Don’t Get Hung Up On Terroir — It’s Just A Feel-Good Myth

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in: Soapbox

Paul Lukacs. Credit: Marguerite Thomas

Myths are fictional stories that satisfy shared desires. In the contemporary world of wine, the most pervasive myth is that of terroir, the story of how a wine’s essential identity comes from where the grapes for it were grown. Like all myths, this one contains a metaphoric, not a literal truth. Terroir’s story fulfills our longstanding wish to believe that wine comes from more than human hands, and so possesses a significance that transcends artifice.

Grapes were first cultivated and wine made deliberately some 8,000 years ago. From its earliest origins, wine assumed a special because a sacred cultural status. In societies as different as ancient Babylon, the Pharaohs’ Egypt, classical Greece and Imperial Rome, it was viewed as a gift to humanity coming directly from the gods. No other beverage, indeed no other foodstuff, was thought of in this way.

Wine and the divine — absent terroir

Why was wine valued so highly?  Unlike other food and drink, it did not require human agency. And unlike other natural products such as milk or honey, it possessed a seemingly mysterious power to relieve care. Put simply, drinking wine made a person feel good. That is why Euripides in “The Bacchae” has the prophet Tiresias declare that “when we pour libations . . . it is the god himself we pour . . . and by this bring blessings on mankind.”

In today’s world, we do not credit a god with wine’s power. Instead, we attribute that power to the presence of alcohol, which is produced through the interaction of living yeasts and the sugar in ripe grapes. And we no longer consider fermentation to be mysterious. From a rational modern perspective, wine is simply fermented grape juice. It can be controlled, even manipulated, by human beings.

The problem with this perspective is that it robs wine of its uniqueness. And the solution appears to be the story of terroir, according to which wine is, if not sacred, still special because it reflects its origins. Or to be more exact, it is special because it can embody a specific natural origin — not just a region but a vineyard. Many contemporary wines, particularly mass-produced ones, do not do this. But artisanal wines made with attention to the distinctive character of each plot or parcel of land — those are the wines in which one supposedly can experience the gôut or taste of terroir.

The back story

Terry Theise, a leading American importer of artisanal wines, makes the case for terroir eloquently. “Wine can be a bringer of mystical experience,” he declares, adding that the wine “has to be authentic . . . [with] a rootedness in family, soil, and culture.” And what constitutes “rootedness?” Thiese recalls a well-regarded German vintner telling him, “I hope my wines convey a story.  Otherwise they’re just things.” It’s the story of the vineyard and, if this doesn’t sound overly sentimental, a man in love with the vineyard, that enables wine to be what Thiese calls “a portal into the mystic.”

This all sounds great, if admittedly a bit New Age-ish, and it’s true that many of the world’s best wines convey a sense of place. They would not taste the same if made with grapes grown somewhere else. But that does not mean that they actually taste of a specific place. After all, tasting a place literally means eating dirt. Moreover, plenty of fine wines are made with blends of grapes from different vineyards. And some of the world’s most prestigious wines — many classified growth Bordeaux, for instance — come from vineyards containing separate plots, with diverse soil types and exposures.

It’s worth noting that the very concept of terroir is a relatively recent invention. The word, derived from the Latin terratorium, entered the French lexicon during the Renaissance, when it meant “territory.” Not until the 1920s and 1930s was terroir used to designate a vineyard’s natural environment. Then it began to signify a particular feature of wines grown in that environment, features that may be both sensed physically and recognized intellectually.

The emergence of the story of terroir corresponded precisely with a period in which fine wine experienced a profound crisis. The phylloxera plague of the late-19th century had devastated vineyards the world over; virtually all winemaking countries were experiencing deep economic depression; a generation had been bled dry by world war; and people with money to spend on drink were increasingly downing cocktails, all the rage among the middle and upper classes. Even in France, wine was being valued less for any magical properties and more simply for its alcohol.

A drink apart

The people who still cared about wine — some consumers surely, but more significantly, vintners, merchants, agricultural ministers, and then importers, writers, critics and others — needed to elevate wine and separate it from its competition (beer, hard spirits, and in the second half of the 20th century, when refrigerators became a household staple, fruit juices, soft drinks, and the like). What better quality to single out than terroir? It, after all, was what allegedly distinguished wine. Its story made wine special.

The elevation of terroir as the primary source of a wine’s value was not the result of some grand conspiracy. Nonetheless, marketers have used it with great success. And though terroir is not always considered a portal to the spiritual, its story continues to satisfy an apparently widespread desire to consume something that is more than just another man-made thing. In reality, the wines we drink are modern consumer products. They come in many different forms, but the differences have less to do with the taste of the wines themselves than with the attitudes that human beings bring to them. Put another way, if you want to taste terroir you can, but its source will be as much in you as in any vineyard.

Top photo: Paul Lukacs. Credit: Marguerite Thomas


Zester Daily contributor Paul Lukacs is a James Beard Award-winning author. His most recent book, a Beard Award finalist, is "Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World’s Most Ancient Pleasures," published in December 2012 by W.W. Norton & Company.

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Comments

Barbara
on: 6/25/13
I have a strong reaction to this article. Yes, there is a cult of terroir. But after farming for 20 years, I have seen and tasted the difference in produce from different farms with different climates, water and minerals in the ground. The difference is so clear that I know chefs who can identity the farm where a carrot or a kale leaf was grown. They feel they can taste the dirt and the water from that place. For us, the meaning of terroir includes everything that makes up the essence of a farm. This is the soul of the land, the farmer, the workers and the consumer who comes every week to share the process and buy the produce we have grown.
Jacqueline Friedrich
on: 6/25/13
Totally agree with Barbara. I'm sorry to be so rough on a fellow writer but Lukacs says so many stupid things in this short piece that it would take a doorstop of a book to explain where he is wrong and why. I'll simply suggest to the wine-interested reader to do the following: buy a generic Alsace Riesling from a good producer and Riesling from one of Alsace's Grand Crus from a producer like Zind-Humbrecht who is a terroir guru. I'm pretty sure you'll agree there is something to this concept we call terroir.
Barbara
on: 6/25/13
I often wonder in these situations, if the writer really believes such an oppositional position or is aiming to create controversy
Paul Lukacs
on: 6/25/13
As Barbara suggests, the essence of a farm or a vineyard surely includes the land, the farmer, the workers, and the consumer, but this quartet does not constitute terroir, at least as the word is commonly used. I know of no one involved with wine who would include consumers in a definition of terroir. Speaking of consumers, Jacqueline Friedrich, whose work I have long admired (though not in doorstop form), urges us to purchase a bottle of generic Alsace Riesling and compare it with a Grand Cru from Zind-Humbrecht. That comparison, however, misses the point. Let's instead buy two Alsace Rieslings from the same vineyard, perhaps the Grand Cru Brand vineyard, one made by Zind-Humbrecht and the other by Alfred Boxler. They clearly will taste different, and the difference will have nothing to do with terroir. Yes, a thread of sensory similarity will run through both wines, but a comparable thread will connect Zind-Humbrecht's entry-level generic Riesling with the company's Grand Crus. Nature and artifice combine to make any wine taste as it does. Why then do so many enthusiasts privilege the former at the expense of the latter? No one is denying that "there is something to this concept we call terroir." The question is what constitutes that something. Is it literally in the soil? Or might it be as much in what Olivier Humbrecht (the real terroir guru), Jacqueline Friedrich, and the chef who savors Barbara's carrots want to believe?
Jacqueline Friedrich
on: 6/25/13
Thank you,Paul, for the compliment. Before getting to the heart of your response, allow me to pick a nit: Boxler and Humbrecht live in different parts of Alsace and do not have vines on the same Grand Crus. By all means, taste a generic Riesling from Boxler alongside a Riesling from his Grand Cru Brand. Comparing the wines from the same vineyard made by two different producers is not proof of the existence or non-existence of terroir. Each producer has his or her own theory of viticulture and of winemaking. And I’m hoping you are not including this under your rubric of “artifice” which you should define. You say: “No one is denying that "there is something to this concept we call terroir." The question is what constitutes that something.” Yes, Paul, you are denying that terroir exists. That is the thrust of your article. What constitutes that something? Well, offhand I’d say the vineyard’s soils, its subsoils, its exposition, the opening of the countryside surrounding it, its altitude. Yes, “Man” enters the equation to the extent that he respects the aspects of the vineyard that I like to think of as immutable and does the maximum to reveal them. The very opposite of artifice. By the way, I live in an asparagus producing region. It is well known locally that there are “crus” – privileged terroir -- for asparagus.
Paul Lukacs
on: 6/25/13
Two points in reply, and then I suspect enough said: 1) Both Boxler and Zind-Humbrecht own land planted to Riesling in the Brand Grand Cru, and according to their US importers, both producers have wines identified as such for sale in the United States. 2) According to The Oxford English Dictionary, the first or primary meaning of the word "artifice" is "the making of something by art, construction [or] workmanship." I am not denying that terroir exists. I am denying that it is the primary element in a wine's identity. The work of men and women in both the vineyard and the winery seems to me just as important, and that work involves more than respecting what Jacqueline calls a vineyard's "immutable" aspects. Specifically, it involves the making of something by art. To believe otherwise and to elevate terroir to a position of superiority is, I insist, to believe in a myth. What intrigues me is the question of why so many people want to do so, and I think the answer comes in the fact that myths function as more than simple stories by satisfying deep-seated cultural desires.
Jacqueline Friedrich
on: 6/25/13
Agreed, enough. Just one observation (now that you've defined your use of "artifice"): if the vineyard land is poor or mediocre, all the artifice in the world will serve to make a good wine, maybe a very tasty wine, but never a great wine.
Jeff Smith
on: 6/26/13
To call terroir a myth is provocative no doubt. I had to chuckle thinking of the people who would be really put off by this, me included! After getting beyond the lack of factual support debunking the myth, I had to consider what Paul was actually trying to articulate. That we should not subjugate the art of winemaking to a notion that “place” trumps all. There is some truth to this and a nod to the artistry of winemaking. I like that. After all, consumable wine does not spring forth from the ground to make itself. Winemaking is a very deliberate human intervention. And yes, as Paul points out, our industry is guilty of too much baseless metaphorical gibberish. But make no mistake, terroir is no myth. The challenge I think Paul and many struggle with is drawing a straight line from dirt to what’s in the glass. Sometimes it happens, but sometimes it’s more elusive. Terroir is funny that way. Why is that? Wine is an insanely complex web of chemical relationships. Some we know, many we don’t. Its elusiveness has to do with the fact that the web can be influenced by both winemaker and terroir, and we don’t always know which is responsible, or why. In a case like the Hourglass Estate vineyard, which I farm, I can tell you conclusively that the eucalyptus tree at its edge stamps an indelible signature on the grapes it touches. Move immediately outside the perimeter of the tree’s drip line and the wine is completely different. The imprint of environment. Terroir! In this case it is a straight line from dirt to glass, but it isn't always so obvious. I could talk to you for hours about how soil types influence various aspects of grape growing, some of which are absolute, and some are just wild ass guesses. The magic and mystery of wine isn't simply mythical “terroir,” or the artistry of winemaking, it’s the interaction between them. Good luck figuring that out…
Celina Gray
on: 6/30/13
Thought provoking to be sure. Which is always welcome to a proletariat, like myself, who is very interested in wine and all stories relating . Sadly I can't enter the contest to win(e) a copy (Canadian) but I will look forward to reading it eventually.
Zelma Long
on: 6/30/13
Terroir is a word applied to the combination of factors that the vine and grapes experience, both soils and weather to put it simply. Anyone who has made wines from the same vines (same planting date, and plant material) in different sites, often close together, knows that site has an amazing impact. This is reflected historically in plots of land in Burgundy and Bordeaux and elsewhere...like our vineyard in South Africa...where the same plant material on 4 different, one hectare blocks, which are contiguous, give grapes, and wines of different, but consistent personalities. I never ceased to be amazed the impact of site on wine. Yes, the winegrower and winemaker have impact also. All vineyard decisions through the year, and planting decisions, made a difference. Managing those is called "growing wine." And yes, the winemaker makes a difference also, a big one - having tasted many times wines made by different winemakers from the same vineyard block. Perhaps the question is, what affects the wine the most. Well, it is debatable, and fun to debate, but there is no question but that the terroir (the vine environment or whatever label you wish to apply) - has an undeniable, major, and fascinating impact. It is one of the things that makes winegrowing and winemaking so interesting. And, Paul, terroir effects show in all our foodstuffs, not just grapes. It is just that most foods are too ephemeral to easily compare, as we can do with our wines, whose chemistry and characteristics are preserved for future comparison by the alcoholic fermentation. Making and tasting wine develops an appreciation for the role of the environment on our whole food supply. Cheers for good discussions, Zelma Long
Kyle Phillips
on: 7/10/13
I live in Chianti and have been tasting Chianti for a long time, and in the course of tasting blind, bottles -- some, but not all -- bring to mind panoramas, for example Panzano's Conca d'Oro or the gentle slopes descending from Castellina in Chianti towards Poggibonsi. And the wines in question often come from the places they brought to mind. I have had the same experience tasting Barolo and Barbaresco, two other appellations I am quite familiar with. I'd attribute the sensations the bottles give to terroir, and am certain that I would perceive them in other areas, say the Valpolicella or Irpinia, if I knew the appellations better.
Jerrilynn Willis
on: 7/10/13
Thank you for posting this article. I have also enjoyed reading all the comments both in favor of and not-so-in-favor-of the author's viewpoint. It certainly gives one pause to give it some thought and do some experimentation. Talking with others in my wine circles regarding this article will, no doubt, provide for some lively conversation on the topic.
George Baldini
on: 8/8/13
Interesting article and great conversation. My comment is that the definition of terroir was never given - either in Paul's article nor any comments really. Without referencing the definition, the article, while interesting, was really weightless to me.
Paul Lukacs
on: 8/23/13
When applied to wine, terroir refers to the place where the grapes for a particular wine were grown--the more precise the better, e.g., a specific vineyard in an appellation in a region in a country. And what I call the "myth" of terroir is the belief that the wine's essential identity comes from that place.

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