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.


  1. Wow, great piece. I'm not sure I fully grasped it, and may need to ponder it more, but I love what you've done here. Deeply fascinating writing. Cheers!

  2. Thanks, James. I guess there are two trends within wine: one convergent (bulk/commodity), and the other divergent. I wanted to excavate the latter - the one that generates and is sensitive to minor mutations in style - and include it within a definition of terroir. I was trying to salvage terroir from abuse, but in writing the piece I became aware of a genuine force of division - infinite perfectibility - which had its origins in medieval theology. I could have included Napoleonic laws of succession and biodynamics as multiplying trends too, but I liked the circle-squaring between Darwin and Genesis.