Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Plant Life

Michael Marder (http://dx.doi.org/10.4161%2Fpsb.21954) 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.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Champagne's Labyrinth (A Simulation)

The way the trade talks about wine usually exceeds most of their customers’ simple quest for pleasure. When I studied for my WSET Higher Certificate I’d hoped Burgundy would offer some relief from red Dalmatian grape varieties, but learning the villages of the Côte d’Or by rote was equally onerous. Visiting the region for the first time in 1994, I realised Wine Regions of The World had spared me the detail, though I ended that week in Beaune believing that the difference between Les Teurons and Grèves was profound, and not just trivial.

In Tokyo, the city blocks are numbered, but the streets have no names. The plan of blocks, roads and intersections is historical. Visitors to the city can’t just bulldoze a route across the city or impose their own schema of street names. Finding your way around Tokyo is more like gaining access to other people’s memories than reading a map; you’re required to wrest the past from the present.

I remember the literary critic, Maud Ellmann, advising in a seminar: that “The only secret of a labyrinth is how you get out”. I wasn’t sure what Maud meant at the time, but I do now. Tokyo stops being a labyrinth when you get in, and acquiesce to its alien configuration of numbered blocks and unnamed streets. The secret of the labyrinth is you get out by getting in.

When I joined Billecart-Salmon, twelve years ago, with my small haul of awards, most friends assumed I’d be making the wine or, at the very least, blending it.  Tasting through vin clair for the first time was unlike any domaine visit I’d ever made before. The wines were unyielding and acidulous; and even though no one asked me for a favourite, I volunteered “Verzenay!” At the time it just seemed the most complete. I probed our Chef de Cave, François Domi, about barrels and malolactic fermentation, but never mentioned blending. It didn’t occur to me that the very particular experience I’d gained in Beaune might not work in Mareuil-sur-Ay as well. My botched attempt to bash a Burgundy-shaped entrance through Champagne’s walls meant the invitation to join in with assemblage never came.

Asking questions about street names and disgorgement dates won’t stop you getting lost in Tokyo or enable you to unpick tirage from all the mutations of methode and add-ons from the past. Neither the people of Tokyo nor our Chef de Cave see themselves as prisoners of tradition. From their perspective we haven’t expended enough time and effort acculturating ourselves to their ways of seeing and doing things.

Using a single grape variety, the Côte de Nuits scales the heights and plumbs the depths. Separating the good from the bad producers in terms of how each talk about their own production is impossible. They all share in the same vernacular: that the quality and personality of their wine is a reflection of environmental factors, and in Terroir and the Côte de Nuits (parts 1 and 2) I tried to describe these site specific differences within a non-esoteric vocabulary. The interaction of soil hydrology, plant water demand and altered gene-expression does, I think, usefully add to the discussion on the link between wine quality and the region’s appellation hierarchy. These differences, far from being petty, became important to the Cistercians, and in Cultural Terroir I argued that their continuing relevance to us is, in part, a further example of secular life being shadowed by its non-secular past.

I used an evolutionary metaphor in Cultural Terroir to describe the way in which wine production divides incessantly. Barrels and the fragmented ownership of land encouraged comparison, and a new realm of environmental influence became visible to producers. Just as Hooke’s microscope illumined a hitherto unseen world of plant cells and compound eyes, so relating one barrel to another revealed a hidden domain of geological and hydrological influences; even though they weren’t referenced as such.

The microscope was revolutionary, whereas Burgundians’ framing of environmental influence only succeeded in strengthening already existing ties to the earth. Those fortunate enough to own a few hundred ares in both les Suchots and  les Malconsorts believe the difference between the two vineyards is ineffable, cast in stone – Bathonian and Bajocian – and when combined with climate, inimitable. Of course, if the differences between wines were only a matter of geology, then everyone’s les Suchots would taste more or less the same, which isn’t the case. Geology is only part of a much bigger picture: one that escapes the tight fit of the frame the Burgundians habitually try and squeeze their wines into. If, as is often suggested, the resemblances between an individual producer’s wines are greater than the similarities between neighbouring wines from the same lieu dit, then we might conclude that extrinsic human interventions are just as important as intrinsic environmental factors in determining wine style. But this is a hard concession for Burgundians to make. The difference between man’s inputs and nature’s inputs is that the former also carry the prospect of duplication.  The more ground we concede to ourselves, the less inimitable wine appears to be. What is produced by our efforts may be reproduced elsewhere.

Champagne has no such problem with reproduction. When a new winemaker joins a House there is normally a period of acquiescence during which past practices are repeated and mastered. The variables in Champagne are so rampant with possibility that you need to immerse yourself in the prevailing orthodoxy before trying to change anything: blending, dosage and in-bottle fermentation pile intervention upon intervention. François Billecart says it takes twenty year for a Chef de Cave to attain the requisite level of competence and trust beyond which she/he can begin evolving blends for posterity.

The repetition of procedures; the recombination of villages according to historical protocol; together these actions engender a sense of reality and permanence in a realm of chaotic possibility and limitless choice. Reproduction yields the grounding and the conditions from which the Chef de Cave can affect change; it can provide both a destination and a point of departure. The labyrinth only gives up its secret to those who enter and stay.

During my induction at Billecart-Salmon I’d wanted François Domi to offer-up answers that would dissipate ambiguity, and cut through the crap of globally disseminated terms and anachronisms.  But immersion historicises both actions and descriptions. Causality becomes compromised, and effects emerge at the end of weakly conjugated chains of events. Lineages, like that of Jean-François Coche, have added a very human structure of assembly and amplification to the differences they detected between their wines. Hooke’s microscope enhanced specific images by magnification, but we can’t make similar claims about the empirical efficiency of barrels and bottles; it’s all too messy. Dividing production into small units encourages comparison, but the characters that appear in the wine are, in part - through the effects and interactions of reduction, oxidation and suspended solids – generated by the barrel. A good microscope improves image resolution, where a new François Frères barrel adds to opacity. I just don’t think that we can say with confidence which aspects of Coche-Dury’s Meursault are given and which are reified by past generations of Coches trafficking the passageways of the labyrinth in the same direction. Fetishism isolates and augments a part of the body and then symbolically substitutes this fragment for the whole in which it is constituent. Saying that Jean-François’ “mineral-style” shows “typicité” is like recognizing a Meursault family’s fetish, and then pursuing it as your own. Other villagers and drinkers will be turned-on by different obsessions.  We’re not troubled by the thought of a Chef de Cave purposely subduing and exaggerating different characteristics of a blend, because assemblage is continuous in Champagne; but similarly decisive interventions become visible in Corton Charlemagne  too, if we care to take a long enough view of production.

In the 1980s, a young Gary Farr left Australia to work at Dujac. The transmission of knowledge at Dujac (and Billecart) requires that you listen to what’s said, and follow what’s shown. Gary did ten vintages at Dujac, and still makes “pilgrimages” to Morey St Denis; as does his son, Nick.  

Back in Geelong, the Dujac influence is clear in the perfume and colour of the Farrside Pinot Noir. Last week, I placed the Farrside 2009 in a line-up of Morey St Denis 2009s to prove to myself that the family resemblance between Gary’s wine and Dujac’s Morey, and Dujac’s Morey and the other village wines, was commensurate; which it was.

I’ve drunk old Geelong Pinots, but like many New World wines they want for that rapturous second coming. Twice this year, I’ve tasted Farrside 2011, which meant the 2009 was all the more intriguing for me. I remember hosting an “Old-New-World Pinot Noir Tasting” and being shocked to discover how fixed and frozen in time the wines seemed, as if the insertion of the cork had stopped the clock.

Ageing is the pathway that turns wine towards its other destination in the future. The Jesuits said: “Give me the boy, and I will return you the man.” Actions performed early on in a process have transformative effects that only become visible later in life.

If the Jesuits gave us "the man" in the past, then Blade Runner gives us a woman in the future. The Los Angeles of Ridley Scott’s film is a paradox: unrecognisable but derivative. Genetically modified slave replicants live in and for the moment; their journeys beginning and ending in the same place, just like the “Old” New World Pinots at the tasting. Early in the film we’re introduced to Rachel, a replicant woman, and the perfect humanoid copy. Rachel’s identity, based on implanted memories, is delusional. Gary’s and Rachel’s stories overlap because the veracity of their respective pasts guarantees their futures. If the Farrside 2009 was a perfect simulation, then it should have tracked the Moreys, and started to transcend the continuous present tense of replicant existence towards a future.

If I struggled to separate the Farrside 2009 from the Moreys - the copy from the real – it may have been because the generous climatic conditions in Burgundy that year were just too Geelong-like, or vice versa. Was the Farr wine really on a sweetly lubricated slide towards a finale? Or was it simply the case that the Burgundy had become stuck along the way? I couldn’t tell. Those who’ve seen Blade Runner will recall that the main symptom of Rachel’s “more human than human” simulation is self-doubt.

Los Angeles 2019 is cluttered with good and bad copies. Rachel’s identity becomes problematic when she discovers the photo she believed was of her and her mother together is actually of Dr Tyrell’s niece. This realisation defines Rachel’s identity negatively: it is the place previously occupied by the photo, experienced as loss and absence; but it becomes, through the rest of the film, the lacuna within which her new identity takes hold. In a moment of reversal, Rachel rejects the identity she was given by Tyrell, and then she gives herself to Deckard, the Blade Runner.

Rachel can change because she’s such a good copy. As I suggested, the young François Domi and Jean-François Coche proved themselves very adept at reproduction. Billecart’s NV blends twenty-seven villages and takes ten years to make, if you measure the time between disgorgement and the age of the oldest reserve wines. You need to prove yourself well-practiced in rebuilding the edifice created by past generations before you’re trusted to make any revisions to its structure; otherwise you’re just groping in the dark. Perfect simulation can be the starting point for change, whether you’re a replicant or a Chef de Cave.

The principle of reflexivity, as proposed by the sociologist William Thomas, is: that “the situations that men define as true, become true for them”. Burgundians believe environmental causes beyond the winery are the main source of variation in their wines, and these variations provide the proof of this connection. It’s a seductive but circular argument. It holds out the barely resistible prospect for some of our lying side-by-side with nature; and there being wines which are better and closer depictions of the world of rocks and rain beyond the cellar. But in all of this talk of encounters we need to keep reminding ourselves that wine is the murky point of contact with that which lies outside itself.  I used the analogy of a microscope to make a point about how changes in the scale of production can make visible an already existent world. But winemaking throws us a kaleidoscope rather than a lens to buff. The “luminance of the outside”, to use Foucault’s phrase, which comes with these new exposures is reflected, coloured and captured in patterns that we either like or don’t like. I just happen to be partial to Coche’s intricate ordering and staining of the crystals - spur pruned massale chardonnay, an old press, heavy lees, new oak, and long elevage – but I accept that others might find his style too stark. We can disagree about preferences, but I don’t think there is a further argument to be settled by invoking prejudicial terms like typicité. Tabula rasae don’t usually take the form of messy, drawn-out production processes. 

If we amalgamate causes we can avoid some of the difficulties associated with exclusion and prioritisation. Difficult concepts like “mineral” might prove easier to handle if we think of them as multifactorial, and see its presence in a wine as an indication that various causes have been bundled together in sophisticated and studied ways. Winemaking begins to look far less passive when we consider its innovations and reproductions though time. I don’t believe all those centuries spent in the vineyard and cave were really about removing all the incriminating evidence of human involvement, like a gang of thieves covering its tracks. We adopted a particular way of talking about wine and we’re still adapting the proofs to fit the terminology.

There is nothing pernicious in the Burgundian’s prioritising of environmental causes. In Cultural Terroir I claimed that the Cistercian’s pursuit of universal cause reinforced the power of the “outside” so forcefully that it’s stuck with us through to this day. Human influence is, as discussed, imitable, where God and natures work isn’t. But duplication can be an immensely useful tool. Simulation creates its own labyrinthine realties through repetition; it brings intelligibility and order, and thus provides a stable medium from which the distinctive and generative differences that separate Lafon and Coche Dury can begin to coalesce.  

Much of this essay has been about the difficulties of travel: from Burgundy to Champagne; across the labyrinth; or the philosophical difficulty of moving from the “inside” to the “outside”. John Updike said the problem with travel is: “It’s always you that unpacks the suitcase”. Nothing I have written here changes anything: the differences between Coche Dury and Lafon remain the same. Twenty-five years ago Gary Farr left Australia, and when he repeats that same journey today it’s a different man that unpacks the shirts and boots onto the bed. The story of Farrside is about rocks and sunshine, immersion and repetition; but it’s also a tale of individual self-fulfilment. The Old World is particularly good at giving us accounts about the former, where the New World inspires us with the latter. If I feel a solidarity with Gary that allows me to run our two stories together, it’s because we both found ourselves somewhere in the middle of things.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Cultural Terroir

Nature is not one thing; it is a collective term for forces that obey a determinate number of known physical laws. The elements of the universe are simple, but the patterns generated by the interaction of its forces are complex and changing. If your view of nature is informed by evolutionary biology you won’t be alarmed at the idea that man is descended from Pelycosaur; but if you take Genesis as your starting point you’ll see all the complexity “out there” and “in here” as evidence of a supreme being. Either way, both sides of this argument agree there’s a lot of stuff bloating our experience, whether you think it’s been put there by a divine creator or the big bang.

When 15th Century monks dug-up fossils in Bonnes Mares they thought they were unearthing evidence of God’s omnipotence, not chunky wannabe ancestors. Individual beliefs don’t sit in isolation; they form part of a coherent set. The Cistercians weren’t being dumb when they dated dinosaurs at 1000bc, it was a calculation that was consistent with other beliefs they happened to hold. There was nothing disturbing or contradictory about the fossil-record if you held God as a universal cause. By contrast, Darwin’s anxiety ahead of the publication of The Origin of Species was because the argument he was about to present placed man in a fluxion of genetic mutation and environmental pressures that had no obvious centre or end point, the two positions that until then had been occupied by God and his ape. Nothing takes our place in the theory of evolution; Darwin just posits a continuum of divergence and multiplicity that rolls on with or without us. If individual species founder they are replaced by multiples of better adapted species, a void doesn’t come to stand in their place.

Darwin’s theory fitted the evidence better than it did other 19th Century beliefs. Beliefs are the bodged raft we drift on, and if we ever attempted to change all our beliefs simultaneously we’d sink. In order to survive we need to maintain the raft, swap timeworn timbers for new timbers, but at a rate that conserves buoyancy. Some planks of our raft are pristine, but other older planks provide a record of our navigation.   

If we still show reluctance to change our beliefs in light of the evidence presented by Darwin it’s because erroneous abstract theories about our place in the universe aren’t immediately punitive. As far as survival goes, we can simultaneously believe in God and Darwin (We can rightly accept the evidence for random mutation, and wrongly see ourselves as its culmination), whereas we won’t live very long if the only thing we have an appetite for is intensively-farmed raw chicken.

Asking whether terroir is “natural or cultural?” strikes us an entirely reasonable question, and one to which we should have a ready answer, but after The Origin of Species it’s hard for some of us to identify a stand point outside nature from where we could rally a response. Conversely, we could adapt Barthes’ critique of mythology as the transformation of history into natural order as an argument against terroir, and conclude that there is no classification or teleology that is independent of us. We could dismiss the taxonomic ordering of the Cote de Nuits as just another mythic episode; a further example of cultural mutation and imposition. “Terroir: Natural or cultural?” is just part of a bigger debate. What distinguishes the natural from the cultural, and whether they are in fact opposites isn’t going to be decided by a debate around wine. Setting dialectical ambitions to one side perhaps we're just in need of a good carpenter to show us how the new and old planks of our raft are aligned to one another.

In Terroir and the Cotes de Nuits 1 and 2, I argued that pedological differences in soil hydrology underpin the region’s generic/village/premier/grand cru hierarchy. Accordingly, the soils and sub-soils of the better sites ration the availability of water in such a way that their vines are buffered from the unpredictable pattern of precipitation events. Growers on the Cote de Nuits observe that beneficial water deficits are more rapidly attained on the Grands Crus, while the effects of drought are resisted for longer. Taking the Cote de Nuits in isolation, we might draw the conclusion that hydrology is the controlling variable within this mid-latitude homoclime. As tempting as it is to construct a climatic map of differences relating to aspect and elevation, pedology is the only reliable way of separating stylistic and qualitative differences between adjacent vineyards that are given the same management.

Just as a pig doesn’t divide into hot dogs and stone doesn’t order itself into Chartres Cathedral, so the rifted valley sides of the Cote d’Or don’t immediately suggest a congested pattern of vineyards. Butchery, building and agriculture are useful things to be able to do, but sausages, basilicas and fine wine are elevated beyond what we might consider ordinary needs, unless you’re a German pope. Stone masons began working on Chartres Cathedral 900 years ago, and their toil crossed centuries. Anyone who has ever lived in a house, or hammered home screws, needs to get on a plane and go to Chartres. You will be born again. Don’t buy a return ticket because the homebound journey will be done on all-fours with your nose rubbing against the earth; - God’s earth. It is of this World, but out of this World. When I first saw the northern transepts I turned to my school mates and said: “Whatever they were on when they built this I’ll take intravenously!”

The immense scale of Chartres divides into endless detail. If you don’t find God in Chartres you might at least identify Darwin in all the stained-glass and stone masonry, and see evolution taking hold in the escalating minutiae and detail that expands into one space.  Again: go there! And when you ask yourself, as I did, “What were they on?” you can have an answer already prepared: metaphysics.

In Europe, the enlightenment was preceded by the dark ages. The “big” question - which wasn’t answered with survival tips but a thesis on how the universe slotted together - was parked with God. Notionally, the God of the New Testament is also the God of Abraham, except the Christian God both creates and populates our world with His spirit. If you looked hard enough the evidence for omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence was manifold. Experience was underpinned by the divine, and if bright theological light was shone onto our experience and beliefs the architecture and detail of God’s creation became visible. When the Cistercians cultivated Burgundy the quality of their labour was measured against a divine yardstick that included old metaphysical formulations. Where else could important ideas like “infinity” and “perfection” have come from, but Him? Our acquaintance with abstract ideas was presented as proof of sublime descent. Devotion got you closer to your Maker by increments, and the monks spent centuries revealing the complexity of God’s creation by mapping a fragment of His design in wine.

Over the centuries, the patronage of the Church and the devotion of the monks led to an increasingly intricate pattern of land use, as morphological and geological differences manifested themselves in wine styles which were scrutinized and calibrated by their creators. Once the process of division was set in motion it was hard to stop, because the activities of the monks were directed by theological certainties. Compiling evidence of God’s handiwork became a search for the detail and perfection within His design. The qualities of “perfection” and “infinity” were beyond man’s fabrication because, ultimately, they were the property of God, but you approximated them, as the artisans at Chartres had done, by elevating finity towards infinity and representing the sublime as best you could. The Cote d’Or’s complex geology prompted a complicated response.

Just as the Cistercians looked for God in wine, so we can scrutinize terroir for signs of its theological past. As I’ve presented it, the two dominant trends deriving from medieval doctrine are the pursuit of perfection and the division and re-division of the corporeal into smaller and smaller parts. Both tendencies are evident within the Cote de Nuits’ complicated hierarchy of vineyards. The ardour of the monks would have led to an ever more intricate pattern of land use once they’d begun recognising the divergent but consistent trends in wine style. In turn, these differences could only be properly elaborated if production was organised in such a way that it was responsive and sensitive to the small variations that were being generated. The method, duration and scale of manufacture were critical to their achievement.

In other blogs I have been critical of the New World’s appropriation of terroir. When I first visited Chile young winemakers spoke enthusiastically to me about terroir – “No rainfall. Always sunny.” – as if it was a pitch to sell time-shares and not the samey black liquid that was never more than 10ft away during that long-week-long-trip. When I eventually tasted vinas viejas Cabernet in Maipo – “A strong terroir” – I was bewildered, and thought Conan had been let loose on the punch downs. But there have been good experiences too. Last month, having drunk Gary Farr’s Pinot for the first time, I unexpectedly found myself renewing my vows with wine. The fact that some of Farr’s vineyards are planted on montmorillonite clay and limestone is relevant, but I suspect the organisation of his domaine is equally important. Production at estates like Farr, Rippon and Eyrie is personified. Nick Mills, Jason Lett and Gary Farr do a meek impression of omniscience, examining the consequences of enological and vitcultural decisions in detail, and implementing strategies that promote diversity at the expense of homogeneity. One gimmick of branding is to make the big look small, but from the perspective of terroir production is always miniaturized and small differences magnified. It’s the difference between staring down a telescope the wrong way and making use of a microscope.

The Cistercians' toil wasn’t sustained by profitability or productivity but by a faith in the omnipotence of the divine. If conscientious producers like Jason Lett and Nick Mills feel their work is never finished, if its demands get ever more detailed and insistent, it’s probably because the paradigm of terroir they’ve inherited incorporates medieval determinations of infinity and perfection. Cistercian beliefs are carried over into our actions and understanding. His work will never be done. Production can always be split again in the pursuit of the sublime.

The Cistercians and Darwin both found a divergent trend operating within the natural world. Representing God’s creation introduced the condition of infinite perfectibility into the monks’ labour, whilst Darwin just saw more and more life diversifying into the same space. The monks’ beliefs may seem antiquated for those of us who’ve grown-up being taught evolutionary biology, and yet their embracing of multiplicity contained the germ of what became Burgundian terroir, with all its attendant hierarchies, old walls and mystique. I have argued before that terroir’s appropriation across the New World (and, indeed, the Old World) has diminished the term's meaning, but I am also aware that 2,000 years of continuous production sets a high bar for the growing number of vigilant and careful growers who are exploring the detail of what they do. What I hoped to do in this discussion was present a genealogy of terroir (I don’t think wine is the obvious starting point for establishing how dialectically opposed culture and nature really are) and show how old beliefs inform current ways of doing things. In the same way that our mammalian heritage connects us back through time to pelycosaur, so the drive towards division and multiplicity is the unbroken chain that links Nick Mills and Jason Lett back to Burgundy. If it was mine to give, I’d let them have terroir.

Sunday, 15 December 2013


John Atkinson MW has a particular interest in terroir and soil composition, as you can read in his Terroir and the Côte de Nuits. Now he has planted his own vineyard (pictured) in the village of Tixover, Rutland, in the middle of England. Here he explains what happened when he had its soil analysed.
Superficially, our soil looks like some of the better bits of the Côte de Nuits. The soil is composed of clay (25%), limestone gravel (25%), silt (30%) and sand (20%). In the shallower parts of grand cru Romanée-St-Vivant you hit Bajocian bedrock at a depth of 30 cm, and it's the same for Tixover. Shuffling around on your haunches you might imagine yourself to be in Vosne. The first time I tested our soil, I also submitted samples gathered from across the Côte de Nuits. The results for Romanée-Conti confirmed it as 'a good agricultural soil', with macronutrients falling within the 2-3 range of standard farming indices; endorsing its potential as a wheat field should the wine business ever go to pot. The ratio of potassium to magnesium in Le Chambertin and Clos de la Roche was skewed towards potassium, and the pH for all three sites was between 7.8 and 8.3. The results for the Tixover sample closely resembled those of the grands crus. All four had excessive calcium levels.
The second soil test was analysed in France by AGRO-Systèmes. It introduced me to new concepts such as cation exchange capacity (CEC) and base-saturation. Our soil was high in nitrogen and calcium, but weak in iron and magnesium. The ratio between calcium and magnesium influences soil structure, and soils that are base-saturated with calcium tend to be more porous than soils dominated by magnesium. A high cacium to magnesium ratio generally facilitates water movements within the soil - up, down and sideways.
The most recent test, conducted by Albrecht Agriculture, was also the most thorough, and the results showed worrying discrepancies from the previous two analyses. Iron was recorded at a critically low level, and the CEC was measured at 30 meq, which is high for a soil that is only 25% clay. The 'clay and colloidal matter' bound calcium and magnesium ions in the ratio of 40:1. Our soil, Albrecht warned us, was like a sieve. We needed to add magnesium, lots of magnesium. But at least we were in good company: the three grands crus soils were similarly biased in favour of calcium base-saturation.
Confusingly, iron levels were only measured at 1 ppm by the Albrecht people, but at 15 ppm by the French analysts. We haven't seen signs of chlorosis in the vines, so experience suggests the French analysis is the more accurate of the two. Moreover, despite identifying the chronically deficient iron levels, the Albrecht analysis didn't propose any amendments other than the magnesium. Critics of scientific methodology warn about theory-laden data, and the Albrecht obsession with the calcium:magnesium ratio may explain why in this instance they missed the low iron count.
CEC is a measure of the nutrient holding capacity of the soil, and relates principally to the number of internal and external bonding sites within the sample's clay and colloidal fraction. The meq measurement was elevated in our sample by the mix of clays. Smectite, a volcanic mineral, was incorporated into our clay as it sedimented out, and its inclusion has significantly changed the soil's properties. For agronomist Claude Bourguignon, smectite/montmorillonite clays, with their large internal surface areas, are particularly advantageous for red-wine production. Just why these clays are so interesting to M Bourguignon is worth consideration.
According to Bourguignon, the soils of Pétrus together with most of Vosne's grands crus (Romanée-Conti may be the exception) are luxuriously endowed with smectite. By contrast, the illite-kalolinite clays of the white-wine grands crus have much smaller surface areas, and therefore their capacity to hold and exchange nutrients is considerably lower. Montmorillonite clays are also distinguishable from other clays by the extent to which they expand when wetted. Modest water deficits are seen as advantageous in wine production as they accelerate ripening and generally improve the quality and quantity of extractable solids from the skins, so a clay that absorbs and holds onto copious amounts of water would seem anomalous to the requirements of premium grape production. Montmorillonite clays do have a trick, however. Strong root growth and function require a good level of root oxygenation. The expansion of montmorillonite clays can be so dramatic that root growth and function become impaired. Moreover, the permeability of the clays can decrease due to sealing at their surfaces after wetting. Thus soils may look wet, puddled even, but this moisture is not necessarily available to the roots; a case of water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink. And just as they expand when wetted, so montmorillonite clays shrink when dried. A sustained period of drought will open up capillaries within the soil which then become exploited by the vines' constantly regenerating mesh of short-lived rootlets. Taking into account the close connection between vacillations in clay particle size and Bordeaux's changeable seasons, it is possible to model a shallow, smectite-rich soil in which the availability of moisture to the vine roots is almost continually held at deficit levels - a terroir very much like that of Petrus, in fact.
Beneath the thin clay loams of Vosne's grands crus is limestone. The ability of vine roots to populate hard rock is limited, but this fact hasn't stopped commentators from positing this hidden union as the very foundation of terroir. However, a more probable explanation of limestone's advantage to viticulture is revealed by a consideration of its physical properties. Limestone can hold large volumes of water, but, as was discussed in the context of clays, we must be careful not to confuse capacity with availability. Movement of water through soils is multidirectional, and limestone can irrigate the clays resting upon it through capillary action. The extent to which the capillaries are opened will in turn depend upon the relative expansion of the clays and the degree to which calcium base-saturation has flocculated these, the most minuscule of soil particles, into larger agglomerations. In other words, the limestone's ability to function as an aquifer is itself dependent upon the structure of the overlying soil. As was the case with Pétrus above, we can imagine a possible balance between local effects whose equilibrium point sustains the vines at a slight and ultimately advantageous level of water deficit.
On the Côte de Nuits the mercurial temperament of Pinot Noir brings colour and texture to the bland realms of geology and pedology. In her excellent articles in the Australian & New Zealand Wine Industry Journal on 'Calcium in viticulture', Valerie Saxton talks of 'terroir-ridden France', and Burgundy can seem like yet another scion of the republic's obsession with taxonomy and hierarchy. So completely pixelated has the map of Côte d'Or's vineyards become, that it's now virtually impossible for outsiders to see the whole picture. Twenty years ago, many New World growers censured the Côte d'Or. It just didn't make sense: grands crus a stone's throw from modest village vineyards; and Clos Vougeot, the oversized Circus Maximus at the centre of this antiquated world, just seemed to lump together everything that the rest of the classification had painstakingly tried to keep apart.
There are historical precedents for Burgundy's sub-divisions, but the acute sensitivity of Pinot Noir coupled to the equally acute sensibilities of those that tend to it is the more remarkable story of this segregation. One way of classifying grape varieties is through their differing responses to water deficits. Anisohydric vines are said to be drought tolerant, whilst isohydric varieties are drought avoiding. The divide is not clear-cut, and relates to the strength of response different varieties show towards hormonal signalling (abscisic acid) from the drying roots. The stomata of isohydric varieties progressively close, rationing water uptake and loss, while anisohydric varieties maintain stomatal turgor, such that gas exchange, water uptake and carbon gain are unimpeded. Isohydric vines are 'pessimistic' and anisohydric vines 'optimistic', inasmuch as the latter carry on as if they expect it to rain again tomorrow.
Some varieties seem capable of both responses, but in extremis, Pinot Noir is anisohydric, and Grenache Noir isohydric. Lavish water use, as exemplified by Pinot Noir, brings with it a vulnerability to sustained drought. Pinot Noir, by rapidly depleting soil moisture, can accelerate itself towards conditions under which its own metabolic processes become compromised, just like the man who saws furiously at the branch he's resting on. Without the self-buffering responses of isohydric varieties, Pinot Noir's own water status is so immediately bound to the vicissitudes of soil moisture that it takes, in unirrigated Burgundy, a very special mix of extraneous pedological factors to consistently produce high quality grapes, ie those that are the result of sustained, but not impairing, water deficits. Vosne's grands crus are, indeed, exceptional.
Claude Bourguignon caused me to depart from thoughts of my own soil analyses and on-going struggle to get consistent data. There have been reasons for optimism in most of the results, and I don't doubt the fact that if Tixover's three blocks of brashy soil were panelled into Morey or Chambolle you wouldn't see the joins, but it's ridiculous to start talking about terroir, particularly when we seem to have spent the last few years acquainting ourselves with a whole load of Nature's disadvantages. I remember with incredulity, a vineyard owner in Long Island exploiting the argument that Bordeaux's crus were the finest in the world, that Bordeaux's vineyards were flat and, as his vineyards were flat, too, it followed that his wines were rivals to those of the Médoc.
As said, there was a time when the majority of New World growers rejected terroir, portraying it as either a perspicacious piece of marketing, or homey make-believe. But somewhere along the track these protagonists either gave up on this line of attack or lost the argument, because producers in Chile, New Zealand and Mendoza nowadays reel-off neat invocations about the contingency of their own vineyard work that wouldn't sound out of place in Vosne. Wine now seems so exclusively 'made in the vineyard', it's hard to know if there is anything left for winemakers to do. In the New World, terroir has gone from being nowhere to being everywhere.
The ubiquity of terroir is problematic. I take from the late Peter A Sichel's remark that only a fraction of Bordeaux's vineyards genuinely exhibit terroir characteristics, that terroir is a title bestowed like an honour or a peerage, rather than a democratic entitlement to which anyone with a vine growing up a wall has an equal claim. Accordingly, Richebourg and Pétrus are the exemplars of terroir, the foundations and acmes of a system in which exceptionality and scarcity are paradigmatic. In this context, the work of Claude Bourguignon, Gerard Seguin and Cornelius van Leeuwen is so pertinent because they are trying, in different ways, to cleave some scientific traction into our understanding of a much abused term. For those who crave more metaphysical accounts of grape quality, who will never be moved by terms like 'vine water status' or 'point quadrant analysis', there is always Nicolas Joly of Coulée de Serrant. But this is to miss the point. When physicists revealed diamonds' atomic structure, they didn't stop them from being a girl's best friend.
I do share Peter Sichel's instinct for parsimony, not least because the over-extension of any term, terroir included, eventually runs the risk of draining all significance from it. The meaning of words changes over time, and despite van Leeuwen's attempts to give terroir intellectual rigour, I feel sure that the term's appropriators will win out. 'Sense of place' will read like a postcode.
More optimistically, the weakening of terroir is not going to stop some very clever people from giving us ever more concise formulations of past viticultural accomplishments, those for whom 'sense of place' and 'terroir' prompt the question: 'And how did we get here?' As for the appropriators, I suspect every nascent English sparkling wine venture will claim its unique terroir, as will every newly planted desert of irrigated Sauvignon. Bertrand Russell once observed, 'The method of "postulating" what we want has many advantages; they are the same as the advantages of theft over honest toil.'