Thursday, September 1, 2016

Terroir as a concept in 16th-century France

In his sweeping treatment of ancient versus modern wines (Inventing Wine), Paul Lukacs identifies the seminal terroir events in France as the demarcation of the Burgundy vineyards by the Cistercian monks beginning in 1098 and the AOC system implemented in the early 20th century. But this apparent terroir desert misses the true formative period -- as well as the ups and downs -- of this concept, beginning during the Renaissance and continuing for two centuries thereafter. A period and history that is detailed in Thomas Parker's Tasting Terroir: The History of an Idea. I summarize Parker's history in a number of posts beginning herein with terroir in the 16th century.

According to Lukacs, the wine drunk during the Middle Ages was "ancient"; that is, it was either oxodized, sour, and additive-filled or a dried-grape sweet wine. And consumption was not based on sensorial characteristics. Rather, wine was drunk for spiritual communion, water purification, bodily nourishment, or social status. Thus there was no culture of wine drinking within which a concept of terroir would gain traction.

In France, creation of such a culture fell to the literary set with the works of Rabelais, the poets of the Pléiade, and Jacques Gohory leading the way. In the first two cases, the god Bacchus was the protagonist. According to Parker:
In the pages of Rabelais, Bacchus is a force not only of inebriation and folly, but also of conviviality, universality, and great wisdom. In the group of sixteenth century Renaissance poets known as the Pléiade, Bacchus often connotes enjoying friendship and maximizing the pleasure of daily life. But there is another element at play ... Bacchus appears in a naturalistic register of farming and place-specific wines, deployed not to celebrate culinary culture in itself, but to create linguistic identity and foster poetic inspiration. Instead of standing for a force of inebriation, he represents lucidity; instead of defining terroir in negative terms, he circumscribes it positively in a discourse on place and the origin of language.
Jacques Gohory's 1549 publication Dissertation on the Vine, Wine, and Harvest was the first technical book on wine written in the French language. According to Parker, the work was "a mix between a practical manual of viticulture and winemaking, an apology for wine itself, and a joyous fictional foray of consumption." Gohory's work normalized wine, provided pragmatic information in a place-specific optic, bolstered wine's reputation by appealing to its scientific and philosophical underpinnings, and provided the linguistic tools and specialized vocabulary in French that would be needed to understand working vines and making wines (Parker).

The "medical science" community also contributed to the concept of terroir during its formative years. Charles Etienne, a physician, wrote a Latin text in 1554 (translated into French a decade later as L'Agriculture et la maison rustique) which laid out in great detail wines from the various regions of France and other European countries with comments on their individual longevity, force of character, and potential impact on health. Etienne claimed that terroir affected taste, with lighter wines coming from Paris and its surrounds (the best wines and well suited to urbanites, the studious, and persons living sedentary lives) while wines from warmer climes "burnt the entrails and encumbered the mind."

Jean Bruyérin-Champier, physician to Francois I, wrote a Latin text called De Ri Cibaria in 1560 wherein he detailed categories of food, their history, and the sources of best production. He posited that France's wines were the most agreeable and healthful because of its soils. Julien Le Paulmier, also a physician, had his Treatise on Wine and Cider translated from Latin in 1589. This book, according to Parker, provided a "nuanced depiction of terroir" in a wine- and cider-specific text rather than in a broader agricultural context. Le Paulmier identified terroir as "one of the governing forces of a wine's merit or defects in flavor and constitution" and held that a good gourmet should be able to discern the qualities and defects of a wine or cider, its terroir of origin, and its age. He also held the belief that the taste of terroir was itself a defect because earth or minerals (its characteristics) were "dirty, unpleasantly earthy, or lacking in elegance."

The most full-throated exposition of terroir in that period was contained in the 1600 publication of Olivier de Serres titled The Agricultural Theater and the Management of Fields. This seminal agricultural manual had terroir front and center with 87 distinct mentions (Parker). De Serres held that "the climate and terroir (note that these are two distinct elements to him) provide wine with its taste and force in accordance with their properties so that it is completely impossible to account for the diversity of wine by the species of grape." De Serres viewed the knowledge of terroir as an essential element in planting decisions rather than as a sensorial pursuit.

Published in the first year of the 17th century, De Serres' work would have necessarily drawn on the works that preceded it. According to Parker, its view of terroir was both modern and early modern.
... modern because the French recognized that physiographic aspects of the land had an effect on flavors and because there was a nationalistic and nostalgic relationship between people and specific places as illustrated through agricultural production. Early modern in the sense that, as far as food was concerned, terroir was most often used in the technical context of deciding where to grow particular crops than in the context of culinary appreciation.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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