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The fault in our stars

Jasmine Hirsch is, these days, probably better known as the co-provocateur (provocateuse?) behind In Pursuit of Balance, but with that flashy (if sometimes haphazardly defined) project shuttered, she’s free to return to her other full-time job as the face and voice of her family’s eponymous Sonoma winery.

The cringe-inducing whining about IPoB was often as overblown as the wines against which it sought contrast (and even “against” is more antagonistic than the reality), but Hirsch’s basic message hasn’t changed at all: ripeness can obscure difference, intervention can obscure difference, even intent can obscure difference. Obviously her argument is more nuanced than that, but the core of the philosophy is to make wines of response or revelation rather than wines of intention…which is why there was always a certain irony surrounding the word “pursuit” in IPoB’s name.

By “intent” I mean something other than the basic desire to turn grapes into salable wine. Not even the most hardcore naturalistas operate from a position of utter indifference to material or process. Hirsch has selected its preferred grapes, its preferred clonal material, the sites on which its vines grow. It most certainly practices viticulture of intent, and harvest dates aren’t selected at random. A sufficiently problematic fermentation would likely be dealt with, one way or another. But on a continuum from industrial to natural, wines of intent invite — in fact, demand — a lot more meddling than is evident here.

“Revelation” is an equally tricky word, in that it usually bears a promissory burden. That’s not how I’m using it here. I mean only that a wine of revelation is one that differs from vintage to vintage in response to its natural inputs — weather, mostly, but also less welcome participants like pests and diseases — and the oenological decisions such inputs encourage. Big house non-vintage Champagne is the ultimate wine of intent, requiring dramatic interventions all through the process, up to and including blending to achieve the house style. Wines of revelation aren’t the total antithesis of such machinations, but they’re a lot closer to the other end of the spectrum. 

That said, it’s impossible to entirely disentangle intent from the drinkable results; Hirsch probably couldn’t make the style they obviously prefer were their vineyards in Paso Robles. Also, the notes below are for blended wines, not terroir wines (except in a general regional or communal sense). Still, the wines themselves can’t help but reveal the truth or lie in the claimed philosophy; if they hold fast to an identity, year after year, they’re wines of intent. If they waver in response to season and the resulting variabilities in vine/grape chemistry, they’re wines of revelation.

Hirsch’s are clearly the latter. Keep Reading

Plus c’est la même chose

romulusIt isn’t always necessary to choose a side. In fact, some would argue that the only path to wisdom is in not doing so. Others of a less earnest bent might feel that it’s at least better to retain devil’s advocacy as a rhetorical tool. I’d agree with both, depending on the subject, but add that the most common cause of a lack of surety is the experiential maturity to know what one doesn’t – or cannot – know.

This defense of hesitancy is a prelude to Yet Another Post on natural wine. I think my written record on the subject qualifies me as a vocal advocate, firmly on the “pro-” side (or at least very frequently witnessing for the defense), but that’s not a fully accurate characterization. I think that’s grasped by some who really are fully committed to the cause, who see through the support to the lack of surety within. I have, at times, been accused of a lack of sufficiently strident advocacy…as if this is a bad thing. (That said, I certainly draw more grief from the skeptical, though I usually find that their objections amount to an extended argument with things someone who is not me has claimed.)

It’s true that I do have…worries. Certain areas of non-commitment. And that really makes sense, for my goal isn’t to promote (or condemn) natural wines, it’s to drink better and, perhaps, participate in an open discussion of how natural wine both does and doesn’t fit into that pursuit.

So if it’s useful to have an essay extant in which I say bad things about natural wines to demonstrate my agnosticism, this would be it.

I’ve said this before, but one of the most distasteful things about natural wine — another is actually distasteful natural wine — is the often-messianic surety that surrounds it. And there are some angry messiahs, to whom everything and everyone else (even sometimes within the movement itself) is wrong…for reasons of insufficient purity, insufficient commitment, insufficient science, or a hundred other sensible and lunatic doctrines seemingly invented on the spot. In a way this shouldn’t be surprising, as the movement not only invites, but practically requires, a large percentage of cranks and anti-social, anti-most-everything-else iconoclasts. I mean that much more affectionately than it sounds, but listening to the loudest voices in the movement often requires a good deal of private eye-rolling. Natural wine could – and the irony is not lost – use a good finishing school, in terms of selling its philosophy.

(To which I know the response is going to be: yes, but we don’t care. Fair enough. But there are people who could be convinced, or at least persuaded, were the temperature turned down a little.)

Of vastly greater importance is that the whole issue of biological and chemical flaws is far too blithely handwaved as a matter of personal preference. Not because it’s impossible to enjoy wines with characteristics otherwise considered flaws, but because it’s not clear that they have to be there in the first place. Were all natural wines bretty, or excessively volatile, or ropy, then it would be obvious that this was just an essential condition of the category. But they’re not. There is a very large percentage — I have no idea if it’s a majority or not — of natural wine that’s clean, that’s pure, and (in some cases) ages perfectly well despite limited (or no) added sulfur. A lot of what is regarded as the common baggage of natural winemaking is instead just sloppy, often untutored, winemaking. Certainly this impression is not countered by meeting the winemakers whose wines are chronic sufferers, many of whom seem to insist on doing things at odds with the tenets of basic chemistry.

But there’s another side to the widespread embrace of flaws, and it ties into the third and most distressing problem with natural wine. To contextualize this, let’s step to the other side and consider natural winemaking’s philosophical opposite: industrial winemaking, the goal of which is to produce, via technological means, a thoroughly reliable, predictable, quality product. As bad or good as any given wine might be (for industrialism is practiced in the hallows as much as in the Gallos), the actual hallmark of industrialism is its sameness. This is true whether the wine is a $12 petite sirah littering gas station liquor shelves or a pricey Champagne produced in zillion-bottle quantities that remains inseparable from its own glitzy marketing beast.

One doesn’t have to taste more than a few hundred natural wines before it becomes clear that a rather distressing percentage of them are very, very close cousins. Biochemical “flaws” can be the cause of this — one brett-ridden explosion of volatility is much like another — but there’s a more fundamental sameness. On the red side, one tastes an awful lot of crisp, snappy Beaujolais…except that much of it isn’t from Beaujolais, nor even made from gamay. On the paler end there’s a bit more variety, but a flavor profile akin to Loire chenin dosed with a little skin-contact ribolla gialla is quite ubiquitous. And then there are the orange wines…

(Let me head off the complaints: I’ve tasted scores of orange wines together, and in that context their differences are clear…ish. But no one drinks them that way, and no one ever will. Considered in isolation, only the true outliers really shine through their copper-colored glasses.)

That so many of the reds should be Beaujolais-alikes isn’t all that surprising, considering the heavy imprint of semi-carbonic winemaking on the source material, but I think it’s worth asking: to what end? Do we really need Sicilian frappato, Roussillon grenache, Sierra Foothills syrah, and even Bordelais cabernet to taste like increasingly endless variations on the — admittedly excellent — Lapierre/Breton/et al theme? Where’s the individuality? (And I don’t mean the often excruciating label design.) What, exactly, makes the creative philosophy of all these nearly-identical natural wines different from their nearly-identical industrial opposites? Less frequent use of beard trimmers?

Natural wine is supposed to, among other things, be the ultimate transparency; letting the vine speak with as little interference as possible. It’s patently obvious that wines that taste the same no matter what they’re made of or where they’re from aren’t revelatory of anything except the winemaker’s imprint. That happens to be the core sin of industrial winemaking. There’s no need to replicate it.

How did we end up here? It’s my belief that a lot of natural winemakers and admirers don’t, in their subconscious liver of livers, actually like transparency nearly as much as the idea of it, whereas what they’re really after is the taste. And please, don’t tell me they don’t have a taste. (The exceptions are the stars of the genre, and there are many, but they’re not the subject of this essay. Also, many of their winemakers and importers agree with this complaint, though sometimes only privately.) I don’t mind the fetishization of that taste any more than it truly bothers me to see someone who really, really loves mass-market pinot grigio. Less appealing is the volume of the adoring peloton careening along a merry trail of sameness while all the while crowing about how fundamental and essential their preferred wines are.

So if the industrial fans prefer painstakingly crafted monuments to intention and the frequently-cloned natural wine aficionados crave indifferently crafted monuments to inattention, who’s holding the philosophical high ground? Could it still be the terroirists? The winemakers and drinkers who do in fact philosophically skew towards natural, but would be just as horrified by a Brouilly that tastes like a Morgon as they would a Chilean carmenère that tastes like one.

Is this a call to some sort of action? Not really, no. Natural wine is what it is; or, more accurately, natural wines are what they are, since there remains little agreement on a definition (and given the personal predilections of those involved, I suspect an unwillingness to conform is fundamental to the movement…which is why the easy acceptance of wines that very much conform is so baffling). Perhaps it would be most correct to say that natural wines are what they aren’t and leave it at that.

It’s neither my business nor my interest to tell people how to make, sell, or enjoy wine. To each their own gout…let a hundred brett infections bloom…whatever. But when I’m next accused of fence-straddling and unnecessary contrapuntalism regarding the claims of natural winos, I’ll have a document to point to that explains why.


santa barbara fogIn-n-Out Burger – I know, I know. It goes against everything I believe about ingredient sourcing. Sometimes, I’m weak. And sometimes, I’m driving from Ballard to San Francisco on a tight schedule and the need for faster food enables my weakness.

As always, avoid the horrible fries.


Terroir – They’ve moved a few seats around. A few folks behind the bar are new. The same old wines have a few new neighbors, no small number of them from a niche importer that just happens to be the former owner and an ex-employee. Other than that, not a single thing of import (sorry) has changed.

One of the unfortunate things about most American wine bars is that they’re not actually wine bars. They’re restaurants that have more than the usual number of wines by the glass. That’s not such a bad thing in theory – eating is a good, and frequently necessary, companion to drinking – but in practice it obliterates the concept, because it makes it impossible to “use” the establishment as a wine bar (except at eccentric hours) because the seats are occupied by long-term commitments rather than three-glass stands.

santa barbara post officeI mention this not because Terroir is, by contrast, so obviously a real wine bar, but because the very complaints that some have about it (in which I’d find both agreement and disagreement) – marginally-comfortable-at-best seats, a little bit of attitude – actually help preserve its function. People come in, they have some wine and a few snacks, and they leave, opening up room for someone else. And those who don’t are the deeply-committed.

Or the should-be-committed. One of the two.

Belluard 2009 Vin de Savoie Terroir du Mont Blanc “Les Alpes Cépage Gringet” (Savoie) – This unfolds very slowly, but by the second or third chapter you realize you’re rapt. At first, it’s just a nice little Alpine white with an edge of something vaguely nutty or floral. But then there’s plot development, a narrative, an ebb and flow and characters move in and out of the story in an orderly fashion. Complexities are those of soil and sky: liquid minerals, yes, but also hues and qualities of light. The end comes with a richer, rounder, and more satisfying story than was evident at the beginning (and being closer to room than cellar temperature doesn’t hurt in this regard, either). I kinda love this. (11/11)

P·U·R 2010 Morgon Cote du Py (Beaujuolais) – Hmmm. Like half a Morgon – the brawling (for Beaujolais), muscular part – without any of the rest that makes it a complete wine. It’s chalky, angular, and void. There’s hesitation from the staff as I’m served this, hesitation as we (“we” including folks who’ve had it elsewhere, with better results) drink it, and a post-consumption questioning by the server that indicates to me none of the involved parties were entirely happy with this bottle’s performance. So I’m going to guess this is unrepresentative until presented with evidence to the contrary…especially as I can’t believe that so many of my like-palated friends have simultaneously lost said palates. (11/11)

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.

Somewhere, a place for us

Jamie Goode laid the gauntlet down. Of course, he did it on Facebook, so I doubt most people did more than trip over said gauntlet on their way to superpoking someone. Nonetheless, he got my attention…which might just mean I spend too much time looking at the ground, wary of things over which I might stumble. Anyway, this is what he said:

Terroir matters but what exactly is it? We need a good definition.

Right now, anyone who’s been around the online wine fora block for a few years (or decades, in my case) is rolling their eyes. Terroir is one of the trifecta of grossly overworn subjects, along with the efficacy of scoring wines and their ever-escalating cost, that has been so thoroughly masticated that there’s absolutely nothing new to say, though there’s an ever-revolving crowd of newbies to say it. Long-timers know each others’ arguments and positions by heart.

So why would I – one of those eye-rolling long-timers – want to dip my toes once more into this exceedingly tepid and turgid water?

Blame Jamie Goode.

Usually, the definition offered up is “somewhereness” (I prefer “placeness”). Both are a little un-rigorous. They tell us what terroir means, but not what it is. I think we can do better.

Let’s start with the fundamentals. I’ll begin with one of the most controversial things I could write: terroir exists. It’s true that not everyone believes this. “Terroir is bullshit,” claims one well-known California winemaker of my acquaintance, and he’s hardly alone in saying so. “Terroir is marketing,” claim a number of his brethren elsewhere in the Golden Two-Buck Chuck State. (I’m sorry, was that snarky? Hey, it’s a blog. Snark is what we do.) And so forth. If terroir doesn’t exist, then everything that follows is a waste of time. It still might be. But I think that the definition, or perhaps the argumentation leading up to it, will actually take care of this foundational problem. Judge for yourself, later.

Much later.

Continuing with the fundamentals, wine is a construct made with a defined number of inputs. Only two, in fact. They are:

  1. the grape(s)
  2. the winemaking

You’ll notice the distinct lack of the word “terroir” in that list. Not to worry. Because the grape, too, leaves the vine having accepted its own collection of inputs:

  1. the grape(s) inherent characteristics
  2. the viticultural choices made by the grape grower
  3. all other grape-changing effects not produced by human intervention

That last part includes the weather over that growing season. But it also includes longer-term meta-effects. Anything that changes the chemistry of the vine (and thus the grape) in any measurable way would be one of these meta-effects.

The meta-effects are terroir. Well…more or less.

What meta-effects? The list is well-known, if not necessarily universally agreed-upon. Non-comprehensively, these include overall mesoclimate (this is the proper term, not the usually-deployed “microclimate”), anything that effects water retention, sun exposure, heat retention, soil chemistry (and thus soil type(s)), and so forth. Broadly speaking, these meta-effects can be broken down into two categories: those below the surface of the ground, and those above it.

For some, we’ve gone far enough, and with a little more specificity in that list will have defined terroir in a satisfactory fashion. But if that were all there is to it, Jamie wouldn’t have dropped his gauntlet on Facebook’s scuffed-up floor. Very, very few people argue that what I’ve just iterated doesn’t exist, or doesn’t have an effect on grapes…and those that do argue the point seem unacquainted with basic agriculture. Any farmer will tell you, without necessarily knowing or caring about terroir, that these effects both exist and affect their practices in a fundamental and inexorable way. However, we need to continue, because not everyone is willing to stop their definition in the realm of the sciences, or at least the evidentiary. For this we can probably blame the French.

Part of the definitional problem is that terroir is a borrowed word with no obvious English equivalent (that is to say, there’s a translation, but it’s not what we mean when we talk about terroir in the context of wine). To many French folk, the word is imbued with much more than climate and chemistry. Anyone who has seen a “produits du terroir” sign while driving the French countryside knows this; the word has quasi-historical implications, and certainly is laden with a measure of cultural baggage that is, to the French, inseparable from geography. Some even talk about human inputs as being part of terroir, though a rigorous definition of this type would have to include everything from training methods to complete site (re)constructions of the type practiced by certain mega-wineries, and that’s most certainly not what the human-input proponents mean. Others claim that people themselves are part of terroir, arguing that the majority portion of the word “viticulture” is not “viti,” but “culture.”. Traditions are sometimes mentioned. As are other living creatures. And so on.

[Geisberg & Osterberg over Ribeauvillé]While these diversions appeal to the romantic in me, they pose a definitional problem. I’m going to solve that by insisting on another fundamental precept: terroir must have clear, scientifically-measurable, and scientifically-repeatable boundaries. If it does not, then a definition is going to be impossible, because it can mean different things to different people. Since we’re here to define terroir, that’s not of much use. Moreover, imposing a structure on the concept of terroir doesn’t preclude the consideration of any of these other categories of influence. Far from it. I certainly think that human inputs exist (I’ve mentioned some of the forms already), and I think that traditions absolutely matter for certain wines, though not for others. What remains to be determined is whether or not they have anything to do with terroir.

Tradition has a more specific name in wine lingo: typicity. Some think that typicity should fall under the definition of terroir, and most who think that live in the Old World, in places where the traditions of wine run deep into the centuries. However, following from the determination that terroir must have scientifically-measurable and scientifically-repeatable boundaries, typicity cannot be part of terroir. Why not? Because while there are components of typicity that can, under certain circumstances, be derived from the immutable qualities of grape varieties and terroir, those components are not the entirety of the concept. Winemaking – practices and style – must also be considered. Thus, taken as a whole, typicity isn’t inherent, it’s artificially imposed. And remember that there are wines whose typicity is a matter of great debate among their advocates. Does a Cotat-produced wine from the Mont-Damnés really taste of Mont-Damnés despite being so different from other producers’ interpretations? Does Brun’s “l’Ancien” taste like Beaujolais or not? How much sangiovese is too little in a Chianti, or tempranillo in a Rioja? There are also wines whose typicity is a matter of arbitrarily choosing date ranges; is Bordeaux “typically” blended with Hermitage or not, and what sites and/or grapes does a given label actually comprise? Is a Mâcon botrytized or not? Montrachet: sweet or dry? What is a Rasteau “supposed” to be? Are varietal bottlings or blends the true Alsatian tradition?

I could go on for a long while, but these examples are all well-known among controversy-loving wine geeks. And they all serve to illustrate the basic impermanence and subjectivity of typicity. Thus, it cannot be part of our definition of terroir.

What about culture? Again, which culture? Greek? Etruscan? Roman? Roman Catholic monastic? Germanic? French? Many cultures may have contributed to the viticulture of a long-planted site. But the cultures were different. And even within narrower groups, culture is not steady-state, it’s a shared environmental construct in constant motion. To say that terroir includes culture is to introduce a permanent variable into the equation. That may satisfy a romantic urge, but it’s of little use when trying to construct a definition with any utility or rigor.

How about creatures other than man? It depends: are said creatures a permanent influence on a given set of vines, and – this is important – in a way that affects grape chemistry, or are they transitory? Most pests, like glassy-winged sharpshooters, or the phylloxera louse, are transitory; they (or the parasites they carry) may affect grape chemistry, but it’s hard to call something a permanent influence when it eventually kills the vine, and when it’s fully mobile under its own power. Grape-noshing birds might seem to be a permanent fixture, but they don’t influence grape chemistry, just quantity (if they ate underripe grapes, performing a sort of avian green harvest, then maybe we could include them…though maybe not, since unless they’re trained their influence is hardly predictable, and thus not scientifically measurable).

One biological entity might be part of terroir, though, and that’s botrytis cinerea, the fungus known in certain forms as noble rot. That botrytis affects grape chemistry is unquestionable, its effects are predictable, and thus the effect is scientifically-measurable. And if a site has a clear and permanent predilection to be affected by botrytis (or the opposite), then it can be said to be part of the site’s inherent characteristics…thus, more or less scientifically-repeatable. So it should be part of terroir, right?

[St-Jean-de-Minervois]One objection is obvious: if terroir is to be scientifically-repeatable, its form should be a constant, or close to it. Thus, if a vineyard isn’t botrytis-affected every single year, botrytis cannot be part of terroir. Right?

This seems an easy escape clause from what appears to be a thorny definitional issue. In fact, it’s too easy, because it misapplies the concept of terroir. In any case, there’s a better reason to eliminate botrytis from the list of terroir-influencing sources. Bear with me here…what follows will seem to be a bit of a diversion, but it will eventually come back to and explain this point.

One more thing we can probably blame the French for goes right back to one of those frequently-heard Californian objections to the concept: terroir is marketing. Because the fact is that, for many, it is very much a point of differential and qualitative marketing. And it has been used in both positive and negative ways. The latter is what gets other winemakers’ backs up, because some will insist that only certain wines “show terroir”…those wines usually being those with a long tradition of site, varietal, and winemaking continuity, and thus (obviously) few of which are placed anywhere in the New World.

Others will point to a generalized inability to, in controlled double-blind conditions, inerrantly identify specific terroirs as proof that terroir does not exist. Two things are worth mentioning here. First, anyone with enough experience has met tasters – many, but certainly not all, of them grape-growing winemakers – who seem to be able to identify sites with surprising regularity. Sometimes, they can even do this by tasting the grapes themselves. A remarkable talent? Maybe. More likely, it’s long familiarity. The wine generalist may not be able to reliably differentiate Schlossberg from Sommerberg, but a specialist in Alsatian wine will be better, and someone who grows grapes on those sites will often prove to be quite adept. Second, however, is the more fundamental objection: the “proof” thus demonstrated by such tastings is not that terroir does or doesn’t exist, but that it is not always useful for the consumer of wine. Again, hold onto that thought for a moment or two.

The (indeed highly marketable) idea of a “terroir wine” is an entirely different concept from the basic definition of terroir. Note that nowhere in my proposed definition have I mentioned a requirement for terroir to be organoleptically identifiable. A wine may or may not show its site-derived characters , just as it may or may not show its varietally-derived characters, and just as its winemaker-derived characters may or may not be obvious. In no case would a taster, having failed to discern certain qualities in a wine, deny the existence of the grape(s) or the winemaker. Yet for some reason, when terroir is not discernable, they’re perfectly willing to deny its existence. This is remarkably insensible; remember our farmers, who would weep at the notion that one plot of ground is pretty much the same as any other. If farmers acted on such an absurd belief, a lot (more) of them would be out of work.

This brings us to the key point: it’s not that terroir is useless or irrelevant in terms of wine appreciation, but that its actual point of application in the process that leads from vine to wine is wholly within the vineyard. In other words, in the purview of the farmer, not the taster. There may be terroir for the taster to discern, or there may not, but there is always terroir for the farmer to discern and deal with.

So to return to our moldy conundrum, is botrytis part of terroir? From the farmer’s perspective, the question is not about botrytis, but about an affinity for botrytis. That predilection is something with which the farmer must deal, compensating (or not) according to the demands of the wine, just as a mesoclimate-derived predilection for extreme August heat is a factor with which the farmer must deal. Botrytis can be prevented or encouraged, yes, but the predilection itself cannot be eradicated without significant changes to other aspects of the terroir (proximity to water, altitude, water retention, diurnal temperature effects, etc.). In other words, the terroir is not the fungus itself, but the predilection for the fungus…a property of the site, not of the mold. This keeps us safely within the boundaries of our earlier assumptions; the yearly presence of botrytis may or may not be fully predictable and thus not scientifically-repeatable, but the chance of a site’s embrace/rejection of botrytis most certainly is predictable and scientifically-repeatable. What follows from this seems to be a firm, clear standard: no biological entities aside from the vine itself have terroir effects.


Well, what about the wee beasties in the soil itself? Worms, bugs, bacteria, and so forth…are they or are they not part of the terroir of a site? And what about grasses and other things planted in and around the vineyard? How about eucalyptus trees in the neighborhood, from which oils adhere to grapes, affecting the taste of the resulting wine? And how about pollen from nearby lavender fields, often cited as a “natural” flavorant in wines from Provence?

The fashion in which we dealt with fungus shows the way forward. It’s certain that the physical and chemical makeup of the soil is indeed affected the creatures living in it (and, it might be added, by cover crops and other in-vineyard plants of that nature). Since we previously asserted that soil chemistry is part of terroir, surely these chemistry-modifying biological entities are also part of terroir.

Again, no. Botrytis affects the chemistry of the grape in predictable and measurable ways only given its presence…which is not assured, only predicted. The same holds true for things living in the soil; they can move away, or be killed by means physical and chemical, or experience a growth spurt one year and a decline the next. In other words, they’re a variable influence, like the weather. The only aspect of their existence that may be part of a site’s terroir is, as with botrytis, a predilection of that site to encourage or inhibit such biological entities.

In both cases, the key point is that our fungi, annelids, bacteria, and so forth are an effect of terroir, not a cause thereof. They exist, or not, as a response to the site…just as the vines themselves do. And while it’s true that they also may affect the site, the same is true of vines, whose questing roots may change the physical nature (and thus the water retention, and as this proceeds over a very long time the geological composition) of a site. Yet the vines themselves are a response to the terroir, not the terroir itself.

Which brings up another question. Doesn’t the preceding demonstrate feedback effects that suggest terroir is an evolving system? Yes. Without external management (which is in direct opposition to the concept of inherent terroir; management is man-made), it is impossible to think that a site does not change over time. Soils change. Vines are uprooted, and their younger replacements’ roots access different soil realms, leading to different vine chemistry. Mesoclimates change, not least in response to anthropogenic climate effects. Farming methods change, causing chemical and biological discontinuities in the soil as viticulturalists adopt, then abandon, various treatments and theories. Weather “events” and regular old erosion change entire vineyards, permanently. And as the previous paragraph demonstrates, the biome created by a given terroir has its own inexorable effect on the terroir.

So how can there be terroir if there’s no continuity? Well, remember what I wrote earlier: terroir is not tradition. Continuity is not a foundational requirement for the existence of terroir. Identity is…but even then, the identity that matters is an agricultural one, not the kind required by a taster for the purposes of identification. Again, terroir is about farming, not tasting.

This is, I think, a hard mindset for people to accept. Of what use is terroir if 1) it’s not about identifiable qualities in wine, and 2) isn’t even a consistent factor?

The response to this will begin to sound familiar: this isn’t a significant question, because terroir isn’t about tasting. That there’s enough identity and continuity for some experienced tasters to identify some terroirs is both a marvelous thing and a demonstrable truism, and in fact without identity and continuity as expressed in finished wine we wouldn’t be having this conversation in the first place, because no one would care whether or not there was such a thing as terroir. But the entity to which terroir actually matters is the grape hanging on the vine, not the person putting his nose and lips to a glass. Everything else is a mere ancillary benefit, not the effect itself. Terroir is of tremendous utility to the grape, even if it lacks the consciousness to know it.

Oh…and as for eucalyptus, lavender, and the like? An apparent vineyard signature, perhaps (until the offending plants are cut down, or the wind shifts), but an external influence no more intrinsic to the site than a “pool” of humidity birthing dormant fungal spores, or farmer spraying fungicide. So no…not terroir.

Moving on…

Here’s another fundamental concept that follows directly from the above discussion of marketing: all sites have terroir. All sites. Despite what those who which to use it as a wedge marketing term would like you to believe.

“But what about wine X, or Y? There’s no terroir there!”

What did I just say? “All sites.” Terroir is in the vineyard. Whether or not it is in the wine is irrelevant to its definition (though a given taster may care about this very much; I, myself, have a general preference for wines that reveal terroir). The most industrial multi-site blend comes from sites that have their own measurable terroir, even if the only thing discernable in the finished wine is the chemical stew used to bludgeon unpalatable grapes into commercial submission. (Sorry. Again with the snark.) Which is another way of stating yet another fundamental concept: quality has nothing to do with terroir.

Again, we run counter to traditional usage. Terroir, for many commentators, is all too often a synonym for the qualitative phrase “good terroir.” Certainly that’s as misguided as employing “wine” as a synonym for “good wine.” It may stand to reason and the law of averages that not all terroirs are “good,” whatever standards one may wish to apply to that qualitative assessment, and we could delve into the reasons a terroir may or may not be “good,” but they’re all subordinate to one of our guiding principles: scientifically-measurable properties. All qualitative assessments of the “good/bad” type are subjective, and thus not scientifically-measurable.

So are we any closer to an actual definition of terroir? I think so. And here – heaven knows you’ve waited long enough for it – is my proposed definition of terroir:

Terroir is a biological outcome derived from the interaction of mesoclimate, geography, and geology (including soil chemistry), expressed by the entity sustained by that interaction and possessing a chemically identifiable identity, but excluding the influence of external biological entities.

Now comes the important part: let’s pick at it. I’m quite sure it can be improved – certainly it can be made shorter – with a little external biological input.

(And Jamie…are you happy now?)