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Terroir vs. Pleasure in Wine

green_drops.jpgHow many times have I told myself not to meddle in the world of terroir? Having (or starting) discussions about the traditionally French notion of how wines possess unmistakable signatures of their place of origin is not unlike having discussions about religion and sexual orientation: you need to take care who you have them with.

But here I am again meddling in the "somewhereness" of wines, to borrow writer Matt Kramer's favorite shorthand for terroir.

The question of the day is whether terroir includes the "bad" flavors as well as good -- and if it does, whether such flavors should be eliminated, or not.

We've already had part of this discussion here on Vinography, in the context of a previous discussion about the role of yeasts in terroir. While not a part of the main post, the conversation in the comments quickly turned to the role of the Brettanomyces yeast and whether it is a fundamental flaw, or whether it might be considered part of the regional terroir of the southern Rhone. While some might object to the suggestion that Brett and its typical horsey, barnyard aromas are a part of terroir, the question of whether it represents (or represented at one time) a regional style.

A recent piece of news bears on such questions. Scientists in South Africa, in collaboration with regional winemakers, have undertaken a series of investigations to identify the source of a series of aromas found in South African red wines. These aromas, which range from green wood to burnt rubber, are considered objectionable by some (myself included) while others consider them to merely be one of the typical regional qualities of wine produced in the country, and therefore an important signature of terroir.

Let's assume for a moment that such flavors are indeed endemic to, and produced by, the region's particular combination of geology, climate, and (sound) winemaking practices. If this is the case, but still many consider such flavors so objectionable that they will not buy (or worse, won't rate highly) the region's wines, should those flavors be eliminated?

To wit: if the scientists in South Africa manage to figure out what causes these aromas and then what to change in winemaking or winegrowing to eliminate them, should winemakers go ahead and effectively erase what many have come to consider a fingerprint of the region in an effort to make their wines taste better?

There are those who will stridently declare that just like the Brett that characterized Rhone wines of a certain era (much less commonly now), these aromas are fundamental flaws and need to be stamped out like nesting cockroaches. And there are those who will just as violently argue that stripping such qualities out of South African red wine will rob it of its individuality.

My interest in all this has to do with the implied balance between typicity on the one hand (how much a wine represents a certain place or type) and pleasure on the other hand. If winemakers make wine that is indelibly true to a place, but if very few people like it, does it matter how well the wine represents the place?

There's no easy way to answer such a question, though I find it perhaps easier than most to step back from the romanticism of terroir and ask the question: what do these winemakers want to do with their wine? If they only aspire to sell it to a local market of people who don't think it's red wine unless it tastes like peeled willow bark, then there's no need for a change. If they want to sell their reds on the global market, however, and that market demands wine without burnt rubber, then perhaps the terroir, or at least the regional style, needs a bit of an overhaul.

What do you think?

Comments (22)

Arthur wrote:
06.18.08 at 10:14 PM


This is related closely to something I will be posting tomorrow.

This is a commendable pursuit on the part of the South Africans. But it walks a fine line between amelioration and homogenization and carries many pitfalls.

You can reduce pyrazines in cabs with oak flour and make for greater purity of fruit flavors. Have you made a better wine or a more globally marketable one? There are places in California which produce varieties that show less than optimal characteristics as a direct result of their terroir. Some like these types of wines and some don’t. Assuming that the winemaking is sound, how can they overhaul their wine?

Is regional typicity worth trading for bigger revenue?

Alder wrote:
06.18.08 at 10:22 PM

And, Arthur, to throw another rhetorical question on the pile, how do you tell the difference between regional typicity and the stubborn insistence of winegrowers in trying to grow the wrong grape variety in the wrong place?

Arthur wrote:
06.18.08 at 10:29 PM


That's easy, when the wine sucks!


Alfonso wrote:
06.18.08 at 11:57 PM

What about wines like Sagrantino, which 40+ years ago were almost exclusively made in an amabile (sweet) style? Or Amarone, which at one time, was almost exclusively made as Recioto? (also very fruity)

Does the desire (or production) for sweet or dry styles alter the somewhereness of the wine?

Arthur wrote:
06.19.08 at 12:03 AM

Alfonso, In my mind, this is where even "Somewhereness" falls apart. Would Retsina be Retsina if it were made with the resin of a cyperss or none at all?

Josh wrote:
06.19.08 at 1:08 AM

@Arthur and Alder,

Of course you're being flip Arthur (great piece in the LA Times today BTW), but I think the answer is almost as simply stated: when people no longer buy the wine.

Also, who benefits when wines have regional typicity, and how? What is the alternative to just letting the market sort the whole thing out?

Is there some psychic benefit accrued to a producer of wines with somewhereness? Does this psychic reward substitute for profits in some cases?

If the market isn't pricing regional typicity correctly, who decides what its true value is? Is regional typicity some kind of quasi public good? Should we nationalize and subsidize it?

Freakin' reeks of effort to me. No guarantee any scheme you can come up with will work either. And unintended consequences are par for the course. All I know for sure is that I'm not smart enough to outsmart the market.

And if you can't beat 'em...

Arthur wrote:
06.19.08 at 2:10 AM

Thank you very much for the kind words, Josh.

I was not intending to be disrespectful. Actually, I threw that out there to bring us back to the question of "what is quality in wine?" That is a pivotal point in this discussion.

06.19.08 at 2:45 AM

I had such a conversation with a young winemaker from South Africa recently. I was under the impression that this flavour had been linked to certain natural yeasts in SA, and therefore effectively a 'terroir' element that would require substantial intervention to reduce.

He was quite certain it was actually a chemical compound that CAN develop in the skins of the grapes, in particular in Pinotage, and therefore it was something that could, with the right viticultural practices (and not interventionist winemaking) be reduced.

Now, does that make a difference? I think it does.

Burnt rubber is not really a characteristic a large number of drinkers will seek out, and it is not something that has to be in the wine. If you can 'improve' your winemaking, particularly by focusing on having the right vines in the right places, with good viticultural practices in place, then why not implement them? You are not just changing the wine, you are improving it.

Should Eastern Europe keep picking grapes far too early and making incredibly acidic whites just because that was "the way it was done" (I experienced this in Bulgaria in the 1990s)? The grapes could just as easily, with greater skill and knowledge, have made much better wines.

I am sure that the best South African winemakers will find a way to reduce the unattractive features of their wines, whilst developing the positive ones, and that a 'terroir' will show through.

Harry Vos wrote:
06.19.08 at 3:31 AM

The way I see it, there are two worlds of wine which we must not try to merge.
Some winemakers will invest in only the best of soil, the most appropriate of varietals and clones and go to lengths of risk, just to harvest premium raw material for their wines. Some of them will pursue the same kind of rigour in their cellars. Others will plant what's in fashion, harvest volume and invest mainly in cellar techniques. Of course, many are in the grey zone in between these two. This is true throughout the world.
I tend not to judge either category, but my respect goes to the first one. And those are the kind of wines that I'm constantly looking for.
Don't get me wrong. Technological progress has lead to better wines, that much is certain. But as far as I'm concerned, if you get bad aroma and flavours from your soil, than you should consider planting other varietals or moving yours to better soil, instead of "going pharma".

Arthur wrote:
06.19.08 at 8:16 AM


Eastern Europe could also go the sparkling route....

Arthur wrote:
06.19.08 at 12:00 PM

Harry has a very good point and it alludes to Alder's question about matching the variety to the site. So much in wine is driven by what is fashinable. If V. labrusca thrives in your area, why would you invest millions and possibly decades to make wine that has trouble contending against the same varieties from other regions only to veil "poor quality" with the euphemism of "regionally distinct" when you can spend a fraction of the time and money devloping a quality style from native varieties?

Alder wrote:
06.19.08 at 12:07 PM

On the other hand, if the best wine made from Labrusca (or whatever might grow in your area) is a) a wine no one besides a few locals will buy and b) not as tasty as even a halfway-decent wine made from vitis vinifera, what's the point?

Arthur wrote:
06.19.08 at 12:23 PM

Well, you are right. It could go either way. But having tasted just a scant few examples of labrusca and hybrids, I suspect they may hold a lot of appeal to the average American wine drinker. When juxtaopsed with a mediocre Pinot noir, it may loose out by virtue of Pinot's equity of pedigree alone.

Morton Leslie wrote:
06.20.08 at 6:55 AM

When Maynard Amerine first visited Chile (probably 1950's) he went down to dinner at his hotel and he was delighted to see that everyone was happily having a little sherry before dinner. What a civilized country, the he thought. He soon discovered that they were actually happily drinking badly oxidized white wine.
Professor Amerine used this as an illustration of how when a population is cut off from a world market their tastes can adapt and accept, even appreciate, characteristics that would not be tolerated on the world stage. Chianti was like this as well a half century ago. Even though it was exported, the people who drank it were expatriated Italians who tolerated (actually enjoyed) its flaws or you might say its "terroir."

The question of whether you accentuate or repress any "terroir" depends on your market. If locals like it and buy it and are happy, then maybe you don't worry about it. But if you want to expand your market, you may be in trouble. My guess is that, unless we all move to the tip of Africa and adapt to the wines, the South African "terroir" will have to go.
The more interesting situation is in America where new consumers wanting to learn about and explore fine wine have relied on what one or two individuals to tell them to drink and have adapted their palates to those individual's taste. And the power of this consumer base has pushed those individual's preferences beyond the borders of the U.S. throughout the wineworld.

Arthur wrote:
06.20.08 at 9:34 AM


Those one or two individulas have been vlidators, reinforcing the initial choices of beginners. They did not impose anything. For the most part, neophytes gravitate towards big, bold and sweet.
Even though European palates are more 'delicate' the wine beginners will also avoid big astringent tannins.
I agree that limiting choice does affect mainstream preferences, though.

Steve wrote:
06.20.08 at 9:37 AM

Would you rather have a choice of 10 different flavors or only 2 flavors?
Diversity of wines is what makes it special. If all wines were made
to be homogeneous in taste, wine would no longer have individual character.

To the question of "should all flavors/aromas be preserved even if they
are bad"? Well what's bad or good? You may hate ginger while another
person may love it. Maybe you are from Italy and ginger doesn't go well
with your regional cooking while it goes well with the other person's
from Asia. So there is no question flavors and aromas should
reflect different regions and cultures. Is it so hard to comprehend that
wine could also be reflective of different regions just like cooking does?

Terroir is real. It's from a mix of region, grape types that grow there,
as well as tradition of wine making according to that culture. Sure
there's more and more external influence on winemaking and grape type
mixtures just like regional cooking accepts other styles to create
"fusions". A Cinque Terre from Italy, Malagousia from Greece,
or Monte Bello Cabernet from Santa Cruz California all have their
unique terroir. It would be a sad day when all wines tasted the same
where ever you went in the world.

Alder wrote:
06.20.08 at 9:58 AM


Amen brutha. Diversity is what makes the world go round. But here's the deal. South African winegrowers want to make a living. That means selling their wines to more than the local residents. But nearly all the major wine critics in the world have said that South African reds taste nasty for the most part. So do you preserve this nasty flavor simply because the local folks like it and watch your industry slowly disappear?

This is clearly not a black and white issue with an easy answer. Sure terroir is real, but who has the authority to say what is "terroir" and what is just bad winemaking or winegrowing practice (tradition though it may be).

I love the slightly oxidated qualities of most amphorae aged whites from Friuli, the qualities of which some people think represent "flawed" winemaking. However, unlike in South Africa, there is a lot of critical acclaim (and high market demand) for these wines. So that style is not in danger of disappearing anytime soon. If anything, it is growing. South Africa is in a different boat however.

Arthur wrote:
06.20.08 at 10:26 AM

Putting on my idealist's hat, I have to say that when I travel abroad, I don't want to eat at McDonald's. I want the local stuff - however weird it may be. Even if it is just “meat & potatoes”, it always has some local flair or nuance.

We can fight tooth and nail about physiological differences (or the lack thereof) and about personal preference and what is or is not quality (and who can and who can't define it), but the truth remains that many people are creatures of habit, reluctant to explore new things and they respond negatively to the unfamiliar.

We talk a lot here about the market forces driving stylistic (as well as varietal) decisions in wine. But at what point is the producer’s need for a livelihood sufficient justification for compromising the uniqueness of a variety and a site or region (or a combination of those)?

Josh wrote:
06.20.08 at 10:56 AM


"But at what point is the producer’s need for a livelihood sufficient justification for compromising the uniqueness of a variety and a site or region (or a combination of those)?"

The underlying assumption behind this question is that there is some other way, outside the market, to ensure that wines with regional typicity get made and sold.

My question is: what do you propose to replace the market?

Regulations won't work if no one is buying the wine. Subsidies would keep the producers in business, but if no one is buying the wine...

You could nationalize the wine industry I suppose, but who would you put in charge? Who's smart enough? Who's going to tell everyone what to grow where, how much, how to make it? And if its a committee, well then the whole thing is screwed from the get. You can't get two producers to agree on clone selection, trellis, cane vs. spur or any other of the myriad decisions that go into planting a vineyard. Try getting a group of 12 to make a smart decision.

The answer is to somehow work within the confines of the market and try and change consumer's preferences. Education, PR, and what have you. Bloggers are the newest, bestest (!) hope in this regard.

So to answer the question directly, unless you have a better suggestion than those above, it is always justifiable to make regional typicity subservient to the producer's livelihood. For regional typicity to survive, they need to go together, hand in hand.

Cold hard facts of this cold hard world...

Arthur wrote:
06.20.08 at 11:17 AM


I appreciate your perspective and the decisions facing producers.

You say: "The answer is to somehow work within the confines of the market and try and change consumer's preferences. Education, PR, and what have you."

But if consumers' preferences drive the market by dictating the style, how can those preferences be changed?

How can that education be achieved without telling people that the wine they like and have accepted is actually not a good example or expression of the variety or site (and in the process insulting them?)

In order to achieve that public education, do we have to accept that some eggs need to be broken to make an omelet (or that “in order to make wine, you have to crush some grapes”)? And by that I mean, should the wine industry be willing to loose some customers and see some retraction of revenue in exchange for raising the standard of its wines?

Josh wrote:
06.20.08 at 12:31 PM


"But if consumers' preferences drive the market by dictating the style, how can those preferences be changed"

The billion dollar question. If I knew I'd be freakin' rich!

Think about it, if I had the power to change people's preferences about a wine just by recommending it, well...I'd be Robert Parker.

But that's changing, slowly.

~70% of folks buy based on recommendations from friends. So as an advocate for a style, you just need to make friends with enough people, and make enough passionate recommendations to keep your preferred style alive.

You don't have to do it by insulting anyone. Tact, creativity and all the rest. Just tell them how wonderful the wine is, and why. Tell them about the history and the land, if they'll listen.

As for losing revenue, there are plenty of producers out there willing to sacrifice profits for the psychic reward of making wines with somewhereness. In fact as an industry I'd say wine producers are some of the most irrational, non profit maximizing people in the world. There are producers doing their part, believe me! It's just there's a limit to all this. Ultimately people have to buy the wine!

What these folks could do, IMO, is a better job of marketing. That's where you can help.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, as a fan of that style to make sure the producers you are passionate about don't go out of business.

Arthur wrote:
06.20.08 at 1:14 PM


I did not mean that one should deliberately insult people. But people tend to respond defensively (and get offended) when you tell them (however nicely, and engaging their intellect) that the wines they choose are not good. Somehow the judgment of the wine gets transferred onto them.

The key I think is *educating* instead of building awareness - the first arms people with real, usable knowledge and understanding of a product or consumer good. The latter just tells people the good exists and somehow suggests that it is desirable.
Not everybody wants education and many just want to be presented with awareness campaigns.
To each his own, but part of my mission is to foster education rather than awareness of wine.

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