Why Terroir Matters: Can Its Pursuit Also Help Us Save the Planet?
I have spent an unseemly amount of time in the last several years obsessing about terroir. ((This speech was originally delivered at the Wineries Unlimited Conference in Richmond, Virginia, on March 30, 2011.)) The notion that a wine can also in some sense be an embodiment of a place strikes me as the most unique quality of this magical beverage, the most valuable thing that wine can teach us. For me, terroir’s self-evident truth carries with it a deep, almost elemental, psychic force and resonance, one that comforts and informs us. A wine absolutely can also be a place—in the same way a forest nymph, like Daphne, can also be a laurel tree. Just ask Ovid. One might conceive of terroir in any number of ways; I imagine it as a beautifully ordered wave-form, arising from a harmonically attuned vineyard—one wherein every element is in perfect balance.
Terroir is all about “difference”—the French, who seme to have semiology deeply embedded in their genes, are notoriously preoccupied with “difference,” and while it can certainly be said, somewhat tautologically, that all sites possess terroir in some form of another, strong or weak, the notion of a great terroir is about one that somehow manages to rise above the others in the distinctiveness of its signal. It is the difference that seems to make a difference.
A great terroir stands out; it is remarkable. In Europe, where elegance and complexity have historically been in great esteem, grapes are generally grown at the coolest, most extreme location of their possibility. A great terroir will ripen its grapes more completely more years out of ten then its neighbors; its wines will tend to be more balanced more of the time than its less fortunate contiguous confrÃ¨res. But most of all, it will have a calling card, a quality of expressiveness, of distinctiveness, that will provoke a sense of recognition in the consumer, whether or not the consumer has ever tasted the wine before. Without becoming overly anthropomorphic, I would suggest that a great terroir site has something akin to intelligence, which is the ability to successfully adapt to a variety of climatic challenges.
The soil of a great terroir will have the physical characteristics that allow the vine to extract more or less the correct amount of moisture from the soil appropriate to its needs, and trigger certain physiological signals in the plant at appropriate times—again, more consistently than its neighbors. It will have a chemical make-up that provides for all of the macro-elements in more or less balanced ratios, and very critically, will possess a definitive, eclectic assortment of oligo-elements. But, it should also be noted that great terroirs are not merely an inventory of various minerals in appropriate ratios. There are also the geophysical characteristics of a particular terroir that critically mediate water availability to the plant; this is a function of both soil texture and the movement of the water-table during the growing season. ((In San Juan Bautista, we are not so preoccupied with the water table, as it is at a depth (600+ feet) that is most likely unattainable by the vines in their lifetime. But the world, at least the world of wine, is quite mysterious, so one never knows.)) Thus, a great terroir will lead to a Goldilocks and the Three Bears-like solution for the vine, neither too much available water, creating excessive vegetative growth and flavor dilution, nor an acute water deficit, leading to jammy, vaguely Antipodean flavors at best, raisinettes at worst.
I fancy great terroirs to be a bit like wise parents of teenage children, dispensing water to their plants parsimoniously like a weekly allowance, making sure that that which is given out on Monday will last all the way to the weekend. Lastly, very significantly, it is literally the very finest detail of the soil’s structure in a great terroir, its degree of microporosity, that allows for the proliferation of beneficial soil microbes, specifically mycorrhizae, bringing minerals into the plant roots; they are thus terroir’s pre-amplifiers, if you will.
The French make a salient distinction between vins d’effort and vins de terroir—wines that are notably marked by the imprint of human efforts, as opposed to wines whose character primarily reflects their place of origin. Ultimately, vins d’effort are wines easy to like—presumably they are constructed with precisely that in mind—but difficult to love, at least truly and deeply. Vins d’effort, especially those of the New World, attempt to hit the stylistic parameters of “great” wine—concentration, check; new wood, check; soft tannins, check. And yet the net result is like a picture of a composite, computer-generated “beautiful” person; it is never as compelling as the picture of an aesthetically “flawed” but unambiguously real person. I believe that some part of us—very likely a part that doesn’t function on a conscious level—responds to the deeper order of a vin de terroir, to a level of complexity that derives only from the ordering of Nature itself, not from the order imposed by a human being.
But what of the possibilities of a vin de terroir in the New World? The sheer unlikelihood of its discovery in a short lifetime has been, for me, a kind of ongoing, ultimate buzz killer. While certainly many modern New World winemakers have protested—methinks rather too loudly—the sincerity of their intentions to achieve a vin de terroir, the reality is that so much of modern grape-growing practice, at least in the New World, is very much at odds with the systematic discovery of terroir. The problems are generally everywhere, beginning with the location of vineyards in climatically (as well as geologically) the wrong sites, thus requiring the need for gross manipulation of the must post-harvest. And of course—and this is the real root of the problem, as it were—because we New Worlders like to control most everything we can, we therefore do. We subject our vines to drip irrigation; on the face of it, this seems like a good idea, but it has the effect of growing the plants hydroponically—looks good on the outside, but not much happening on the inside. We tend to use a limited number of the “finest” clonal selections—nothing but the best for our wines—but this tends to give us wines of greater sameness, not real distinctiveness.
Historically, at least, vines were spaced widely apart and were asked to carry rather heavy yields, at least on a per vine basis. (As an aside, there is probably no better predictability of wine quality, all things being equal, than looking at the ratio of the total weight of vine roots to the volume of fruit they are producing. This, along with the vibrancy of the microbial life in the soil, is perhaps the most important factors in how one turns up the volume up on terroir.)
Obviously, old vines with deep roots, and dry-farmed vines that have to search far and wide for water, will be ones that will capture a greater sense of the distinctive qualities of the site itself.
And then in the winery, we have used designer yeasts, designer enzymes, organoleptic tannins, wood chips and or 100% new oak, on wine made from grapes harvested at preternatural levels of ripeness in climates too warm to allow for proper acid balance—but don’t worry, we can fix that with a good dose of tartaric or maybe take the wine for a spin in the spinning cone. We thus tend to systematically obliterate any possible expression of terroir, should the faintest glimmer of it accidentally emerge.
Think of it this way: the qualities of a wine emerge from essentially three factors: 1) its terroir, 2) its genetic patrimony—the rootstock and grape variety or mix of varieties that have been selected, and 3) the myriad of stylistic and technical decisions made in the fermentation process and élevage of the wine. In the New World, we tend to be very good at the deployment of factors 2) and 3), but not quite so clever in expressing factor 1). There are certain soil types that are particularly marked in their unique expression of terroir; limestone soils, granitic or schisteous soils, and volcanic soils often have such a strong character that the variety itself may not even be discernible in the wine. I recently tasted an amazing Listan negro from the island of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands—these are vineyards that look as if they are grown on the moon, if the moon had palm trees.
The growing conditions there are quite extreme—warm, dry, and very windy; this is likely one of the most extreme places in the world where grapes are grown. And yet, the wine is totally brilliant. But what is also amazing is that Listan negro is a synonym for another grape—the Mission grape, believed to be the first grape brought to the New World by the Franciscan monks in the 16th century. What is fascinating is that the Mission grape, at least in California, is arguably one of the very the worst vinifera grapes in creation—no redeeming qualities to speak of—no flavor, no color, no acid. And yet, under these special conditions in Lanzarote, it is but a carrier of terroir, and performs beautifully. ((To some extent, this little detail appended in a footnote may well slightly invalidate the premise of the radical notion of diversity at all costs being the greatest good, at least viticulturally. The Mission grape was most likely brought over from Spain to the New World—Peru, initially, if I’m not mistaken, and then up through Mexico into California—as a seed of Listan negro, genetically very close but not exactly identical to the Mission grape. (Seeds are undoubtedly far more sea travel-worthy than grape cuttings or actual potted vines.) And seedlings of course don’t necessarily share all of the favorable characteristics of the plant. So, perhaps against my stated aversion to make selections for perhaps indeterminate quality factors in a field of seedlings, it may well be necessary.))
What I would like to suggest is that the apprehension and appreciation of terroir may ultimately be a question of gestalt, i.e., instead of a focus on the more obvious charms of the wine, the fruitiness or oakiness or varietal distinctiveness, one instead brings into view those deeper elements seemingly lurking in the background. This is the mineral character that I sometimes conceive of as a sort of capacitance of the wine, its persistence or dimensionality, giving the primary flavor a sense of depth or relief; I can almost visualize this as kind of duotone, that slight shadow or sense of dimension that you can see in a printed image.
I know that grokking the notion of “minerality,” and specifically its great virtue, can be quite frustrating to many people. Personally, it took me many years to “get” Cornas. I didn’t like it because it didn’t taste like CÃ´te-RÃ´tie: flowery, sexy and voluptuous. Cornas was about stones. Then one day, something shifted, and I realized that it was the austere stoniness of Cornas that in fact gave it its real interest, its soulful depth.
The most radical conclusion that may be drawn is that in the instance of a hyper-expressive terroir, perhaps the choice of variety and clone may matter very little, providing that you are more or less in the ballpark of selecting a variety that ripens at the right time with an appropriate acid balance. So, in the event that I can find a way to grow grapes with a strong mineral character, I am not going to sweat so much whether I get the grape variety and the clone or clones precisely right; it just may not matter so much.
So, returning to the idea of the discovery of terroir in the New World: I have an idea that may be utterly mad, but equally may be inspired, perhaps revolutionary, if not the most impractical viticultural practice ever contemplated. Why not grow grapes from seedlings?
The best way to do this—that is if one is not to so concerned about the insane amount of highly trained, specialized labor involved in doing it, as well as the tedium of the process itself—is to hybridize several different grape varieties with a single genetically stable vine (such as grenache or carignane)—this “stability” attribute seems to have something to do with how long the variety has historically been cultivated. One would select the varieties for the characteristics one imagines will be aptly suited for one’s site. (It’s far more convenient, though still a chore, to simply collect seeds from a single variety of grapes, and this perhaps can also be interesting, but too much interbreeding, whether in grapes or in Hapsburgs, does seem to weaken the bloodline.)
The process of hybridizing grapevines is amazingly painstaking—you have to remove the male parts of the flowers with a teensy tweezers, whilst peering through a jeweler’s loupe. (This is called “emasculating” or “castrating” the flowers—ouch). Then, shortly thereafter, you sprinkle pollen from the lucky sperimenti club on the receptive flowers, cover up the cluster with a paper bag to prevent random intruder pollen, and hope for the best.
The aim is not necessarily to identify the “best” individual selections—probably as challenging as identifying the newly reincarnated Dalai Lama in a crowded Tibetan delivery room—but rather to consider what might potentially be expressed by the totality of the vines in a given terroir. It won’t be “varietal” characteristics, that’s for certain, but if not that, then what might it be?
This is a very ambitious project, and it rests on a couple of core beliefs, the validity of which is essentially unknowable until the deed is doon. The first is the belief that the wine produced from grapes grown from a large number of genetically distinctive vines, none or few of them possessing “superior” characteristics, will in fact be more interesting and complex than a vineyard planted to relatively few genotypes, all possessing highly favorable characteristics; perhaps from this diversity of voices, a rather different set of signals will emerge; that which was formerly in “deep background” is now front and center. The second belief is that the rooting characteristics of vines grown from seeds might allow one to render a much more amplified and perhaps distinctive expression of terroir.
Vines grown from seeds exhibit a much higher degree of geotropism, or the tendency to form a vertical taproot, growing straight down to China.
You can observe this in volunteer plants that pop in the garden, which have germinated from a seed. A vine with a more downward rooting habit will root more deeply and possibly exploit a wider range of minerals; my surmise is that it will make a hardier, more drought-tolerant plant. All of this assumes of course that one is planting in an area sufficiently isolated and without a history of planting, so a vinifera vine might peaceably grow without fear of imminent phylloxera infestation.
What I find compelling about this project is the opportunity for a grower to take advantage of the stunning richness, diversity and adaptability of nature, expressed in the seed’s potential, as well as of the experience of a collection of grapevines responding to a particular set of environmental challenges. ((In planting a vineyard de novo, even if one is not taking the radical step of planting grapes from seed, one does wonder how much complexity of varietal mix is appropriate. )) But what is also interesting is the opportunity for a human being to employ his or her intelligence to make discriminating, empirical judgments concerning the kind of vines that seem most harmonious and congruent for a particular site. I like the tremendous open-endedness of the project. In fact, you don’t really know where it’s going to go. Maybe this is the only way to invite some degree of magic into our world.
On the subject of magic, I recently met a fellow named Hans-Peter Schmidt in the Valais region of Switzerland. Peter is involved in a number of very interesting projects in Switzerland and southern France, but most notably those that think about vineyards and farms as truly sustainable, biological systems. His vineyards do not look anything like conventional ones: there are fruit and nut trees; flowering, insectary bushes; hedges and herbs embedded amongst the vines. His aim is to create optimal diversity within the system, as well as to extend the length of the season in which a greater range of biota might be able to grow and flower.
By dint of the additional organic material incorporated into the soil, as well as by the increased number of diverse species, from leaf-borne fungi and bacteria to honeybees, cohabiting the site, there is an enhancement of natural homeostasis, both hydrologically and biologically. He is also working with an extremely interesting material called bio-char, something you will all be hearing about within the next few years, if you don’t know about it already. This material will, in my humble opinion, be very tied up with the future of our plane for many, many reasons. ((Human beings are particularly unskilled in imagining the future, especially futures that are radically different from their presents; hence, as a group, we tend to wait until the very last minute, when the prospect of change/disaster is nothing short of imminent. For obvious reasons, this makes it particularly difficult to address the very real question of global climate change, which still to many (amazingly) seems a bit tenuous. The widespread adoption of bio-char will likely only happen when there is something like a political commitment to take real concrete action, i.e. there will be a strong economic incentive to produce the material. It is also possible that someday people will wake up to realize that the food that they are consuming, even that which is called “organic,” may largely be devoid of real nutritive value; food that actually nourishes us might become demanded.))
Bio-char is essentially activated charcoal, the product of pyrolysis, or the combustion of organic matter in the relative absence of oxygen. The material that you derive looks pretty much like charcoal—crumbly, light, particulate. If you mix bio-char with some good compost and incorporate it into the soil, some wonderful things happen: at high rates of application, ((To really enhance water-holding capacity, rates of approximately 20 tons/ha are required, but to effect enhancement of the microbial life of the soil, substantially less might be used.)) the soil now has up to 30% greater water holding capacity.
Secondly, partially because of the physical shape of the bio-char, and partially because of the number of interesting, reactive organic chemical groupings sticking out from its matrix, there is profound stimulation to the beneficial microflora, the aforementioned mycorrhizae that live in the soil.
So, you end up with produce that is naturally more disease resistant, and with much greater nutritional value. (Note, minerals found in a natural biological form are far more available to us than minerals that come out of a supplement bottle.) Lastly, and not at all trivially, the incorporation of bio-char into the soil sequesters atmospheric carbon for approximately 10,000 years; the production of it is non-polluting and it is profoundly carbon negative. (You can think of it as reverse coal-mining.)
So I put the question to Peter: “Obviously, the use of bio-char in vineyards is quite interesting, especially for those of us in California where there is no summer rain, and of course for those of us unregenerate seekers after terroir, lovers of wines with a strong mineral character or what you might call qi or ‘life-force.’ And, Peter, while I’d like to think of bio-char as a kind of amplifier of terroir—that suits my own personal agenda—could it not also be argued that bio-char is in some way a deformation of terroir?”
“Yes, you could say that,” said Peter, “but it is less of a deformation than say, plowing your vineyard with a disc.” At that comment, I fell into a slight swoon.
It seems that we sometimes draw the line a bit arbitrarily at what is a “natural” wine and what is not, what is a vin de terroir and what is a vin d’effort. But we terroiristes are a very earnest bunch. Certainly there is something like a continuum; some of us favor wines that are absolutely “natural,” made with no additives, no maquillage at all, including SO2; others generally favor wines made with its very discreet use, to perhaps retain a little more digital clarity, if you will. But, it is my belief that with experience, most wine consumers gradually do migrate to a deeper appreciation of those wines reflective of nature’s vast intelligence and complexity, and at the same time become more in touch with their own bodies’ imperatives, naturally seeking wines easier to digest and to assimilate.
Terroir, you could say, represents a deep paradox. In a certain sense, it is that which is eternal, beyond the stylistic aims of one generation of vigneron or another. And yet in a very real sense, terroir cannot exist without human beings to discover it, express it, and in the end, to appreciate it. We can think of terroir as a region between the human and the natural world, a zone we can cohabit with the natural world in a gentle, minimally perturbative way. Perhaps Peter’s use of bio-char and the massing of so many species in his vineyards is a kind of manipulation of the “natural” terroir, but with his efforts, he reports the appearance of 60 different species of butterfly, multiple species of honey-bees and with every passing year, a deeper entrenchment of biological diversity and a greater independence from vineyard treatments, even in very humid Switzerland. This has to be some sort of criterion for success, and for perhaps the supposition that the land has returned to a more pristine state.
And, oh yes, the wine. He makes his wines without any sulfur dioxide whatsoever. I tasted his Pinot noir; it tasted more “Swiss,” if that makes any sense, than Burgundian, and maybe more Swiss than Pinot noirish. It is not a simple wine; it changes dramatically with time in the glass and time in the bottle. But what is interesting is that the wine does not oxidize, even without SO2. You can leave it open for weeks. This mystery—why do some wines live and some wines die young?—should haunt every serious winemaker in the New World; I sincerely believe that if you are not obsessing about that issue, you are not really taking your job seriously.
I believe that the notion of terroir began in France at a particular moment in time, when there was enough cognitive bandwidth or at least more of a connection to the natural world—people were not distracted by the internet or by 400 television channels, and a certain culture, the monastic one, was able to focus on the identification of viticultural sites that could produce wines of a certain consistent quality and organoleptic signature year after year. I believe that as a wine-consuming culture, we have perhaps lost the ability to make the finest discriminations between subtly different terroirs. Nevertheless, there remains a deep thirst for the real, for the authentic, and for the wholesome. A great vin de terroir can provide an occasion to experience all of those things, and therefore nourishes us so deeply and on so many levels.