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03.23.2005

Terroir Doesn't Exist and Parker Is Pricey

This just in from the Royal Economic Society of Britain: The traditional French concept of terroir is a figment of the imagination, but the influence of Robert M. Parker, Jr. on the price of a wine is not.

These two topics were among several presented at the scholarly gathering in Nottingham, England yesterday.

Just when you thought the French wine industry had been beaten down enough. A study from the University of Reims and Victor Ginsburgh of the Université Libre de Bruxelles says, "You know that terroir thing we've been talking about for centuries? Yeah. Well. Um. It's Bunk. Useless. Fake. Imaginary. Doesn't exist." Can you hear the alarms for the pacemakers of old artisan winemakers and French chateau owners from where you're sitting? The study of soil composition and winemaking techniques across the Medoc region of France found that winemaking techniques, not soil, were responsible for the complexity of wine that is normally attributed to terroir.

This will be dismissed, perhaps rightly, as highly contentious and flawed research. Anyone who has drunk enough wine, and in particular, tasted barrel samples from different regions of a vineyard will know that different soils and microclimates, even within a vineyard, will produce wines that can taste wildly different, even given identical winemaking techniques.

Also presented at the conference was a bit of research that wins my vote for the most unnecessary wine related research inquiry of the decade. Apparently a good Parker score adds about 15% to the price of a wine. The more he likes a wine, the higher the price goes.

What I want to know is how much money these guys got paid to figure that one out.

Well, at least they gave us an exact figure. The average "Parker Effect" apparently adds 2.90 Euro ($5.36) to the price of a wine. Seems low to me.

Read about both research presentations here.

Comments (23)

gwenita wrote:
03.23.05 at 9:47 AM

Hi there,

This is interesting, especially combined with the realization I just came to of the gap that exists bewteen old school and modern wine making (I saw Mondovino recently).

However, I don't think any authoritative study can be based on something as subjective as taste. I do believe that terroir and varietal give you a more or less rich base to work with, but I agree that wine making techniques can "fake" terroir. Or transform it, or create something entirely new that is its own justification.

All living things are influenced by their environment: a particular oyster specimen will taste different depending on the waters it grew in, cow milk tastes different depending on what the cow's been eating and how much exercise it enjoyed, and so on. Yet grapes are only the starting point of wine, albeit a critically important one.
As for the metrics they used to measure "quality", who is naive enough nowadays to believe that price bears a direct and faithful relation to quality ? It's all marketing anyway, the Parker seal of approval being only the expression of Robert Parker's own personal opinion.

Finally, the real question is to what ends was this study paid for and conducted ?

Roberto wrote:
03.23.05 at 10:37 AM

Send those guys on a tour of Germany and Champagne with Terry Thiese and they will come back as card carrying, frothing at the mouth militant Terroir-istas.

German vignerons will taste you on samples that track row by row the changes in geology in their vineyards.

Champenois will recount how 18 people DIED for the cause of terroir early last century (and by shovel and hoe blows at close quarters, not gunshots) in the Champagne war waged between growers of la Champagne and those from neighboring but inferior regions who wanted to use the appelation.

This often reminds me of people who want to deny the existence of differences between the sexes....futile.

Roberto

beau wrote:
03.23.05 at 12:11 PM

"Well, at least they gave us an exact figure. The average "Parker Effect" apparently adds 2.90 Euro ($5.36) to the price of a wine. Seems low to me."

Alder, this isn't intended to be a snarky comment. However, I would like to point out that the difference between $10 and $15 is very real for many people, myself included, who enjoy wine, but have very tight limits on disposable income. I've tasted a few "Parker Prizes" in the $15-$20 range that, in my opinion, didn't warrant the $5 premium.

Overall, I'm not sure if this is a good or bad thing. One could argue that many people wouldn't try a particular wine without a shelf-talker from Parker, WS, WE, etc. On the other hand, I've had people ask me in classes, "Why is this 88 point wine twenty bucks? I didn't like it." Somehting of a conundrum...

Alder wrote:
03.23.05 at 4:22 PM

Beau,

No offense taken and please let me be clear:: I wasn't demeaning at all the real impact that $5 or $6 has on a person or the price of a wine, merely expressing surprise because of my natural assumption that the number would be higher.

I too, and many people I'd warrant, have tasted a wine that Parker gave 90 points to and found it lacking.

I think inflation of wine prices just based on scores rather than anything else is a bad thing, but I also think there's nothing that anyone would ever be able to do about it. A score (by someone influential and understood as an expert by a majority of the people) drives up "perceived value" in peoples minds and therefore the market drives prices higher, and of course, the other way around. That's more human nature than it is anything else.

We just have to live with it, or choose to buck the system as best we can and seek out wines that are rated low but taste good (there are many) or which are not rated at all (there are many here too).

jassmond wrote:
03.23.05 at 7:31 PM

Thanks for pointing out the study. My take is that the headline is sensational and not true to what the authors are actually saying. Pointing out that parkerized wine commands more money is like saying gravity causes things to fall. we'd all like to fly, and some of us try, but there are some realities we'd all like to ignore.

Personally, i'd like to create a "f.o.&.d" room for anyone who believes terroir is unimportant, and the rest of us can eat the good food, drink the good wine and have the best sex.

I'd rather have a flawed, stanky-ass, bacteria laden, oxidized, maderized piece of the jura than a refined, barrel bound, 70-18-12 bordeaux any drink of the week.

here's to weak wine.
j

03.24.05 at 12:49 AM

I'm w/the folks who think this terroir research is nonsense.

While "people have been wrong about this before" isn't a great argument by any stretch of the imagination, it does serve to put things in perspective. The scientific community -- whether the folks who made that community up or not believed this crap -- actually published quite a few papers showing that you could feed animals essentially anything without any observable effects in their meat, eggs, or milk.

A real quote from a published paper:
"Results of both experiments suggest that [gum and packaging material] may be fed to safely replace up to 30% of corn-alfalfa hay diets for growing steers with advantages in improving dry matter intake and digestibility."

Gum and packaging material... I'd rather have grapes grown with care in an area and climate that is working for the grapes than a greenhouse made of popsicle sticks.

HugeJ wrote:
03.24.05 at 10:48 AM

A few years ago, I tasted two lots of wine from adjacent rows - everything identical in the vineyard and the winery with the exception of different rootstocks (what the grape-producing vine is grafted on top of to avoid phylloxera damage). The difference was striking enough that everyone at the tasting commented on it.

Was one of the wines expressive of terroir and the other not?

/huge

Alder wrote:
03.24.05 at 4:38 PM

Huge,

Thanks for the comment. Don’t have an answer to your question which seemed more rhetorical than anything else, but seems plausible to me -- different rootstocks interact with the soil differently, or are just inherently different themselves...? I know a lot of California growers who bring rootstocks or cuttings over from Europe and they make very different wines here than there.

03.25.05 at 12:46 AM

But doesn't the report define success as a function of price? So when the authors say that wine making effects price much more than terroir does, aren't they right? Just look at the high priced California cabs which lack terroir. Doesn't that prove their point?

Alder wrote:
03.25.05 at 4:15 PM

Steve,

That news report had scant information in it, and actually conflated two different studies, one about the relationship between terroir and winemaking and "quality" (which they don't tell us how they measured) and the other about the relationship between Parker's scores and the prices for the wine. I didn’t see anywhere where they acutally said that success or quality was a function of price.

03.26.05 at 4:13 PM

But the study was done by economists. How else would economists measure success other than price?

Alder wrote:
03.27.05 at 5:32 PM

Indeed, how else. :-) Good point.

Bradley wrote:
03.27.05 at 11:12 PM

Consider all the elements that make up terroir. Of course it exists. The results of the past vintage are now playing out in my cellar. I know of two lots (Merlot) that are strikingly different with terroir factors being the only differences to note.
On the other point . . . Parker doesn't exist. Not at my house. I guess there's people who need that kind of nose ring. Not me.

Patrick Barnette wrote:
03.31.05 at 9:46 AM

I know this topic has largely run its course, but here is the link to the actual article:

http://www.ecare.ulb.ac.be/ecare/people/members/ginsburgh/papers/21.endowments.pdf

It is actually significantly less definitive than the Decanter piece makes it out to be. It is a pretty well-done study from an econometric point of view, but I'm not sure that the data is really robust enough to do what they are trying to do.

BTW, most geologists don't think terroir exists either and I tend to agree, sort of. Soil types can surely play a part, as can exposure to sunlight and rain, but I hesitate to call it terroir, with all its implications. Simply put, I think if you transplanted the soil from an elite French vineyard and replicated its setting in Chile or Argentina, then you could (theoretically) produce the same wine.

As a practical matter, though, this won't hold true, as long as winemakers believe in terroir. If the winemaker at one chateaux thinks his raw materials are inherently different from the ones at the next chateaux, he will adjust his techniques to an extent that the finished product will be different, but this could be explained by technique, without reference to terroir.

The oddest thing, I think is that many of the people who cling most tightly to the idea of terroir are the most ardent proponents of the view that wines are becoming globalized and suffer from a sameness. I mean, if terroir is that important, then how is it possible that wine now has some global style? To lay claim to some global or Parkerized type of wine seems to require that it is possible to reproduce what Parker likes across vineyards, regions, and countries. Not sure how to reconcile a belief in a homogenous, global style with a belief in terroir.

Alder wrote:
03.31.05 at 2:14 PM

Patrick,

Thanks very much for the link and your detailed comments. I'm surprised to hear you say most geologists don't believe in terroir. Just a couple of months ago I was at a seminar by a bunch of geologists about the Napa valley who were talking about how varied the terroir was in Napa and some of the effects that could be seen in the wine.

I think the main thing that contributes to the problem with this concept is that it means very different things to different people. To some (and I place myself more in this camp) it's as basic as a combination of soil composition, soil chemistry, and microclimate(s). These are very unique to a geography and a geology of a certain place and just about everyone would accept that these affect the qualities of the fruit (exactly how, of course, no one is prepared to say) and could easily have an impact on the taste of the wine. To others, however, terroir is something much deeper and mystical, not just an expression of chemistry, but of something "soulful" that cannot be affected by winemaking technology or manipulation, and is something that some places do have, and other places don't. Hence ridiculous claims like Chile or Napa doesn't have terroir.

People who lean towards my end of the spectrum find it easy to imagine that winemaking technique can mask, destroy, or even transform the effects imparted to the grape by terroir. People who lean towards the other end of the spectrum have to contend with the irony that you mention -- they talk about it as something immutable and black and white, yet they yell that people are creating wines that are homogenous in taste.

Perhaps my point of view is what you hesitate to call terroir, but I think there is a whole faction of the wine world that believes that is all it is.

Patrick Barnette wrote:
03.31.05 at 5:54 PM

Thanks for the reply. What you describe is indeed what I hesitate to call terroir. When I spoke of geologists I was speaking of an article I had read (can't remember the source) about geology and wine, where several interviewed geologists were very dismissive of what I hesitate to call terroir. Specifically, there was discussion of ideas like "there are fig trees nearby, so you get the taste of figs." What was important, it seemed, was the relative nutritional value of the soil. It is a fuzzy, almost mystical concept of a "sense of place" often attached to terroir that I have trouble with and which causes me to be careful with my use of the word terroir.

I do believe, that, like anything else, appropriate soils are necessary for good wine. But... I think that appropriate soils are much more common than many in France and (increasingly) Napa, would have us believe. Truly world-class wines are produced in places as far-flung as Australia, Chile, Oregon, Ontario, Germany, Italy, and Hungary. Moreover, people like Dick Erath are buying land in so far untapped places like Tuscon, Arizona. In short, I don't think that quality soil is what limits the amount of quality wine.

Since I believe that good soil is pretty abundant, I guess I'm left agreeing with the Mssrs. Gergaud and Ginsburgh that it is wine-making that makes the largest difference. Climate is important, but I think this affects quality from vintage to vintage more than region to region, and I think it impacts relative large areas.

I'll not beat this topic anymore, but wanted to thank you for a great site and a wonderful discussion.

04.02.05 at 6:43 AM

In response to Patrick - The problem with your thesis is that it distorts the issue. The claim of terroir is not a product of science, it is a product of connoisseurship. Meaning, a consensus of connoisseurs have tasted wines from specific locations and they agree that the wines contain specific characteristics. That this can not be scientifically proven to be true is a comment on the limitations of science, not the lack of existance of terroir. Because it is obvious that thousands of Burgundy lovers can't all be wrong when they claim they can distinguish the various terroirs.

When you look at all the other things science can't explain to a certainty, the proffer of terroir certainly is not unusual. For example, science can't tell you to a certainly why certain people go bald and others don't (just an example.) Yet baldness clearly exists. And I'm sure we can make a list of thousands of things that science doesn't yet have a handle on, but which exist. So in light of the claims that terroir exists by experts in the fields of wine and food, which is ratified by important collectors and connoisseurs in those fields, it is sort of a stretch to say that it doesn't exist.

Terry Hughes wrote:
04.03.05 at 12:36 PM

The complete phrase "gout de terroir" is meant to convey some of the complexity and even imponderability to which you refer, Steve...the taste of the land...which would seem to encompass the characteristics of the soil PLUS a host of environmental factors, including climate, and the effect those factors have on winemaking decisions (eg, do we need to chaptalize). I always suspected that the "ne sais quoi" quotient came in at certain cultural break points...the associations of foods with the wine, whether the wine was "designed" traditionally for quaffing, sipping, etc.

I realize that I have clarified nothing...merely amplified on a vexed topic...ruminations on a rainy Sunday in New York...and trying to hold off till cocktail hour for a nice glassa wine.

VineSci wrote:
10.06.05 at 5:51 PM

Interesting discussion. As someone who's actually done a scientific study of the effect of different site conditions (="terroir") on grapevines (which most people forget and immediatelly jump to conclusions about "soil effects on wine", as if wine is "grown" directly in soil), berry composition and then - using controlled vinification - on wine attributes, I always find it extremely amusing to see how just about everybody has an "opinion" on what terroir is, or is not. Especially the economists. The guys don't seem to realize what amount of painstaking and _expensive_ research it involves to be able to _scientifically_ state that terroir affects wine attributes more/less than winemaking. I've spent last 10 years on it, and still don't have a beginning of an answer. The way things are going, I'll probably spend the rest of my working life (and millions of dollars of funding from various sources, mostly from the Australian growers combined with the government) on the same question. And I do not expect to have the definitive answer, ever, though I do hope I will know more (and you do get to know more, after a lot of time & effort has been spent).

For some reliable information as to the effect of terroir on grapes/wines (never forget the grapes ;)) have a look at some of the papers by Cornelis Van Leeuwen* from Bordeaux.

*Cornelis van Leeuwen, Philippe Friant, Xavier Choné, Olivier Tregoat, Stephanos Koundouras, and Denis Dubourdieu. 2004. Influence of Climate, Soil, and Cultivar on Terroir. Am. J. Enol. Vitic. 55:3:207-217

Alder wrote:
10.06.05 at 8:18 PM

VineSci,

Thanks for the thoughtful and interesting comments. It's not at all a surprise (and smugly satisfying) that the issue is as complex as it is.

Cash wrote:
12.11.05 at 4:10 PM

Whew! What a spirited dialogue! I was going to form a wine cellar related design and construction firm, and name it Terroir. After reading the discussion and also seeing Mondovino, I have to ask one question. Does the word "terroir" conjure up a positive or a negative image for the typical wine collector?

Alder wrote:
12.12.05 at 1:28 PM

Cash,

My thoughts are that anyone who is serious enough about wine to pay someone to design and build their own cellar will not see the word Terroir in a negative light.

VineSci wrote:
01.26.06 at 5:25 PM

That's what happens when economists undertake what is essentially an agronomic study. Studying what determines the price of wine is one thing, but saying that the effect of vineyard site environmental conditions (=terroir) don't have anything to do with wine character is another. There is a thing called 'controlled vinification', whereby different grape samples are subjected to IDENTICAL vinification procedures in a replicated manner (that can be statistically verified). Such and only such research can show whether any given factor affects or doesn't affect wine attributes. Wine marketing, pricing, consumer preference, etc - all of that comes later in the game and should be separated from the actual (objective) wine characteristics.

Cheers.

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