Who's responsible for terroir: God, nature or man?

Robert Joseph has a few offbeat thoughts about the relationship between man and the earth.

Credit: Trent Erwin on Unsplash
Credit: Trent Erwin on Unsplash

If you tailor your wine to please your customers, are you betraying its terroir?

When this question was raised recently by a keen natural wine enthusiast, I could see their point. Surely, picking the grapes a little later to get a richer, more alcoholic wine, or using new oak or – for some people, worst of all – blending in a little more residual sugar or Mega Purple concentrated grape juice, has nothing to do with reflecting what that piece of earth has to say.

But to accept this argument is to presume that there is some kind of deity or natural force that actively wishes a particular bit of land to be used to make a particular style of wine while another might be destined to grow olives or apples or turnips. 

As a devout agnostic, I struggle with this notion, but if it were true, we’d have to look at the Médoc and Maremma very differently. Without human intervention – in the form of drainage – most of the land in both of these regions would still be the malaria-ridden swamp it was for much of the last two millennia. Does the reclaimed land on which vines are planted have as much authentic ’terroir’ as, say, Burgundy or Barolo? Does anyone drinking wines from any of these regions care? And what if we were to convert much of the land where basic Bordeaux is now being produced and sold at low prices into potato fields. Would we be betraying terroir?

A vineyard is like a cathedral

Vineyard terroir is a man-made artefact, like a rose garden, reservoir or a cathedral. Someone chose to plant vines on a site – historically, quite possibly because it was close to the monastery, house or town where they happened to live – and then went a crucial stage further, by selecting one or more particular grape varieties to grow there. So, anyone talking about ‘low-intervention’ wine has to acknowledge that however the grapes are handled, a fairly significant bit of intervening at ground level has had to go into its creation.

There’s a parallel with meat or dairy foods. The cow or sheep has absolutely no interest in its milk being fermented and converted into a delicious, more or less solid, piece of cheese, and still less in its legs or flanks being turned into something we can grill and eat with a knife and fork.

Clearly, those animals prefer to live in a field with plentiful grass and a climate that’s not too hot or cold or wet or dry, and a cow destined to produce wagyu meat may well appreciate the three meals a day of hay, grain and wheat she gets and, if she’s very lucky, the occasional massage and drink of beer.

Whatever the unfortunate creature, and however it has been treated during its lifetime, if it’s going to become meat – it would also presumably vote unhesitatingly for its death to be inflicted quickly and painlessly. 

But I’m pretty sure it really won’t have much of an opinion about the sauce or wine that’s going to be served with its remains.

Happy soil

For those who’d like to anthropomorphize the soil, I’ll agree that a field would probably be happier to be packed with subterranean activity and covered with healthy flora and fauna, than being little more than a lifeless medium of the kind used by hydroponic marijuana growers.

Whether it would have a preference to be fed with for horse manure and biodynamic preparations rather than synthesized powder from the factory down the road is less certain. After all, lots of humans love eating junk food; maybe the earth might be just as easily seduced by instant gratification as earthlings.

And, what about the fields that would seriously prefer to be parks or race tracks or covered with solar panels? To suggest that grapegrowing is their destiny is like saying that every kid who’s able to pick out a tune on a piano has to become a professional musician.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m just as affronted by the sight of an ugly building being stuck in the middle of a beautiful landscape, and I’m always sorry to see great vineyards being turned into housing estates. But, then, I don’t like the parts of nature documentaries in which the prettier creatures are chased and devoured by the hungrier and more savage ones. 

As they lovingly tend the roses in their garden, the family that’s happily living where grapes once grew may reasonably feel that their plot of soil is fulfilling its destiny by giving them a happy home.

If anyone wants to make wine from wild labrusca grapes, or from hybrids or vinifera without the use of commercial yeasts, fining or filtering, that’s an option, just as it’s an option for you or me to go without cosmetics or perfume or man-made fabrics, or only to play Bach or Mozart on the kinds of instruments the composers would have known in their lifetimes, or to have boys play all of the female parts in Shakespeare plays. But it’s not necessarily a better option. Any more than covering a landscape with vines rather than olive, apple or almond groves.

We have no way of knowing what the author of Hamlet would have felt ‘betrayed’ at the sight of Meryl Streep incarnating Lady Macbeth or how Johann Sebastian would have reacted to the French jazz pianist Jacques Loussier and his trio creating popular improvisations of his compositions. Just as we cannot say whether Loussier’s Provencal house prefers to be known as the place where Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s Château Miraval wines are produced or the home of the studio where Pink Floyd recorded The Wall. 

So, on reflection, I can think of lots of ways that a wine producer can betray their customers, but I’m not so sure about betraying a patch of soil.

Robert Joseph

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