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05.11.2007

Taking Another Run at Terroir

We all learn lessons in life that can only be taught by painful interactions with others. Now I know not to start bashing any political candidate before knowing the political orientation of my dinner guests. I know never to talk about religion with clients, no matter how friendly we might get over drinks after the day is over. I also know that you can never, ever talk about terroir constructively unless you are doing so with like-minded individuals. The debate over whether terroir exists, or perhaps even just what it is can never be decided.

Of course, that doesn't (and shouldn't) stop anyone from having conversations about it, as food scientist Harold McGee and chef Daniel Patterson did in a recent article in the NY Times Style Magazine cleverly titled "Talk Dirt to Me."

While this article is well written, it doesn't offer much new in the way of thinking about the subject (though as it was published in the Style magazine, it's clearly not aimed at sophisticated wine lover), and it doesn't really escape the main lesson that I've learned about terroir: for the time being, it's a question of faith.

It seems to me that all arguments (or civil discussions, for that matter) about terroir always come down to the same kind of faith that will never be bridged between the atheist and the believer. Just as in religion, when it comes to terroir there is no real proof that it exists, and no real consensus on what it is.

Narrow definitions of terroir suggest that it is the sense, character, and even flavor of the soil in which the vines grow that is expressed in a wine. Broader definitions include the microclimate and of the place that the grapes are grown and the cumulative weather of a given vintage in addition to the geology, and still broader definitions may include the native yeasts of the area, the pollens and other surrounding vegetation, while others even include a mystical and indefinable spiritual sense of place.

The problem is, of course, that there is no real rational (or should I say repeatable and testable and scientific) link between these things and the organoleptic qualities (taste and aromatics) of a wine. Of course every wine lover knows that the weather affects grapes, as does the drainage quality of the soil, the nature of the sun exposure of a particular vineyard block, and the pattern of weather over the course of the growing season. It is literally even possible to reliably taste some of these things, like whether the grapes just never got ripe enough, or whether they had too much water. But it is not yet possible to prove

Even for the most narrow of definitions, however, there is no real scientific evidence that links the flavors of a wine to a specific place. We know how the lack of sunlight affects grape ripeness and how that translates in to flavor, but no one can yet show how the lack of sunlight in one place and the same lack in another place translates into different flavors in wine. Likewise, we know intuitively that the geo-chemical composition of the soil must have some effect on grapes, and we have even seen conclusive evidence that levels of certain minerals in the soil affect the biochemistry of the grapes, but no one has yet been able to show how those changes translate into the flavors and aromas of wine. Yet it is pretty clear that when we are tasting a "mineral" aspect in a wine, that flavor does not necessarily come from a mineral-rich soil. As much as the French have made their fortunes based on it, there is no real evidence for the fact that a Nuits St. Georges tastes different than a Marsannay because of something specifically different about where they are grown.

Personally, I think it is only a matter of time before scientists can definitively make the link between soil geology and the flavors in wine. But of course, this is only one tiny piece of the overall picture of the growing conditions for the grape, and an even smaller piece of the complex maze of variables and possibilities that exist in the process of taking a grape and making it into wine. The proliferation of these variables is in fact one of the chief reasons that discussions about terroir are so elusive. Who's to say that a particular flavor in a wine comes from the ground more than say, the yeast, or the oak, or the extra hour that the must stayed in contact with some stems, or the number of months the wine was on its lees, for instance. Then again, who's to say those things aren't just part of terroir, too?

See what I mean?

Terroir is at once both one of the most compelling reasons why I drink wine. Yes, my name is Alder Yarrow, and I'm a terroir believer. But it is also one of the most maddening, overused, and pejorative aspects of wine that I despise. This concept, which is the soul of wine, is used for great evil in the world, not the least of which is the perpetuation of the myth that some places/regions/countries have terroir, and others don't.

These evils also include the Chicken-Little syndrome that unfortunately closes McGee's and Patterson's article, in which they lament the fact that terroir is somehow being obliterated by big wines crafted to please the "Parker Palate."

My question for them is: can they prove it?

And there, my dear readers is the whole point of this little rant. At this point, it's all just about faith, and just like religion, if you want to have good conversations instead of arguments, for now you gotta stick to your own. The problem is, I don't know where the church of terroir loving, Mondovino skeptics meets.

Any ideas?

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