your consummating points are crisp and powerful. Good reading.

  • thor iverson

    December 7, 2010

    Yeah, I don't know what was up with that. I think I wanted to sleep sooner rather than later. Motivations…we find them where we can.

    I've been experimenting with actually concluding pieces, rather than assuming Terry Gilliam is going to play me out with a clever animation. It's an exciting new realm of discovery.

    But thanks. Very much.

  • Cybercellar

    December 8, 2010

    Well written, enjoyable read!

    Always fascinating subject. In South Africa we have such a diverse terroir, the coastal Hemel en Aarde valley produces what we call NZ blancs, to piping hot sandy soils of Paarl and Durbanville regions assiting in the production of some, Stellenbosch has some fabulous granite sites and of course there's also the Karoo… and they're all within 1/2 hour of each other ;-) Now that's diversity for you.

    Will keep reading.


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