Monday, April 14, 2014

A brief history of terroir (After Lukacs)

So I am taking a class and we were asked to discuss selected aspects of terroir. Having read Lukacs Reinventing Wine -- and been impressed with his treatment of terroir therein -- I will use his work to explore the topic from an historical perspective.

Let us begin with a definition of terroir. According to Lukacs, this is a fairly modern term which has its roots in the Latin word terratorium and was used in France to mean territory. During the 19th century additional meaning was placed on the original skeletal framework where the word was now used as a descriptor for an "area of land valued specifically for agricultural properties." In the 1900s terroir began to be used as a designator for a vineyard's natural environment and to characterize the wines made from the grapes grown therein. According to Lukacs' research (summarized graphically below), modern wine did not arise until the advent of the relevant scientific and technological advances of the Enlightenment.

Prior to that period, wine drinkers consumed oxidized, sour wines which were "fortified" with all manner of additives designed to either slow its decay or make it more "palatable." Even in those days, however, there was some sense of preference for wines from specific areas: in Classical Greece, the Aegean Isles; in Rome, initially, wines from the south and then, later in the empire, wines from sub-regions (Falernum, for example) of the Bay of Naples or Latium. These wines were from broad geographic areas, would have been awful to our modern palates, and the appreciation would have been as much for the additives as it was for the wine.

According to Lukacs, the "first wines prized for their ability to display ... individualized aroma and flavors" were made in Burgundy by the Cistercian order which had been founded there in 1098. This order was focused on piety and hard work and devoted a lot of effort to tending their vineyards. Over the course of many vintages, these monks were able to identify the characteristics of individual vineyard plots and to note that these differences were, in some cases, manifested by "only a few steps separating an excellent grape-growing spot from a merely good one." The monks marked out these plots by their differences, in some cases building a stone wall to create a "cloistered vineyard." Lukacs takes the position that the monks did not intend that their demarcations single out one vineyard as better than the other. Rather, they were saying that the grapes sourced from these vineyards made reliably noticeably different wines and they thus needed to be so identified.

The wines from Clos Vougeot and other Cistercian crus were perceived as being so different as to be worth the trouble and expense of overland shipping to the relevant markets or waterways for onward transit.

While the grapes grown in that time/space clearly demonstrated terroir differences, it is not clear that the wines had the same experience. Not for long anyway. After all, the winemaking practices at the Abbey was still normative and the rudimentary production and storage techniques still made wines susceptible to the pull of vinegar. As shown in the figure below, the Burgundian wine of that era was still classed as "Ancient" and, as such, the over-riding characteristics would have been oxidative and acetic. If these were the dominant characters, is it possible that, even in those days, marketing reigned supreme where terroir was concerned because I find it hard to understand "more finely oxidized" or "elegant acetic."

Burgundy has had a long tradition of vineyard-specific crus and associated wines, a luxury that was denied Bordeaux. And the Burgundy tradition translated into desired wines and high prices. Bordeaux saw tradition as the "value proposition" and set out to have its wines don that mantle. It began with Arnaud III de Pontac doubling the price of the wines from Haut-Brion in 1660 because his estate, he said, was "special." There was no contemporary evidence to back up his claim of "specialness" but his calculation was that if his wines were bought at that elevated price, the buyers would not have the gall to adulterate it with "lesser wines" prior to sale to the final consumer. Rather, they would aid him in the projection of the special nature of his wine by selling it into the market at that elevated price plus a markup. This was pure marketing. Madison Avenue would have been proud of this guy.

The rest of the Bordeaux establishment built on this brazen arrest and seizure of quality by stipulating that consumers buying from the Chateaus were assured of quality wines because of the tradition of producing same. So while the vineyard site may expand or contract, and the fruit may be sourced from different plots in the vineyard, the Chateau remained constant; and so would the quality of the wine. The cru in Burgundy was a vineyard or plot; the cru in Bordeaux was a myth. The wine in Burgundy was a mono-varietal; the wine in Bordeaux was a blend.

A number of other European wine regions saw how Bordeaux has successfully re-invented itself and wanted in on the action. So they either brought French winemakers to their territory or went to Bordeaux themselves so that they could learn the "tricks of the trade." Examples include Piedmont (1843), Biondi-Santi in Montalcino, and the Rioja region of Spain.

What Lukacs termed the First European Golden Age of Wine came crashing down around the continent's ear after the visitation of a series of vineyard pests and diseases beginning with Phylloxera  in the 1860s.

The period post the 1860s, and into the Early Post WWI, was characterized by widespread misrepresentation of the wines that were being sold to consumers. This cheating was hurting the image and the pocket of responsible French growers so they began to seek the government's aid in developing mechanisms that would reassure the customer as to what he/she was buying. Lukacs: "The original rationale for demarcating particular regions as the source of particular wines had been a desire for authenticity. By requiring that only wines made in specific areas be identified as such on labels or invoices, the French authorities tried to halt the sale of counterfeit cuvees."

With the passage of time, officials began to pack additional requirements onto the original framework to include items such as the varieties that could be used in the region, how they should be planted, the yield, how the wine should be made, and how it should taste. As a result of these practices, the particular taste of the region's wine was solidified. Lukacs again: "The appellation system became a mechanism for a legally sanctioned hierarchy of quality." It improved French wine by "distinguishing those that employed a genuine particularity of aroma and flavor from those that did not." One of the other facets of the French AOC system was that it also, for the first time, made quality wine available at the table of the common man. All of the other European countries instituted similar sytems to regulate their local wine industries.

New world wines did not begin to compete effectively with French wines until the 1970s and 1980s and their vintners did not set much store by the French focus on the double-T's -- terroir and tradition. They instead stressed the double-V's -- variety and vision. A classic example is Penfold's Grange, the grapes for which are sourced from a number of disparate vineyards but yet, year after year, produces a distinctive wine with an immediately recognizable flavor profile. This was, according to Lukacs, a testament to the winemaker's vision and execution.

Based on the foregoing, terroir, as construed today, differs significantly from its origins and intent. The Cistercians demarcated their vineyards to show differences in grapes grown there and, as a result, established a tradition of Burgundian wines. I maintain that they initially established a tradition of Burgundian vineyards -- because the wines should have been indistinguishable from others due to oxidation and sourness -- and that evolved into a tradition of Burgundian wines. Somewhere along the way there was a successful marketing effort to traditionalize the industry and then to monetize that tradition. Bordeaux recognized the pecuniary benefits of traditions and sought, successfully, to establish its own. They did not spend the hundreds of years getting to understand the characteristics of their vineyards -- as the Burgundians had done. They just claimed it. The AOC system, set up to deter counterfeit wines, evolved into a "deviser" of taste and quality. It was not set up around terroir. Rather, terroir was devolved upon it.

New world vintners rightly eschewed pursuit of terroir and tradition in their winemaking efforts. They were not confronting the same issues or experiences as had their old-world brethren. Yet they have been able to turn out wines of high quality. Should these winemakers pursue the adoption of terroir wines? If they want to. But I have seen no scientific evidence which shows a "terroir effect" The research which has been done by Maltman, for example, shows no correlation between vineyard soils and grape/wine composition. To my mind, terroir is all about tradition and monetization of same.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme


  1. Your posts are great! Love that you write informative essays about your topics. This one is particularly interesting.