Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Terroir: Masked by mankind

I've been thinking for the past few years about the idea of terroir, and came to the conclusion long ago that Mankind's influence upon wine was sure to mask many aspects that terroir would contribute to the equation ( to use Tom's analogy from Fermentation).

Since V. vinifera has such a wide range of growing habitats, it's somewhat easy to see what different macroclimates influence on wine grapes is. It's widely acknowledged that the hot interior of California is less favorable to premium wine production than the coast for example. The primacy of climate and weather is important in thinking about what terroir truly is, because it's the one aspect of growing grapes that is truly out of mankind's control. Everything else (microclimate induced by viticulture decisions, rootstock, varietal, harvest decisions, and winemanking style chosen) is so influenced by mankind that the description of a(ny) wine as 'Natural' is preposterous in my mind...and further arguments made regarding wines which are 'more natural' than another are misleading. So then are the arguments that one can taste terroir - in fact we are always tasting some winemakers interpretation of what terroir should be. There is no wine unadulterated, nor can there be, by mankinds influences.

The following blog entry from Hand to Mouth (a South African wine blog) is a good article in how it approaches the subject. The conclusion of the piece, that one can approach terroir by a minimalist winemaking style is perhaps correct, but still too far off the mark to taste terroir by itself. They acknowledge that as well.

I think they also are on the mark with the suggestion that "the ability to taste terroir " may be a wholely romantic idea.

Jamie Goode also recently penned an article about 'naturalness in wines' (and how winemakers view technology), and I think it contains a jewel of a quote by Michael Havens of Havens Wine Cellars (see article), which reinforces the point I was trying to make last October when I wrote about 'authentic wines': the ideas of naturalness, and authenticity (and terroir, IMO) are rooted in the Romanticism of the past 200 years. It's a very attractive idea, but too insubstantial to be of real use on anything but a broad level.

The conclusion that there is any real substance that we can point to and definitively say "this is terroir" or "this is natural wine" - much less taste that ethereal quality - is doubtful at best. The use of the term is abused, over-used, and under defined.

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