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February 11, 2014updated 02 Nov 2022 12:02pm

University of Burgundy debates on terroir

By Thierry Dessauve

by Barry C Smith and Ophelia Deroy

It is commonly said that Burgundy is for the heart and Bordeaux for the head. The thought being that while the wines of Burgundy can give rise to some of our most hedonic experiences, Bordeaux provides us with intellectual sustenance. But things are changing, and these days a trip to Burgundy is as likely to provide a source of intellectual satisfaction as it is a source of sensory pleasure.

The rise of Burgundy as a center for intellectual discussions on all aspects of wine is due to the energy and passion of academics at the University of Burgundy (Université de Bourgogne) and the creation in 2006 of a UNESCO Chair in Culture et Traditions du Vin, under the dynamic leadership of Professeur Jocelyne Pérard. The UNESCO Chair, based at the University’s Institute Jules Guyot in Dijon, has international partners linking academics and professionals from the world of wine and viticulture. Since its inception, Professeur Pérard has organized several colloquiums on a variety of topics.

The first of these meetings, Les Rencontres du Clos Vougeot, took place at Clos Vougeot in September 2007. There, among the vines at the end of harvest, scholars discussed rituals ranging from wine brotherhoods to religious ceremonies, from ancient symposiums to drunken dances, thereby providing a theoretical prelude to La Paulée.

Technical matters, too, have been discussed, at the likes of Wine Active Compounds 2008, where a host of international scientists examined the chemical, physiological and medicinal properties of wine. And in July this year Bacchus goes Green will explore the ideas and methods shaping the development of the natural wine market.

Conferences of the Chair are not treated as opportunities for lobbying but rather turn a critical eye on Burgundy’s place in the world of wine. Should it serve as an example, an exception, or a competitor to new wine countries and new practices? Nothing is decided, and everything is up for grabs. What is clear is that Burgundians are not ready to see the Côte d’Or as the silent repository of a golden heritage. Debates about tradition and innovation are very much alive here, and no more so than when addressing the much-contested concept of terroir.

Contrary to expectations, no common view is espoused, and no party line is towed. Far from being a sacrosanct concept beyond question, the nature and significance of terroir is the subject of intense and lively debate in Burgundy.

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This was certainly true at the most recent Dijon conference, From Jules Guyot to Robert Parker: 150 years of constructions of the territories of wine, in November 2008, where scholars vigorously debated whether terroir was a human invention, an administrative notion, or the gift of unique natural conditions that produce the finest expression of a grape variety.

The conference began with a suitably erudite address by Hugh Johnson on 2000 years in the construction of terroirs and territories of wine, with a reply by Serge Wolikow (University of Burgundy).

How has terroir been understood and how should it be analyzed? Minimally, it is a certain geographical space, shaped by humans, by nature, or by both: the appropriation of a territory for the production of a certain kind of wine. The key question is what makes these constructed territories something to value. We know that scientific evidence of the natural elements responsible for divisions between terroirs remains to be given, though that should not lead us to suppose that terroir is just a marking concept. If it were, as Nicolas Boivin (University of Bordeaux III) points out, we could replace soils with the fax machine. Administration does have a role to play, as he readily concedes, but only in respecting demarcations that were already there. The AOC system, for instance, places a cordon around certain sites, valorizing their place in an established hierarchy in order to protect an existing quality that has been reenforced economically. The commercial angle is important, as is the work of enologists, who help to preserve the demarcations that ensure the commercially desired quality. Wine producers can turn to the State to protect their produce against copying or fraud; however, in doing so they must submit to stringent measures designed to ensure that the public can have faith in the authenticity and quality of the wine.

Displaying the place of origin on the bottle is not just an advert for terroir. Once terroir becomes an administrative notion, it has real effects on land, plantings, bottling and labeling, dates of harvest, and the equipment used in vineyard and winery. At the same time, many of these regulations reflect the practices and traditions that insiders preserved in their appropriations of particular territories. As such, terroir becomes synonymous with a place for good practices. But far from being conservative and protectionist, good practice is also dependent on feedback to producers, to the potential benefit of the wines. And for this reason, Catherine Martin-Roly insists on the complex character of a terroir, which she’d rather conceive as a dynamic system where many factors-geography, AOC laws, communal, cultural, and economic practices-continuously interact. Even the most hardened believers in soil and climatic determinants of a wine’s distinctive qualities should admit that there are non-sensorial aspects of the concept of terroir.

Threats and promises

The conference also revealed how the notion of terroir brings tensions to a territory and its inhabitants. With administration comes politics, conflicts, and the need for experts to referee them, as Florian Humbert of the University of Bourgogne noted. Creating committees for determining hierarchies in the appellations is just one of the problems. Some say they cannot be judged and should not be judged. Is there a need for stricter judgment and for scientific analysis to create further subclassifications within the hierarchies?

Burgundy’s classification system differs markedly, of course, from that of Bordeaux. As historian Philippe Roudie of Université de Bordeaux III made clear, the Bordeaux notion of a château, which once picked out a man-made territory that was also a commercial space of economic importance, has been successfully exported to Spain, Argentina, and the USA, where it signifies an individual and distinctive producer. As such it has been effective in promoting wines, and may soon replace the more geographically sensitive notion of a Bordeaux château.

There have been similar attempts to export the notion of terroir. But can it take in its new soil? Its history in Burgundy has long roots. The classification system, as Anne Combaud, a researcher from the University of Burgundy, points out, was not prompted by administrative decision or economic development but overlapped with older reputation systems.

The wines from vineyards now classified as grands crus were also the wines most mentioned in medieval and modern manuscripts. When the State first defined the AOC in haste, it took into account the usages bons et loyaux (good loyal uses): the habits of people to refer to wines made in such or such places under certain proper names. This is where Combaud became reformist, asking why we don’t make space in the AOC classification for this historical heritage-an idea new wine countries may not like at all.

Alberto Melelli, of Universita degli Studi di Perugia, questioned whether terroir has to have to have a history, or whether it could be constructed? People search for great terroir. So if not constructed, it could perhaps still be discovered by chance, and protected as a place where balance between tradition and innovation has to be constantly sought. This view sees terroir as naturally given-the matching of great soil and climatic conditions that give particular grapes their finest expression. But this is just the notion that many in the Old World resist. Terroir has visibly shaped landscapes. The Burgundy hills look as they do because of centuries of wine-making. Finding such places, and working out how to exploit their potential for producing distinctive wines, took a long time. It is not so easy to produce terroirs even if one is a believer in climate, soil and human intervention. All of which shows that our understanding of how the concept of terroir itself came to be shaped and forged is of equal importance, and this issue was explored by US historian Thomas Parker, from Vassar College.

Although many remain optimistic about the expanded reach of terroir, some found darker sides to it. Gemma Mollevi, from the University of Barcelona, accepted the definition enshrined in AOCs as providing names for wines typical of a region, place, or vineyard. But she saw the system for protecting the quality of local wines as being to the detriment of vins de pays and vins de table. Why should the local be raised over and above the broader regional and national scale?

As much as it protects a certain culture of vine cultivation, terroir excludes, and as such can damage the reputation of those left out of the classification. Such was the fate of the highly prized Cahors wines, which were pushed away by the Bordeaux AOC, while they themselves refused to establish a hierarchical quality ranking. As Jean-Guillaume Didier and Joelle Brouard (ESC Dijon) ably demonstrated, by comparision with the golden fate of Chablis, which did create a classification system, the reputation of Cahors wines suffered badly. (Chablis often behaves like a separate wine region but makes the most of its Burgundy connection when it needs to, thus earning it the reputation among some as the “Corsica” of Burgundy.)

It is not only beyond the renowned terroir that wines can suffer. Tensions exist between regional wine producers and those who operate the AOC system that protects them. The Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO) sees itself as an independent organization, competent to judge the quality and typicity of wines, and as having a responsiblity to the wider world to do so.

However, as Hervé Alexandre (enologist and winemaker at the Faculty of Science in the University of Burgundy, whose 2005 white Marsanny was given one star by the Hachette Guide) reminds us, highly original wines and innovations by individuals are not allowed. Original wines are not typical, and yet increasingly knowledgable consumers search for greater diversity. Could terroir be a limitation? Perception in wine is increasingly sophisticated, and we want satisfyingly complex wines that stand out from others. But stand-out wines will be atypical. We want wines of quality, but wines that differ from one another.

For this reason, Alexandre is worried about the role enologists increasingly play in guaranteeing authenticity and maintaining typicity. They see their task as checking for characteristics of the wine, confirmed by analytical tasting. Why do we try to make the wine have these characteristics? INAO can delimit the product according to degree of alcohol, quantity of production, diversity of planting, and density. But we have to avoid standardization and making mediocre and uninteresting wines.

Enologists are there to correct faults. That can lead to valorization of the grape’s potential. They can control for maturity, temperature of fermentation, length of fermentation, maceration, etc. which can affect color, aroma, flavor, structure, and texture. All of this can modify the sensorial profile of the wine, as judged by expert tasters. But of course, the sensory profiles of the wines people appreciate change over time. People used to tolerate wines higher in volatile acidity than they do now, and enormous differences existed between pre-Pasteur or prephylloxera wines and those we enjoy today. Moreover, each genetic modification may give rise to important differences. In other words, typicity is not an unchanging concept.

The wider world of experts, including critics, sommeliers, and an increasingly knowledgable public, can all influence what is going on inside a terroir. As consumers change they will want more challenging wines. They want wines of quality that are different from other wines. By shaping categories for the reception of wines, they will help to give rise to distinct wines of quality, culture, and tradition. For even when the natural factors remain stable, original techniques of vinification can still produce original wines. Hervé Alexandre’s radical message is clear: The quest by enologists for typical wines must not create an obstacle to the production of original wines. It would be an irony, as he notes, if the price to pay for the general improvement in wine quality through protection of terroir detracted from originality-another kind of greatness in wine.

Legal issues, too, cropped up, as delegates sought imaginative ways in which the concept of terroir could find a place in law. As INAO president, Yves Bénard, reminded us, it is a challenge that European jurists are actually facing now, as they seek to find a common ground on which to preserve-at least partly-the existing juridical apparatus used in different countries to protect their wines, and adapt it to new norms and the demands of fair competition.


These debates go far beyond the traditional divide over whether terroir belongs to myth or nature. It is neither a carving of nature at its joints nor a fiction -instead it is a multi-factorial concept that researchers are struggling to understand and define. Methodical work has gone on over centuries to map out the plots and create the hierarchies we know today and still venerate. Our backward glance can scarce do justice to the complex patchwork of factors responsible for the characteristic tastes of wines we know by means of qualitative perception and knowledge of the appellation.

There is something there, to be kept and maintained by a mixture of scientific scrutiny and administration. Once the plot is determined and the product settled as acceptable, this is what is covered by the AOC, and they attempt to keep control of the factors that preserve the quality.

But this alone does not suffice to pin down terroir. Perhaps the concept of terroir is an evolving notion. At any rate, it is a notion that guides winemakers in their practice and leads to a system for delimiting the physical factors-the geology plus a certain cultivation of the vines-that appears to guarantee a more permanent quality. It is a notion that wine producers, at least in Burgundy, feel responsible for and responsible to; a notion that humans helped to make that has a life of its own. Perhaps we must settle, as Cecile Franchois does, for the view Warren Moran had of terroir as a territorial concept, identified by taste, that is also an agricultural, legal, and wine promotional concept. In the end, we may not be able to identify any one determinant of quality: made by? made of? made in? All may contribute: wines made in a certain climate, made by conscientious makers, and made of carefully attended grapes with naturally occurring yeasts. The precise relation between the various factors is subtle and complex. More work is needed to understand it, and you can be sure much of that work will go on in Burgundy.

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