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Terroir is where the Hearth is

By |  March 1 2007

But terroir is inherently inclusive if not prosaic. The metabolism of any plant is influenced by its environment, which in turn affects the taste of its roots, leaves, or fruit. Anyone with much experience of growing vegetables or picking berries knows this. The influence of terroir on the taste of wine must spring from those mechanisms-however ill understood-by which soil and exposure influence the metabolism of the vine, because no flavors can be conveyed to the grape save through metabolic mediation. One can choose to use "terroir" in numerous other senses: to characterize whole growing regions; to signify an evaluative touchstone of authenticity; or to suggest how humble fermented grape juice can metaphysically channel the spirit of a specific place and time. Such conceptually tenuous senses still depend for any usefulness or validity they may possess on the fundamental insight that place influences taste by means of the vine.

What, then, to make of those- including Randall Grahm in recent pages of this journal-who passionately profess to Search for Terroir? It is my conceptually austere conviction that they should accept as terroir whatever vineyard is under their feet, asking not "Can we attain terroir?" but rather, "How can we best achieve wines that are delicious in ways distinctive to their place of origin?" Altering the question holds three advantages: It pulls "terroir" back from conceptual weightlessness into the gravitational pull of scientific scrutiny; it encourages a focus on the influences of site and vine-and on human achievement-as matters of degree; and it removes a tone of ethical earnestness too often conducive to Manichaean (and false) dichotomies. There are doubtless moral dimensions to the pursuit of agricultural excellence, but if we do not abstract from those in posing the questions of how certain gustatory results can be achieved and whether these are beautiful, then we shall never have answers.

One frequently posed dichotomy at the intersection of metaphysical and mercantile abuses of "terroir" is with "fruit." "Wines of terroir" are said to contrast with "fruitdriven" wines. "Fruit" itself is never well defined, but if it refers to the flavors of fruits, then these are scarcely inconsistent with a sense of place. When purporting to distinguish Old World from New World wines, this dichotomy treats "wines of fruit" as products of an obsession with ripeness.

"Overripe grapes," asserts Grahm (among countless others), "detract from the expression of terroir." Does he really want to say this about 1947 Cheval Blanc, 1959 Scharzhofberger Auslese, or 1967 Yquem? Even a superficial examination of the geologic and gustatory evidence refutes the contrast of fruit with terroir. I recently relished a tank-rendered Roussillon from old Grenache and Carignan. If ever a wine could be described as "fruit driven," then this is it: its 15+% alcohol completely covered by seamless, creamy essence of fruit-a fruit that Grenache and Carignan can attain provided they are massively rooted in schistic striations that promote temperate ripening despite heat, drought, and wind.

Try rendering such a wine in nearby gneiss or granite and you’ll get quite different results. The Rieslings of Ürzig, Erden, and Wehlen-with their respective, distinctive aromas of red berries, citrus, and apple- are similarly illustrative. In being about fruit, these wines are about terroir, because "terroir" signifies the limitations and opportunities afforded the fruit by the environment in which it was grown.

Another popular dichotomy pits terroir against human manipulation. As a purely conceptual distinction, this makes sense. "Terroir" demarcates the environmentally given from the realm of human action. But Grahm (among many others) insists that human intervention eclipses or precludes the expression of terroir. "Soil treatments or drip irrigation […] negates the possibility of the expression of terroir." Try telling that to FX Pichler, who opines that only since the advent of drip irrigation are there routinely great, site-distinctive wines from the Wachau. Plowing, mulching, or (if in fact they are at all efficacious) biodynamic treatments all manipulate the soil. Elevage in new wood is another favorite target of self-proclaimed terroirists-as if neither first growths nor grands crus were capable of expressing their terroir. Neither the vine left to its riparian nature nor man bereft of vines can express terroir. So let us speak not of dichotomy but degree.

A homely, inclusive concept of terroir is perfectly compatible with a hierarchy of inherent quality by site. But it reminds us that such quality must be proven by a vintner’s skill. It does not preclude an epiphany of place and time in a glass of wine. But it implies that such a moment, while emotionally "magical," is biologically grounded. I was delighted to read that in a "funky … [un]prepossessing" and irrigated site in Soledad, Grahm discovered that his Albariño grapes-metaphysical principles notwithstanding-"possess a degree of terroir." Perhaps my simple concept is compatible even with a search for the Grail, and it is true of terroir much as a communicant might confess: "I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall experience your grace."

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