Sunday, 19 May 2013

The 1855 Classification is the Antithesis of the French Concept of Terroir

1887 Eiffel began construction on his Tower, completing it for the opening of the World Trade Fair in 1889. The Tower was a conceived as a monument to the Revolution of 1789, an edifice to the Republic’s virility in the hundred years that followed the regicide of Louis XVI. The structure was meant to be temporary.

From the top of the Tower a tourist might think they are at the centre of the City. Le Louvre, l’Etoile, la Défense are all visible, but they are diminished by the perspective. Roads and boulevards connect one destination with another, but the people for whom Paris is home, those that give the City its life, are lost. Elevation creates an illusion of structure, hierarchy and centricity, when the Eiffel Tower is actually located in the 7th arrondissement. The representation of Paris by the Eiffel Tower is, in effect, hyperbolic, because its dimensions take it beyond ordinary city life. At 320m, the tower dominates and imposes an erroneous order on a City that exists, for Parisians, at street level. 

The 1855 classement had similarly vainglorious beginnings. It was contrived for the Universal Exhibition of the same year, and categorized the wines of the Médoc according to price. The Médoc has a long history of wine production, but it was the draining of the marshes by Dutch engineers in the 17th Century that established the pattern of 19th Century land use. In comparison to Burgundy, where the classification had filtered down through 2000 years of unbroken cultivation, the Médoc was, and is, a fledgling region. Neither did the Médoc benefit from the attentions of the Cistercians, who through their intertwining of viticulture and religious devotion developed a deep receptivity and openness to the impulses of flavour and texture that flowed from their wines: - the subtle prompts that suggested walls and intricate methods of nurture. Terroir has its origins in the submission of man and nature to one another.

We can speculate that the motivations of the Médocaine may have been more mercantile than those of the Cistercians, but this is a moot point if the divisions between the Médoc’s estates draw upon the same interactions of proximity and tenderness. Terroir is not a rigid set of prescriptions; it is a synergy that develops from the very fluid relations between man, vine and environment. The foundations of terroir lie in human sensibility and partiality, and the boundaries between what is “objective” and what is “subjective” become blurred. Inasmuch as terroir is the consequence of experiment, its methodology follows an unusually tender empirical direction.

The opacity of terroir to definition has led to the term’s extension. Nowadays everybody has terroir, or at least that appears to be the claim. Twenty years ago, Chateau Palmer’s owner, Peter Sichel, advised that only a fraction of Bordeaux’s vineyards showed the benefits of terroir, and urged parsimony in the terms application. At around the same time, many New World growers rejected the concept, though now they embrace it. The epigrammatic “sense of place” means that at the start of the 21st Century terroir reads like a postcode.

Ubiquity may have weakened terroir, but this doesn’t prevent us from invoking its spirit. As discussed, Burgundian’s attribution of terroir was not dramatic; it took two millennia for “le Chambertin” and “Clos de la Roche” to emerge out of the rubble of limestone fragments. Moreover, even within Burgundy arguments as to Meursault-Perrières 1er Cru status, the homogeneity of Clos Vougeot, or the underperformance of La Romanée persist. The essential fluidity of the interactions that underpin terroir means the term can never be definitive.  Terroir is a way of being; it demands proximity, devotion and love, and the Côte d’Or is, arguably, the finest exemplar of these traits in a vitcultural setting.

Through the prism of the Côte d'Or the 1855 classement looks expedient. Wine is inseparable from commerce, but in positing a price-based classification the process of ordering the Médoc’s vineyards according to their intrinsic wine values became skewed. The Eiffel Tower re-configured Paris to outsiders; it became the signifier of Paris; a monument to monuments, if you like. Similarly, the 1855 classement imposed its own organization upon the vineyards of the Médoc that, overtime, proved hyperbolic; that is, it gained an importance and significance over and above the vitcultural reality it sought to represent. The structuring and division of the vineyards of the Côte de Nuits into generic, village, premier and grand crus seems to adhere to the principle of submission to nature in a way that the 1855 classement doesn’t. This is not to say that the classement is the antithesis of terroir - some hedonic link between wine quality and price was already established in 1855 - rather that the qualitative relationships that existed between man, vine and the environment were, from that point on, subjected to other influences that sought to dominate. The New Testament was wrong: once the merchants are in the temple you can never get them out!

The Eiffel Tower encouraged the building of other towers elsewhere, just as the 1855 classement has hatched facsimiles of itself in other wine regions. The urge for ordering and classification can be a useful trait, but I question its worth in regions like Montalcino (Tim Atkin MW) and New Zealand (Matthew Jukes). The lesson of Burgundy is that terroir is the discovery of engaged and devoted generations, not the opinions of individuals who, no matter how well intentioned, are distanced from the experience of production.  The Cistercians' response to nature was nurture. Only by looking attentively did they get to see things so clearly. @winekat's version
(Thanks to Elaine Brown, David Clark, and Monty Waldin for some of the ideas expressed above. I met them after the MW, and would have written a different essay if I'd been asked the same question back in 1999)