Saturday, 4 February 2017

The Tyranny of Rocks: Terroir and Trompe l'Oeil

The walls of Burgundy’s vineyards match the pyramids for mass, but not elevation. Giza memorializes God-Kings where the shallow blockwork of the Côte d’Or recoils from the burden of the sublime. The Cistercians could find no way out of God’s maze and left us a labyrinthine vineyard  puzzle as a keepsake.

Instrumental science eventually got the world out from under God’s feet. Only at the end of the 17th Century was curiosity no longer considered a sin, but “the mark of a finite being with infinite pretension” (Blumenberg). Copernicus’s heliocentric universe was big, measurable and predictable.

The medieval world had drawn a sharp distinction between God’s infallibility and human frailty and capriciousness. In the post-Enlightenment world human culpability persists, though the contrast is made with a secularized nature that can’t perjure itself rather than a God whose perfection was taken for granted. Commenting on William Buckland’s cross-examination of history by geology, John Forrester concludes: “Rocks don’t lie!” Buckland provides sound reasons to doubt the veracity of our storytelling, whilst Forrester inadvertently sloganizes terroir for us.

The Enlightenment cleared a new space for mankind in the world, but inherited misgivings about human frailties continued to undermine self-affirmation. In Burgundy, Cistercian submissiveness was displaced from God to nature. The magnitudes of influence remained unchanged even if they were articulated through an amalgam of aspect, climate and geology rather than the actions of a transcendental deity. Human agency was limited to spectating a non-human creation.  Burgundy producers who feel pressured to play down the impact of their daily exertions toe a deeply scored line.

There isn’t a conspiracy at work here; rather, within Burgundy the limits of knowledge are set by a past that discouraged curiosity and downplayed human expressivity beyond the elaboration of the divine. If, today, we follow our (E)nlightened instincts and use science to disentangle the individual threads of terroir from one another, we find our investigations quickly jam against a knot. In the same way that the Cistercians had imagined God’s creation to be irreducible, so terroir is presented as causative, immanent and totalizing. Roland Barthes wrote that faced with the world we vacillate between two possibilities: we can analyze and measure what is before us, or we can admit its obduracy and poeticize the “otherness” that deep-down alienates us from things.  Coupling the aesthetic with the analytic isn’t straightforward when romanticism and theory share the same object.

Terroir is depicted as a window on the world, yet the more we polish the smeary glass pane in front of us, the more sharply our reflection is returned. Writing about fashion, Jean Duvignaud observes that in societies where nakedness was customary the introduction of clothing eroticized women: “Nudity is only attractive when culture creates it”, he concludes. The desire to be side-by-side with nature, to experience things stripped bare – “as they really are” - is a persistent theme among wine critics. When I planted my vineyard I chastened myself with hand-hoeing, biodynamics and geological maps. Ten years later, and I now accept my time is best spent removing leaves and manipulating shoots. Back in 2005, the rock-strewn soil we planted looked like a stretch of wilderness, but through the repetition of tasks and my own inventiveness and toil, I now see industry and production where once I’d imagined Eden. That it even occurred to me that biodynamics might ultimately decide the success (or failure) of my start-up only illustrates the extent to which I was held captive by a seductive version of creationism.

Of course, it’s possible to imagine a time, a few centuries from now, when everything in the vineyard will be done through force of habit: the wisdom of past vintages will concertina into routines; production decisions will become second nature, so much so that the only nature that gets mentioned will be that of sun, rain and rock. The endless experimentation, failed trials and tweaks for posterity will all be forgotten as my heirs direct curious listeners toward a hidden world of geological strata that provides them with the blueprint for their activities.

Alternatively, these farmers of the future might look back at our time with bemusement, just as we now look back upon the complacent astronomers of the Middles Ages who saw measurement and skepticism as sinful.  Religious dogmatism sustained the cramped dimensions of the Ptolemaic Universe, and future generations of wine drinkers might diagnose a similar malaise amongst predecessors who thought wine quality and the expression of environmental causes approximated to the same thing. They might well point out to one another that the evidence for a wider sphere of influence was with us all the time. From their perspective, every family, village and region develops its own culture of production through time, and this helps explain the inter-regional differences between Champagne and Sherry, as well as the intra-vineyard disparities between Coche-Dury and Lafon at the point where geological and climatic explanations fail. For them, our faith in environmental predestination was just nostalgia; we couldn’t quite free ourselves from inherited magnitudes of influence - medieval sentiments - that with the benefit of their hindsight seemed to stifle our accounts of our activities more than it inhibited the activities themselves.

This last point feeds into the error I made when planting my vineyard: that of taking terroir too literally, and trying to force old imaginings into an earnest work schedule.

Feuerbach drew a useful distinction between knowledge and curiosity. Curiosity operates with few constraints, hence Blumenberg’s allusion to our being “finite beings with infinite pretensions”.  The Enlightenment led to an outburst of curiosity and conjecture, as though rationality needs the impetus of imagination to properly reset its boundaries. Human intellect doesn’t like a void, and curiosity fills empty space with its own hybridized speculations forged out of old and new beliefs. Curiosity got the better of me when I splashed out on a hoe and geological maps in the same day, but it might also explain how Jancis Robinson can neglect the immanence of human activity to millennia of production and extol wine as “Geography in a glass.”  

My hope is that my bemused farmers of the future will both acknowledge the debt they owe their forebears - all the know-how and expertise that the past has shaped and gifted them - and better understand the relationship between vine physiology and the environment. Having rid themselves of the residues of medieval prejudice they will talk openly and confidently about their own creativity and contributions, and how these entangle productively and aesthetically with nature; their words will match-up with their deeds. They will look back at early 21st Century wrangles about terroir and natural wines as being well-intentioned, but mistaken. They won’t argue about whether Coche or Lafon captures Meursault in the highest vinous resolution because they realize nature doesn’t offer us any means of deciding between the two. The reason why we felt there was a decision to be made was because we never properly broke with the Cistercian suspicion that we were trusted observers and flawed creators.

From my perspective, our understanding of the evolution of wine style, at both regional and domain level, is enriched if we yoke the environment and man together. Just as biology has taught us that the egg came before the chicken, so, analogously, primitive production necessarily preceded any discussions of geology and climate. If we believe we can peel back centuries of doing and making and reverse the order of events so as to expose some kind of primordial purity, we are, to use Duvignaud’s insight, confusing “nakedness” with “nudity”.  I’m happy to accept natural wines on my terms, but not the rhetoric that’s served up with them.

Wittgenstein warned us against becoming “bewitched” by language. On our chilly Island, there is a long history of wine criticism and a very short history of wine production. My hunch is that with little to counterbalance our curiosity, we’ve all too readily taken Burgundian producers at their word and failed to recognize the fact that when we’ve asked How things are? we’ve instinctively been told how things were; - their answers are infused with medievalisms. Attributing everything to terroir, or saying you do nothing are just ways of clambering back under God’s feet.

Ultimately, if what producers do matters more than what they say, then no damage has been done; the wines will speak for them in their absence. Notwithstanding this, at a recent natural wine dinner the French importer told me that most of the early adopters in France didn’t have wine backgrounds, but were drawn into changing careers by rhetoric. Like me, they’d idealized terroir and then become seduced by their own creation. I lost faith when I realized that behind the hard work there was only more hard work. There was no unveiling of essence; though, unarguably, recognising my earlier ideas as trompe l’oeil must count as some sort of revelation.

As wine critics we have a duty to be self-critical. Not only should we expose the anachronisms of others, but we must be wary of projecting our own ill-founded prejudices onto our loosely jointed industry. If I don’t see any difference between replacing indigenous varieties with Cabernet and unravelling Champagne blends into climats, it’s because I see vine roots extending into the cultural soil of Aÿ and Jerez, and not just reaching into the static chalk strata below. Rocks don’t lie, but neither do they tell the truth.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Plant Life

Michael Marder ( brings an original understanding to our place within the natural environment. He argues against a long held bias within our ordering of living things that elevates man above all other life on the basis of sentience. Philosophy, Marder, maintains has shown too much self-regard for the “self”, and too little interest in life.

Away from the supermarket value ranges things have notionally improved for pigs, but one doesn’t have to go too far back in science to find “squealing” depicted as a robotic response to slaughter rather than a horrifying reaction to pain and distress.
According to Marder, recent research into plants shows that the development of a central nervous system is not an evolutionary point of departure that reaches the pinnacle of expression in human self-awareness. On the contrary, pain like responses, intelligent interaction with the environment and cohort signaling all occur within plants. Sentience does not culminate in human intelligence, but is itself the very condition of life, whether it be human, animal or plant.
The moral vocabulary of rights that vegans and vegetarians are urging us to extend beyond our own species may need to be rewritten again, but this time to include plants. In an age when ecosystems are being described at the very moment of their destruction, Marder’s thinking around the moral inclusiveness of all life is timely.

Monday, 7 December 2015

The Demon Marketing

Wine marketers must envy colleagues who work on car campaigns.  A quick-fire round of word association fixes a car brand to any number of prompts: “fast”, “reliable”, “luxury”, “economical”. As I wrote in Meaningless brands from Meaningless Differentiation, consumer car knowledge is almost entirely mediated by brand familiarity.

Tellingly, when the BBC raided Top Gear to find Oz Clarke a co-presenter they chose James May, the nerdy serial-victim of Clarkson’s goading. The producers of Oz and James’s Big Wine Adventure obviously felt that May’s geekish tendencies could be made to stretch to the point where Clarke’s own geekery would take over. May bridged the gap between the audience and Oz; a sort of boozy, tri-lingual Vulcan intermediary who could scrutinise his co-host’s Klingonese for sense.

Car production has a brief history when compared to wine, particularly if we include caveman’s fluffed attempts to store grapes through the periglacial winter. On wine’s elongated timeline Henry Ford is one of us, and “Fordism” a thoroughly modern matter. The Model T came with a slogan: ”Any colour you want as long as it’s black”. Mass production and mass marketing interpenetrated one another. Post-war American men, it’s often said, were more familiar with the Ford logo than they were with the clitoris. Advertising understands the value of substitution and the affirmative nature of desire. A Ford, after all, would never say “No!” to a man.

Let me make it clear from the outset: I’m not writing this piece out of some general disillusionment with the digital age and marketing. My position alternates between scepticism and usage, because I market myself, albeit in a fairly impoverished way. My online persona is purged of negativity; and these criticisms are being made from within digital space.

One of the advantages of the digital community, unlike the cemetery, is that it swells without taking up more space. The Côte d’Or is similarly paradoxical. In Cultural Terroir, I analysed the concept of terroir in terms of divisionism. Wine production always has the potential to split - one can become two - and the elements formed through this division are held in a relation of proximity and difference. Accordingly, terroir becomes a network of differences dispersed in space, but always with the potential to split again, adding more folds to an already involuted organisation. Identity is subordinate to difference, and unstable.

Gilles Deleuze writes of classification: “It is always a matter of bringing together things that are apparently very different, and separating the very close.” The terrain of the Côte d’Or is segregated into vineyards, which in turn are classified all the way from generic up to Grand Cru. If the region hadn’t become such a monument to the historical process of division then one could imagine an even more detailed plan; after all, Aubert de Villaine speaks openly of the differences across Romanée-Conti.

However we divide terroir’s antecedents between man and environment “separating the very close” is the creative force active within the concept. Moreover, this splitting has an elevated sensibility at its centre.  Kant writes in Book III of his Critique that aesthetic judgements should be “disinterested”, which in the context of 18th Century rationalism means something like “resulting out of nothing but contemplation of an object”.  Whether the Cistercians were trying to map the workings of God is there for genealogical investigation to decide, but their achievements on the Côte d’Or testify to a regime of hard labour and Kantian-style aesthetic absorption.

Eighteen years ago, Mike Paul told a room full of MW students that Romanée-Conti, Château Latour and Rosemount Chardonnay were all brands.  At the time I remember feeling relieved that Mike had offered a definition of “brand”, albeit via a process of extension and inclusion. In that same lecture we were introduced to Brand Australia and Strategy 2025. The Australian wine business wasn’t shy about its vision for the future.

Strategy 2025 was my first encounter with aggressive wine marketing. For those still drinking mother’s milk back in the 80s, believe me, the hostile strategy was delivered with a smile. Australia was set to distance itself from what it saw as the failed model of European wine production through a process of enlargement and customer-focused brand creation. Brands would be developed specifically with the end consumer in mind, with grape variety taking precedence over geographical origin on wine labels. The paradise of the common man was to become brand utopia. If the UK trade didn’t get on-board its fate was sealed. We were like twitchers talking-up birdwatching in a world whose avian interests only extended as far as chicken McNuggets. How remote from the consumer was it possible to get!   

The themes of Strategy 2025 were already familiar to those of us who were working in the trade at that time: terroir was denied; French fruit wasn’t ripe; and all grape varieties had found their ideal habitat beneath the tall Australian sun. At the time this take on the role of environmental influence wasn’t presented as one possibility among others; it was hostile and denying of terroir, dismissing its claims as pernicious “marketing”.  The truth of this encounter is that marketing only tolerates knowledge and expertise that can be used to enhance its own commercial position. So entranced was “Brand Australia” by the idea that marketing was the only genuinely creative means of establishing value and identity within wine that it chucked its own modus operandi back at France as a slight on terroir. The contrast between disinterested aesthetic judgement and the sort of commodified knowledge delivered via brands was stark. One only has to see the level of invective that’s turned on wine education by some of today’s marketers to appreciate how a broad understanding of wine can be anathema to their narrow commercial requirements. “Consumers want wines they can understand” sounds reasonable enough, but when it’s forced into a false opposition with “not education” we begin to see the hostility to what I’ve been calling, after Kant, the “disinterested” perspective. 

I’m thinking of the above struggle in the light of Mallarmé’s assertion that all of life eventually reduces down to aesthetics and economics. I realise that I am consciously trying to draw a line between the two by clinging on to divisionism and contemplation. Capitalism’s innovativeness lies in its ability to identify and exploit value in hitherto unforeseen areas.  We’re familiar with thinking of “coal” and “oil” as commodities, but what of “expertise” and “trust”. What is the PPI scandal other than the exploitation of trust through the creation, development and marketing of financial products? Wine is not unique in fending-off economic encroachment into its own realm of expertise, yet for many of us it’s worth protecting precisely because it provides an area of contemplation – like books, music and film – where one can escape from the economic flows and connectedness of everyday life. Freud, who was himself a hoarder, maintained that millionaires often resort to collecting not to realise the eventual exchange value of their collections, but because possession and contemplation of these aesthetic objects reversed the transient nature of their monetary accumulation.

The fine wine market has joined the mass of other of winner-take-all markets that have come to characterize the early 21st Century. Millionaires have been replaced by billionaires at the gates of DRC. Relatively small differences in the absolute quality of wines are magnified into large differences in price. Such markets are a reflection of the increasing concentration of wealth, and in the case of DRC, this inequity is exacerbated by limited supply. The latest round of wealth consolidation began in the US in the mid-70’s, centuries after the vineyard-by-vineyard division of the Côte d’Or was begun, and together they’ve led to an inflationary storm that’s left wine merchants and drinkers looking elsewhere. Personally, I doubt whether critics or marketers have an adequate response to the forces of economic determinism that have swept through Burgundy and Bordeaux in recent decades, but to blame individuals seems to me to miss the bigger macro-economic picture.

The integrity and independence of critics has never been in greater demand than today, and as far as new wines and regions go we are genuinely living in exciting times. If I can’t afford DRC I won’t be forced to drink Aligoté. Gary Farr is making Pinot in Australia on a calcareous Richebourg-like clay that’s every bit as exciting as the best Burgundy. Because, in truth, the nightmare vision of brand utopia never happened.

Strategy 2025 no doubt still exists in some revised data rich form, but the heartening part of this story that began back in 1996, is that Australia itself became resistant to all the marketing platitudes that were being generated. Farr, Cullen and Grosset drew the line between aesthetics and economics that the plotters behind the plan seemed so keen to erase or re-evaluate. Wine, like novels and string quartets, can be an inclusive point of departure from the tedium and habit of the daily round.

Of those original 80s Australian brands, only a few like Penfolds survived. Grange is still an interregional blend, which offers a point of difference in a fine wine market that craves particularity. It’s ironic that the wine that was supposedly going to blaze a trail for profitable, blended still wine brands now finds itself singled out as the anomaly.

Mallarmé maintained that life separated into aesthetics and economics, but I’d also add sex. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is proof that great art and abundant sex are possible under the most ascetic of economic regimes. Could it be that things were just so much more intense before the intervention of brands, when the Ford badge wasn’t there to distract you?

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Use of Cosy Tex to accelerate Pinot Noir flowering in a UK vineyard

Champagne and Southern England are climatically distinct. The sea breaches of the English Channel and the North Sea help give us mild winters, but we pay the price with our cool springs and summers. 

Mean monthly temperatures, degrees Celsius. 


















Parity is reached with Champagne in September, but this is a month when both light and temperature become limiting for vines. Frustratingly, acids and sugars become sticky after the autumn equinox, come rain or shine.

The sluggishness of late Spring delays UK vine flowering relative to that of Champagne, and sets veraison back by 2-3 weeks. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on the Montagne de Reims and Côte des Blancs commence ripening in mid-August, whilst in England, the threshold of the autumn equinox foreshortens maturation and turns October into a month of hope rather than realisation.

Two consequences follow from our stalled summers:

Firstly, our climate gives us no wriggle room: days and weeks lost to bad weather in the summer cannot be made-up later in the season because we run out of effective days; and

Secondly, acids tend to be higher for a given level of sugar vis-à-vis Champagne.

Poor weather increases the financial jeopardy of grape production. In the UK, 2012 was a write-off, whereas Champagne was able to regroup and take advantage of late season warmth.

The issue over acids has no definitive answer. Malic acid can be very dominating, even in sparkling wine. It adds flavour and an impression of weight - useful in our fickle climate - but it is very forceful. Personally, I find it has a greater affinity with Chardonnay than Pinot Noir, and I find its character can become too brutal on clay soils, which seem to bolster its effect. Others will disagree.

Forcing vines to flower early therefore has distinct advantages, particularly for still wine production, and in 2014 I experimented with a product called Cosy Tex to see if I could accelerate early season phenology through to floraison.

Cosy Tex is a woven polythene mesh. The product provides 86% light transmission, is 100% permeable, gives 2-3 Celsius of frost protection and, depending on the area covered and irradiance, can elevate day time temperatures by 3-4 Celsius.

Cosy Tex comes in rolls of various lengths and widths, and can be secured to top wires and vineyard posts by the manufacturer’s clips.

We attached the Cosy Tex in late-April, and achieved an accelerated budburst compared to the rows outside. Early in May, we had three nights of frost, which got progressively harder. The vines underneath the Cosy Tex were untouched during the first two events, but we recorded -4C outside on the third night which resulted in a 60% loss of shoots within the Cosy Tex protected environment, and near 95% loss outside. One issue with the product is that it increases humidity, which raises the frost risk for a given negative temperature value, whilst the advancement of the shoots also increases susceptibility.

In the middle of May we were hit by storm force winds, gusting 55mph. Our method of securing the fabric proved inadequate and the Cosy Tex blew off. The winds didn’t abate for three days, and I finally re-secured the cover a week later. With strong winds forecast at the start of June, I removed the fabric from the vineyard altogether.

Overall, the vines benefited from the covers for three weeks, which brought flowering forward by approximately 7 days,  compared to the surviving uncovered shoots. If we had managed to maintain the covers in place to flowering, then the advantage could have been as much as 2 weeks. We were also unable to study the impact on flowering, which may have been beneficial due to micro-climate warming and reduced wind speeds. We will not know whether the reduced light transmission effected bud flower initiation until this spring.

We will repeat the experiment this year. The use of additional wires passed  through the Cosy Tex should enable us to withstand 50mph winds, and we hope to get a better understanding of the fabric’s full potential by summer 2015.