Countering the New York Times on Terroir

May 24, 2007

The New York Times ran an article recently about one of my favorite subjects, terroir. The article's subtitle claimed that it would "debunk" the "myth." That was an unfortunate way of putting it since that didn't necessarily appear to be the aim of the piece, which was written by Harold McGee and chef Daniel Patterson, who is a good friend of mine.

The authors start off by dismissing the notion that to taste terroir in a wine means to taste the flavors of the soil in which the grapes were grown. They go on to say that "the idea that one can taste the earth in a wine is appealing …. The trouble is, it's not true."

McGee and Patterson use the example of Chablis and the so-called minerality that is evident in the best wines from that region; wine connoisseurs like to believe that character comes from "the limestone beds beneath the vineyards." The authors deny that the perceived minerality of a wine like Les Clos from Dauvissat is created by actual, scientifically discernible mineral particles sucked up by the roots of the vine, transmitted to the grapes and ultimately into the wine.

Yet, why is it that I can always recognize the same texture and aromas from this wine, year in, year out? And similar characteristics in other wines from the same vineyard? Perhaps I'm not actually smelling and tasting limestone, but there is clearly a common denominator among these wines, and that factor is place and variety.

Terroir is an exceedingly overused term in the world of wine, and a misused and confusing one. As a sommelier, I fight to share and keep alive the wines of typicity. I consider myself an ambassador for those winemakers who are guardians of tradition. And I think this way not because I am a knee-jerk traditionalist who longs for the old times, but because I believe in the accrued wisdom of humanity, which has spent centuries figuring out the best ways to make wine. I love these wines not because they are traditional but because they are alive, they are individual and unique. They are good.

Am I against modern winemaking? Of course not. Am I only supporting wines that are traditional? Of course not. Do I think that traditional producers are sometimes stuck in the past? Yes and no. It’s good to be coming from a history of hundreds of years of tradition—as long as it’s done with an open heart and mind to the future.

Lets talk typicity of the land. What is typicity? Is it when a parcel of land speaks through the grape, expressing a totally different flavor from the neighboring parcel … for more than 100 years? For me, that is what it is. We learn about typicity through the choices made by generations of focused farmers and winemakers. Their consistency and their efforts have shown us what wine can be when made through time-honored practices from carefully selected plots. A specific grape variety is the best instrument to express the unique qualities of a plot of land, just as the trumpet was the best way for Dizzy Gillespie to express himself—not the piano, the sax, etc.

How does Riesling behave in Mosel compared to Alsace? In Clare Valley, Australia? In Washington state? It tastes different. Better in some places than others, but always different. The goal of the winemaker is to make the best-tasting wine possible with minimal intervention. The resulting wine will have typicity. It will have terroir. Whether it actually has pieces of the dirt in it or not, it will be the expression of the place and time.

The New York Times article asserts that minerals don't get into the wine, but then it sort of hedges its bets. The authors write, "It's possible, then, that soil minerals may affect wine flavor indirectly, by reacting with other grape and yeast substances that produce flavor and tactile sensations, or by altering the production of flavor compounds as the grape matures on the vine. The place where grapes are grown clearly affects the wine that is made from them, but it's not a straightforward matter of tasting the earth. If the earth 'speaks' through wine, it's only after its murmurings have been translated into a very different language, the chemistry of the living grape and microbe. We don't taste a place in a wine. We taste a wine from a place—the special qualities that a place enables grapes and yeasts to express, aided and abetted by the grower and winemaker."

OK, I can live with that. We know that we don't taste the dirt itself. What we do taste is much more profound. That's the magic of wine.

You Might Also Like

Ambassadors of Wine

Ambassadors of Wine

Sep 27, 2007
Sounds Like Greek to Me

Sounds Like Greek to Me

Sep 12, 2007
A Warning on White Burgundies

A Warning on White Burgundies

Sep 4, 2007
Back to Burgundy: A Great Vintage in Vosne-Romanée

Back to Burgundy: A Great Vintage in Vosne-Romanée

Jul 31, 2007
A First Look at Bordeaux

A First Look at Bordeaux

Jul 19, 2007
Basque Cooking: Scientists and Blacksmiths

Basque Cooking: Scientists and Blacksmiths

Jul 11, 2007
WineRatings+

WineRatings+

Xvalues

Xvalues

Restaurant Search

Restaurant Search