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A O no

[suckling rome]A few weeks ago, the oenokerfuffle of online story and song was the Olivier Cousin debacle, and it had most of the naturalista wine world talking about it. I read along with a good deal of sympathy for Monsieur Cousin, but a fair bit of dismay at the tenor of the post-hoc debate.

In brief: Cousin, an iconoclast in the purest sense of the word, makes wines that don’t receive the officially-designated appellations they’d otherwise warrant. This is, more or less, by design. What he does, instead, is use various semi-confrontational means to indicate place of origin that run afoul of the humorless French and local wine bureaucrats. In response, they’ve decided to punish him for doing so, and the punishment is almost parodically severe: the freezing of his bank accounts, making it virtually impossible for him to continue to do his work, and the threat (a very real one) of jail time.

They take their bureaucracy seriously in France.

That the punishment is grossly disproportionate to the crime should go without saying. Cousin knows he is deliberately flouting the rules, yes, and a sensible response would be to force him to stop doing so by less abusive means (e.g. “do what we say or you can’t sell your wines in France”), not putting him out of business or behind bars. One hopes something similar will be the actual resolution, and that said resolution will come speedily enough that his livelihood will not suffer irreparable damage. There are, or were, even petitions (French and English) to assist in convincing the French authorities to come to their senses.

That’s all clear. What’s less clear is the path forward, once the current unpleasantness is behind us. Since Cousin is a darling of, and primarily known among, the natural wine set, most of the proposals were fairly predictable, and more or less amounted to “blow up the INAO” (not literally), or at least “do away with the appellation system.” I think this is woefully misguided. But I think the core problem is that the appellation system itself is woefully misguided. Or at least, woefully misapplied and mischaracterized.

I’ve written about this before, but all the problems stem from a division of opinion as to what a legally codified appellation system represents. At the legalistic level (at least as practiced in Old World wine regions), it’s a guarantee of geographical origin, ingredients, and practices in attempt to codify and highlight both terroir and tradition. Certain of these categories are more or less important depending on the appellation under discussion, but they form the foundation of the idea behind associating place, product, and name within the confines of the law.

It’s my belief that this remains a worthwhile structure. The customer can only benefit from a system by which information is communicated via labeling, and that’s what a properly constructed appellation system does. Yes, there’s a certain threshold of knowledge required to make good use thereof, but that’s true for any labeling nomenclature. Nonetheless, knowing the ways in which a Sancerre is different from an Hermitage, or a Roquefort from an Osseau-Iraty, is essential to knowing how and when to utilize those ingredients at the table or in the kitchen.

Of course, this is not what the appellation system represents to any number of entities. To many consumers, it represents some sort of promise of replicability (like a fast-food sandwich) and, inevitably, price point (which is why the very best Muscadet can’t sell for more than a wretched premier cru white Burgundy, even though this state of affairs is ludicrous). To critics, it represents a nebulously subjective paradigm to which aspirants must adhere or be judged as lacking. To some winemakers, especially the industrial ones who represent both the majority and the scourge of any appellation, it is a tool with which to secure their market advantage at the expense of those who would expose their mediocrity. And to bureaucrats, it has somehow come to suggest not just identity, but quality and the attempt to legislate a definition thereof.

All of these external expectations are damaging in one way or another, but it’s the last that’s the source of this particular controversy. The argument goes like this: the granting of a defined appellation (the top of the legalistic heap, in terms of officially-sanctioned labels) is a promise to the consumer that the wine will meet certain expectations, some of them qualitative. As such, we cannot allow wines that do not meet certain qualitative criteria to receive the appellation, for by doing so we would devalue the worth of the appellation system.

And so does a system become self-sustaining and self-justifying for all the wrong reasons. For who decides on those “certain qualitative criteria?” Usually, the majority faction of a given appellation’s producers. And who are they? Of course: the cooperatives and the industrialists. At a stroke of the legal pen, the deck is stacked against anyone who would, via the quality of their product, demonstrate the widespread mediocrity deemed to be representative and thus “typical” of the appellation. And given this system, iconoclasts know they don’t have even a glimmer of hope…which is why so many opt out before they’re forced out.

But the rot goes deeper than externalities. For the worst possible purpose of the appellation system is self-preservation, a recursive and thumb-sucking whirlpool of bureaucratic onanism. And yet, this is what it has devolved to. Like so many other bureaucracies, its interests have all slowly but inexorably become self-interests. But haven’t I previously argued that the appellation is a good thing, at least in theory? Yes, I have. Properly-applied, it’s incredibly valuable.

In France – this is less true elsewhere – the obsession with the qualitative baggage of the appellation has created a system in which working outside it is immediately and often fatally damaging to one’s bottom line. But even in the absence of such rigidity, those who choose to follow their own muse are disadvantaged at every turn; a Sancerre will always sell to more people, more reliably and for more money, than a vin de table, and this is true despite whatever cult fandom may have developed around the latter. Only a high-profile critic’s point-laden and hyperbolic approval can change this…and outside the internationalized, Latin-named super-whatevers in Italy, this is something that can talked about only in theory, not in practice. Outliers must succeed on marketing alone, yet their avenues for doing so are deliberately curtailed by their own governments and neighbors. This is profoundly unfair.

So let’s fix it.

Cousin and his fellow iconoclasts should not, if they produce something grossly atypical of the appellation, be able to use the appellation. They should have to call it something else. The appellation should mean something useful to the consumer, and the existence of extreme outliers diminishes that meaning. But if such producers also want to make something within the expected guidelines of the appellation, they should be able to do so without consequence or legally-enforced disadvantage.

Qualitative leaders within an appellation must be protected from the mediocracy. The very last thing that should be allowed is producers voting on whether or not other producers with whom they are in direct competition are “typical” or not. Give this job to an external authority…say, panels of wine professionals tasting single-blind and within the narrowest possible peer groups…without the built-in financial incentive to act dishonestly. This will never be a perfect solution – no human judgment can be – but it will be less foundationally compromised than the current system.

Remove the barriers to commercial success that exist for those working outside the appellation codes. This requires more than fiddling with the law or label nomenclature. Wholesale and official enthusiasm must be accorded to the idea that such products are not definitionally better or worse, but merely different, than their in-appellation counterparts. The mindset must be created that both an appellation-endowed wine and a table wine from the same site are both authentic representatives of that place. This won’t happen overnight, but the foundation can be laid.

And for goodness sake, leave Britney Olivier Cousin alone.

If this doesn’t happen, the appellation system really will fall into irrelevancy, as it is already in danger of doing in so many places. Both iconoclasts and top producers will flee the system, rendering it not only far from the qualitative guarantor that it has mistakenly been asked to be but a vastly diminished reservoir for conservatism and mediocrity. And thus, a useful tool for the consumer will disappear.

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?)

To preserve & protect: a defense of the AOC

[storming of the Bastille]When the oft-benighted INAO denied Jean-Paul Brun the appellation for his 2007 Beaujolais “l’Ancien” (story here, follow-up here, and in French here), it didn’t come as much of a surprise. The lowest-quality French appellations – those that produce oceans of mediocrity – are notorious for this sort of thing, in which low-quality producers (often, but not always, cooperatives) punish their leading lights in order to preserve the notion that their own insipid products represent the “status quo.” Such actions, alongside inexplicably silly lawsuits against those who dare to tell the truth about the appellation, don’t exactly slow the steep decline in the region’s reputation.

Of course, there is an ever-increasing list of very high-quality producers in Beaujolais, names like Lapierre, Coudert, Tête, Foillard, Desvignes…and yes, Brun…that are well-known to enthusiasts. Will they be next under the INAO’s guillotine? It seems likely. The difficulty in France is that unlike Italy, where marketable alternatives for wines that fall outside the DOC system have long existed (and in fact, have been strengthened by updated laws), the loss of a French appellation makes a wine virtually unsaleable. A certain measure of salvation comes from the export markets that know and love these wines, and a little bit more from the ultra-naturalist wine bars and shops that are so currently trendy in France (most of the leading lights of the appellation practice highly traditional viticulture and/or low-manipulation winemaking), but there’s no getting around the fact that this is a hard blow to farmers, most of whom are not exactly bathing in liquid diamonds.

While producers can and do run afoul of the INAO for actual violations of the appellation’s technical rules (grape type and source, alcohol level, residual sugar, etc.), cases like Brun’s are due to the most subjective step in the agrément (the granting of the appellation), the committee of a winery’s alleged peers that tastes wines to see if they conform to the appellation’s norms. One can immediately see the problem here: personal bias cannot help but enter the equation. Petty jealousies matter, especially between penny-scraping defenders of mindless tradition and successful quality producers, few of whom are known for tempered opinions regarding the former group. And especially in France, the showy, somewhat internationalized market in which a “star” winemaker plays often breeds resentment in those struggling to sell their grapes to the local cooperative at ever-decreasing prices. It’s a foolproof recipe for exactly what’s happened to Brun and so many others before him, and it’s somewhat of a surprise that it doesn’t happen more often.

It’s easy, and correct, to call such events a failure of the overly-restrictive theory behind the legally-defined appellation as practiced in France. Some think that the solution is to strip appellations of all non-geographic restrictions. Thus, a Beaujolais could be any wine that came from within the confines of Beaujolais, no matter the grape, color, or form. This would bring French wine law into accord with most New World laws, and let the market rule the future. Others favor less extreme measures, but still advocate the elimination of many restrictions and prescriptions in appellation law.

I think this is a mistake.

The problem is that many, perhaps most, people have the wrong idea about the purpose of a legally-defined appellation. Blame for this can be laid squarely at the feet of generations of French winemakers who have promoted it as the top element in a hierarchy, or as a guarantor of quality. It is neither of those things (which makes Italy’s codification of this notion in their allegedly superior DOCG designation – the “G” stands for “garantita,” or “guaranteed,” – preposterous on its face).

A legally-defined appellation has nothing whatsoever to do with quality, and the only thing it guarantees is identity; that is, a product that carries an appellation must have the properties defined by that appellation, whether it be wine (Vosne-Romanée), cheese (Roquefort), or chicken (poulet de Bresse). The granting of a Bordeaux AOC does not mean that a given wine is good, it means that it satisfies a certain set of objective criteria that have nothing to do with subjective quality. It also does not mean that the wine is better than a vin de table, but worse than a Bordeaux Supérieur or a Pauillac. Yet that is what many people have been led to believe.

[INAO logo]Narrowly-defined appellation law could, and perhaps should, restrict itself to scientifically-measurable, objective criteria. Grapes, minimum (or maximum) alcohol, color, form (still/sparkling/sweet), harvest date, soil type, approved and disapproved viticultural and cellar techniques, etc….and eliminate the tasting panel. But would this solve the problem?

Yes and no. It would prevent inexplicable decisions like the one capriciously denying Burn the appellation for a sample of a wine already granted the very same appellation several times. But it is still a restriction, and a harsh one, on what Burn may or may not do. The question must be asked: why is it necessary to limit Burn’s freedom in any fashion whatsoever?

Libertarians and free-thinking New World winemakers are no doubt shouting “yes!” Here’s a counter-argument: because defined appellations have great value. Not so much for the producer, but for the consumer.

The proper way to think of an appellation is as an indication of typicity. That is, the way in which a wine satisfies expectations as to its character. There is nothing to criticize, and everything to praise, in a labeling system that gives the consumer information about the wine within. Of course, no labeling system is perfect, nor can this information be useful without a context of knowledge, but it’s certainly useful to know that, between a Muscadet and a Margaux, one is much more likely to be appreciated with oysters than the other. Or that, given a red Hermitage of recent vintage, there are consequences to opening the wine before it has matured, consequences (decanting, the right food to combat tannin) that must be dealt with to achieve the maximum possible enjoyment.

An appellation as an indicator of character is as clarifying as the knowledge of the consumer allows it to be. The novice may well find that the Muscadet/Margaux differentiation is enough for their satisfaction, while the aficionado may enjoy the fine-grained differences between Chiroubles and Régnié, or Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent. If the appellation is stripped of restriction and meaning, however, such indications cannot be. A Margaux that is, today, a blend of (mostly) cabernet sauvignon and merlot cannot tomorrow be a sparkling viognier, and after that a late-harvest gewürztraminer, without hopelessly confusing customers. Just look at the minor chaos created by simpler confusions, like the level of residual sugar in “dry” Alsatian wines, and multiply that confusion a hundred-fold.

Further, appellations preserve diversity. It is true that not all appellation-preserved wines can currently be assessed as worthy of preservation, but it’s important to remember that things change. As they have, for example, in Beaujolais. The dedicated French supermarket shopper may despair of finding anything worth saving from the region, but the savvy oenophile knows that there’s quality to spare if one knows where to look. That upsurge in quality is, for the most part, a fairly recent occurrence. But had the authorities given up on Beaujolais, no matter how justifiably, and demoted it to vin de pays or worse, would we know the names of the qualitative revolutionaries? Almost certainly not.

[yin yang symbol]In a trend-chasing wine world, appellations codify tradition (which is, after all, what typicity attempts to express). They don’t necessarily preserve quality tradition, but that’s situational; in regions where quality is the tradition, Brun-style problems don’t occur. Appellations mandate the use of grapes that would, in the face of the pure market, be ripped up for ever more endless acres of cabernet, merlot, chardonnay, pinot noir, and the few other well-known, seemingly infinitely-saleable grape varieties that already litter our shelves. They preserve the sharp brine of Muscadet, the delirious spice of Furstentum gewürztraminer, the rocky heights of the Scharzhofberg, the fierce brood of Taurasi, and the rustic smile of Bugey Cerdon, without all of which our world of wine is diminished

So, appellations must be preserved, just as they preserve that which we would otherwise lose. But what they must not be – and this is the critical point – is the final appeal. The crime against Brun is not that he made a wine that the INAO (rightly or wrongly) found atypical, it’s that this finding damaged him. Brun should be allowed to “opt out” of the appellation system and its implied promises of authenticity and identity without suffering economic harm. Current French law doesn’t allow him to do that, but it should. In an ideal world, Brun may choose to make wines within the appellation system, and thus benefit from the information that those designations provide to the consumer, but may also choose to make wines outside that system…wines that are merely Beaujolais by another name, or wines that are as fanciful as his imagination allows (and Brun has quite an imagination). Thus, Brun gains immunity from the jealousy and petulance that would do him economic harm.

One might ask: why a potentially confusing dual system, rather than simply scrapping the most problematic aspect of the agrément, the tasting panel? The argument for the panel’s preservation is that for appellations to have value along the lines that I’ve indicated, they must actually identify typicity. And I don’t know of any way to assess typicity besides tasting. The potential for problems could be greatly mitigated by ensuring that tasting panels are not composed of one’s immediate peers; for example, no one who makes Beaujolais should sit on the Beaujolais panel. This will require some means of assessing qualifications, but certainly France and other countries that grant similar appellations have enough qualified tasters to suffice.

The appellation system has both good and bad aspects. Scrapping it (or hobbling it) is an enticing course of action, but benefits producers (who gain freedom) at the expense of consumers (who lose coherence). And fixing it, in a country as conservative about its traditions as France, seems a venture doomed to failure…or, worse, repair that exacerbates the problem (look at Germany’s attempts to update its own wine law, for example). Instead, why not a minor tweak to the foundation, plus the addition of a worthy counterpart that does not in any way damage the unquestioned marketing power of the AOC? One which heightens the value of the appellation to the consumer and preserves tradition, but which sets the producer free to benefit from both tradition and unfettered experimentation? Everyone benefits. And our world of wine is enhanced.

The myth of objectivity

Other than the tangled web of critical ethics, no subject causes as much confusion and consternation among readers (and the critics who love them) than objectivity.

Just the facts

Wine can be described via chemistry, which means that much in its makeup can be measured. Things like acidity, tannin, dry extract and residual sugar (to name a few) have numbers attached to them and can be quantified, assuming one has access to a lab (or the data). Viticultural and winemaking techniques can be specifically iterated. Matters of geography and personnel are definable. There’s more along these lines, but I trust everyone gets the idea. This, and only this, is what’s indisputably objective about the description of wine.

Facts not in evidence

Critics may include elements from the objective realm, but their goal is to communicate the subjective; were it not, data sheets from the winery would suffice for the purpose of criticism, and they do not. Taste is inherently subjective. It is an opinion…nothing more…and a personal one at that. Thus, wine criticism cannot help but be, at its core, a pursuit of the subjective.

Blurring the lines

So why do these simple ideas cause so much confusion, and (often) acrimony? Why do critics – including this one – insist that there is a grey area that can, and in fact must, inform wine criticism? It’s all tied up with the thorny idea of typicity.

The concept of typicity is far too involved to here cover in any rigorous detail, though an overlong essay on the subject can be found elsewhere. The shorthand version is that it is a sort of defined summation of an expectation, based on the weight of historical precedent and producer adherence to that precedent. A grape can have typicity, as can a place, a wine style, and even a producer.

Obviously, there are difficulties with the concept. First and foremost, it’s trivially easy to turn one’s back on typicity by deliberate actions in the vineyard, the cellar, or the boardroom. Second, it relies on both democratic principles of “majority rule” (what if “the majority” are lousy winemakers?) and on arbitrary historical segmentation (is today’s typicity the same at 1890’s typicity?) And third, people cannot agree on whether or not it is a good thing. (The full exegesis on these subjects rests in the aforementioned overlong essay. Accept the previous as a given and we’ll get to the actual point faster.)

Critics rub the silky underbelly of typicity on a regular basis. “This does/doesn’t taste like a pinot noir” is one common mode of expression, and one of the easiest to embrace; grapes do have signature characteristics, though they’re easier to see when comparing wildly disparate varieties like gewürztraminer and merlot than they are when considering organoleptic cousins like cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. Inevitably, someone will object with a version of the following: “who are you to say what pinot noir should taste like?” and the acrimony will commence. More debatable statements come from descriptions of appellation-based typicity (“Chianti should be…”), which almost always lead to definitionally tortured arguments and a lot of pointless debate about first principles.

So why involve such blurry concepts in criticism at all? Because the alternative is, indeed, the justifiably-maligned “caveman criticism.” If a critique is solely reducible to a simple statement of like or dislike, it is only marginally useful. One rather hopes for an answer to the fundamental question: why? And once one begins to answer that question, one is inevitably forced to deal with issues of typicity…with the coalescence of the subjective and the objective in the murky seas of justified opinion. It is impossible for a critic to work well while utterly rejecting all notions of an expansion of wine’s expressible elements beyond the chemical, geographical, and procedural. A critic needs that additional vocabulary to communicate anything of value to the general public.

The dangers of authority

What the critic cannot do is hold just as dearly to these more ephemeral aspects as they do to matters that are clearly objective. Critics who pile abuse on other critics using statements of dubious (or worse: unsupported) objectivity are especially distasteful, and one hopes they will rediscover their humility before it is too late. There is an unfortunate tendency among some powerful critics to believe, due to the wide affirmation of their audience, that their own theses and contexts have become immutable law. The process of justifying one’s opinions must be ongoing; once a critic resorts to the weight of their authority in lieu of other arguments, that critic has lost their way. And a critic cannot forget that, at the end of the day, taste is still subjective, and one can be endlessly “right” about a wine and still not speak to the tastes of another.