Monday, 2 April 2018

The Provocations of Terroir

I want to begin with a little background. Thomas Kuhn, an enormous figure in the philosophy of science warns us against the perils of retelling the history of this or that discipline with what he would say are the disadvantages of hindsight; while my wife, a psychotherapist, is forever telling me about how we, as people, are hopeless at situating ourselves in our own stories; so there are two caveats here at the start: two reasons to fail, if you like.

One of my themes this evening is how outcomes we see as necessary, determined, fated, could, to use Steve Woolgar’s phrase “be otherwise”. So I was delighted to see a Facebook post from Monty Waldin, the wine author and biodynamic consultant promoting this tasting, that read:

"Not bad for someone whose flirtations with punk in his youth might otherwise have seen him end up on the sidewalk, a cloth cap for collecting donations from passers-by in one hand, and a piece of string acting as a leash for an adopted stray dog in the other."

Overview: Naturalism v Production

A very simple flow diagram for wine production. We can imagine others for Port, Sherry, Champagne and Burgundy. 

So my opening question is, how does a bunch of grapes suggest this process? Does Palomino - or, for that matter, the Andalusian landscape -  suggest a solera? Is there something specific to Touriga Nacional that suggests foot-treading and arrested fermentation? Is a bunch of Richebourg Pinot harvested in 2015 imploring us to master the solvent effects of alcohol and the intricate and interconnected redox chemistry of barrels and bottles so it can be drunk in 2040? 

Grapes don’t arrive at the hopper with a manual coughed-up by the earth. The same bunch of Gewurztraminer might be destined for Cremant d’Alsace or Vendange Tardive, depending on the picking date, but which elements of environmental influence survive the tumultuous events of fermentation, and are there discrete, shared characteristics across both styles that can be distinguished from the generative effects of production? 

Burgundy is the poster-boy of naturalism. ‘The wine makes itself’, ‘We do nothing’, are stock answers to these types of interrogations and questions. Nothing should get between terroir and its expression. Pinot Noir is chosen precisely because it is entirely biddable to the influence of soil and topography, or so we’re told. 

I once took a friend in the food processing industry on a winery tour. What he saw was production, and he ignored my more fanciful explanation about representing terroir. The philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, wrote that the city necessarily precedes the countryside. We first need the perspective of the city to separate out and differentiate this other entity we belatedly call ‘the countryside’. Might we apply the same logic to terroir? Rather than dictating production, doesn’t the concept of terroir – however murky our definition - need the perspective of production in order to come into being? We can never strip away viticulture and enology in the way we're urged to, because they are always elementary and precursory.

Certain assumptions are deeply embedded in the way we talk about wine, but the sceptic in me has listened and used these words and phrases long enough to start to doubt their veracity. When visiting Burgundian cellars, I’m reminded of a line they use in creative writing classes: “Always show, never tell.”  We mistake an economy of words for an economy of actions. I quickly realized after planting my vineyard that I had become a slave to it. Nature turned hostile towards me and monoculture.  There’s a good reason why vignerons generally look fitter and leaner than their fleshy visitors, I discovered.

In this presentation I will attempt to historicize terroir and the implied passivity that surrounds its summoning. I will argue that terroir is embedded rather than theorized, and that its habituated meanings are hard to cling on to in 20thCentury Burgundy once domaine bottling starts multiplying the number of styles emanating from individual climat. Environmental influence is uncontestable, grapes must be grown somewhere, but an imperative! How can we make sense of such an assertion?


The Romans delivered Christianity and viniculture to Ancient Gaul together, and like a good marriage, their relationship was productive, reproductive and settled.

Since the 18thCentury, Christianity has declined in France, but in wine it has left a legacy beyond transubstantiation, evocative place names and vineyard crosses. One of the ideas I want to examine tonight is secularism. The Enlightenment didn’t clean out old prejudices and establish new ways of thinking in the thorough way it was supposed to, and religious sentiment continued to occupy and shape secular thought. I shall argue that along the Côte d’Or particularly, we encounter secularism in the passive and submissive descriptions that vignerons ascribe to their actions. Process and production, and chemistry and biology failed to depose terroir, but have become absorbed and silenced by it, instead. 

Matt Kramer’s ‘somewhereness’, like ‘sense of place’, is an attempt at universalizing and totalizing terroir, yet, if anything, in its Old World enclaves, the concept has hardened into a form of asceticism. In 21stCentury Vosne, terroir must be obeyed. 

From my perspective, wine escapes the heavily built walls of tradition but only at an inter-generational pace. We have to look toward compound change to see innovation. In Champagne, bottles are intimately bound up with production, and only the obfuscation of the present day makes us trivialize them as ‘packaging’. In Burgundy, Bordeaux and Jerez production hides in plain sight. I'm more inclined to think of wine in terms of a network effect of people and things - bottles, rocks, flor, slopes, botti, Prosecco - and the arrangement and structure of these networks is different for each region; their elements may overlap at some points, but not others. If Maderia, Chile and Champagne look very different it's because they've had distinctive histories  with their own problems, priorities and solutions. Burgundians sorting of the land into climat is as contingent Castilian's planting of Airen.  

The extent to which wine is or should be a reflection of its environment is contentious. We’ve inherited a point of view that is crammed with history, but empty of chemistry. Viticulture begins by pushing back against the very nature it purports to represent, yet what emerges today from this violently denuded world is an imperative: terroir must be obeyed, elevated, and made sovereign. It is no longer enough for wine to express the influence of its environment; in order to be considered worthy, pure, authentic, fine, the environment must be immanent to it, and all signs of human artifice stripped away.

The Côte de Nuits is held up as the exemplar of immanence, the walled vineyards determining subtle differences in wines that carry their names. But the proximity of this association only holds while production remains the responsibility of a few rather than the many. Domaine bottling has increased intra-vineyard divergence, and the slow patriation of style to individual domaine. 

Additionally, this evening, I want to consider the compound effect of generational changes on production, and how following examples enables domaine to reproduce intricate chemical processes without reference to theory or equations. The history of wine production looks much more dynamic and generative once we attune ourselves to viniculture’s extended timelines.  

The gradients of history change. Long-lived societies endure because they are efficient at reproducing themselves, their structures of power and knowledge, their divisions of labour and distribution of wealth.

If you want to understand how powerful the church was in medieval France, strip away 55 million people, level the houses, municipal buildings, and ugly commercial zones, but leave all the Citadels standing. The church dominated France intellectually, financially and aesthetically. God’s omnipotence was invoked at every opportunity. Curiosity was a sin, measurement discouraged, and interest couldn’t be levied on loans, as it was a charge on time, and time was only God’s to give. France, like the rest of Europe, was becalmed for centuries. 

In a world that was so completely given and ordained, opportunities for human expression were limited, or when they did occur, weren’t recognized as such. 

The descent of the sublime – the New Testament revelation that God is immanent to the world rather than above it – made man a spectator of God’s creation. Winemaking wasn’t considered ingenious or inventive, nor were the Cistercians troubled by medieval versions of present day anxieties about the generative capacity of winemaking, the originating destructiveness of viticulture, or why some people decide such a particularly intensive form of monoculture is their window on nature. 

Medieval sentiments persist as secularisms after the Enlightenment. A space was cleared for mankind to be an actor, free from God’s will, but inherited misgivings about human frailties continued to undermine self-assertiveness. In 18thCentury 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 an omnipotent 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 the deeply scored line of history.

Nietzsche wrote of an impotent state in which external forces act upon and through man in order to realize their determination. What is reproduced and perpetuated under such circumstances is the prevailing relations of power, over and over again – a hierarchy of church, kings, fiefdoms and peasants. There was no possibility of things being otherwise. But what was bad for man proved pivotal for the Côte d’Or’s vineyards. 


Nietzsche teaches us to be suspicious of classifications. Those at the top of hierarchies – life, class – will frequently appeal to natural ordering; and will routinely invoke nature as a justification for a status quo that reproduces their status.

On the subject of hierarchies, I want to share the tale of David Clark with you.

David Clark is a Cambridge engineering graduate. Before setting up in Burgundy, he managed the pit strategy for Williams Formula One Team. Spending time with David, you got the feeling he could get himself up to degree level in most subjects if you gave him the right books and a week to skim read them. 

David personified the idea that things could be otherwise, that you could work round problems with inventive solutions, and that Burgundian determinations, the imperatives of their particular history, weren’t necessarily limiting, or the case.  I always felt there was an element of this in Parker: "old vines and no-filtration" always read like a way of alleviating colloquial prejudices in those early books.

David’s cellar was small but well-equipped. His father was also an engineer, and there were lathed and be-spoked tools along with high-end brands like Francois Freres and Vaslin-Bucher.

Burgundy’s regional hierarchy is reinforced, in part, by pragmatism. Generic Bourgogne vineyards produce a less valuable crop, so production is skewed to volume – with the use of higher yielding clones and vigourous rootstocks. Anyone new to Burgundy tends to begin on the bottom rungs of the ladder, hiring generic plots. You’re treated like a probationary intern. 

2004 was a very difficult vintage in Burgundy. The Grand Cru struggled, and growers whose names you’d ordinarily tattoo on your arms, flopped. Many of the wines still taste green to this day. 

This was David’s first vintage. His Bourgogne, when I tasted it, was not only one of the best Bourgogne I’ve tasted, but it defied the hierarchy.

David clearly worked diligently in the vineyards, but he also sprayed with a legally available plant growth regulator, Ethrel. Ethrel is authorized for use in Burgundy. It’s mainly used to terminate flowering in bad weather, and decreases the potential heterogeneity of millerandage. David decided to spray at veraison, when its ethylene release is believed to accelerate both bunch ripening, and the synchronicity of that ripening, which can be problematic with Pinot.

David’s cellar was in Morey St Denis. Word got round that David had made an exceptional Bourgogne. One evening two of the most respected growers in the village invited themselves round to taste the wine. They abruptly flipped their praise of the wine into a threat. ‘This isn’t Bourgogne”, they said. “If you want to get somewhere in this region, then make Bourgogne; and once you’ve made Bourgogne you might be offered some village vines.” David gave up with the Ethrel, and eventually did get offered a small patch of Vosne Romanée vines, but I sensed his spirit was broken by the experience, and he left Burgundy in 2015.

David’s story gives us a sense of how communities and hierarchies are reproduced and stabilized. It’s not as simple as saying two nighttime visitors got heavy with him, there’s all the history, the habituation to vocabularies, ways of doing and thinking, tight communities of sensing, rootstocks, clones, barrels and, of course, regulations. Control and power is dispersed over different agencies and through different actors. Terroir, we might argue, is institutionalized, but not theorized, though we could flip this round in the light of David’s story and say he theorized elements of terroir and ignored local precedent, reproducing certain advantages held to be naturally occurring.

The Chinese have an expression that we go through life facing backwards, and what is in front of us is our past. Two thousand years of continuous production has inevitably cricked Burgundian necks. If David touched a nerve, I suspect it was because it was at the surface, waiting to be nicked. Being the apex beneficiary of a hierarchy isn’t such an easy ride when you’ve got to keep the underlings in their place. 

Around the time David was packing up his Morey St Denis home, I was invited to participate in a blind tasting of 10 Côte de Nuits reds. All I knew in advance was that they were all red burgundies, from the 2010 vintage. At the end of the tasting I was asked to pair off wines – they could, I thought, be from the same village or the same producer – and the only wine pairing I made was between Dujac Morey St Denis and, as it turned out, Gary Farr’s Geelong, Pinot – the ringer on the day. The remainder of the wines were from Morey St Denis. 

There is a back story here, Gary Farr worked 19 vintages at Dujac. Backpedaling – something MWs are very adept at - I trotted out that Gary had studiously absorbed and then adapted the whole-bunch expertise of the Seyesses family to his own Victoria vineyard, and that this had thrown me – but the fact remained that I’d assumed the technique I’d tasted was an environmental affect common to both wines.

I found separating technical merit from environmental expressivity particularly taxing when setting the MW exam. Over three days, students are examined on 36 blind wines, and despite all the assurances, it’s hard to pass if you don’t correctly identify 60% correctly. The underlying assumption is that wines, whether they’re from Victoria, Napa or Burgundy can be identified by discretely determinable, region-specific attributes.

As examiners, we filter the wines that are put forward to the exam, but it’s also incumbent on us to find wines that express the full range of a country’s potential.  When I took the exam, Australian Chardonnay tended to be the colour of golden syrup, and came wrapped in oak; and you assumed that the expensive bottle of Shiraz was just two bottles of the cheaper wine reduced, simmered and re-bottled in heavier glass. But not today. Extrinsic environmental elements clearly extend their influence into the new wave of Australian Chardonnay and Pinot, but they’re getting harder to pinpoint; whilst what we previously took to be environmental traits are reattributed to transferable, nomadic expertise; as was the case with Gary Farr’s Pinot.

Recently, a Master of Wine, returned back from an Australia trip and bemoaned the fact that too many Australian Chardonnays tasted like Burgundy, and can we please get back to the full-bodied, expressive style of the past. The relationship he inferred is like that holding between a genotype and a specific phenotype, the environmental code being transcribed into inimitable sensations, acid, fruit, tannin, which can themselves be seamlessly repatriated back into the world as and when we taste the wine. 

The new wave of reductive Australian Chardonnay may have been too Burgundian for our MW, but the prejudice that wine and environment are in a closed relationship of equivalence, the elements of one passing directly into the elements of the other, is lifted straight from the cellars of Abbaye de Cîteaux and its ancien régime. 

When divergent styles emerge from the same origin – two phenotypes sharing the same genotype, to use our analogy, we feel pressured into a choice. If we want to hold onto the immanence, exchangeability and proximity of the Environment  Sensation relation absolutely, we have to nominate one wine as the phenotype and the other as an imposter, or, in the Australian example, as ersatz Burgundy. 

Clearly, Burgundians were never confronted by this sort of choice. They never thought of themselves as making judgements; they were impelled to act by a divine spirit. 

Faced with making a decision between the two opposing wine styles, our Master of Wine defered to his belief (as we did when setting the exam) that the richer, less-reductive style of Australian Chardonnay is more authentic rendition of its environment - because he believes the actions and decisions of the winemakers are compelled by their surroundings. In other words, today’s winemakers should be coerced by the environment just as the Cistercians, in their time, erroneously believed they were coerced by God. To paraphrase another philosopher, a cog that doesn’t move anything drops out of the mechanism. By turning the environment into an imperative winemaking retreats, a form of medieval passivity is restored, and the integrity of the Environment  Sensation relation is maintained. 

Moreover, this imperative also extends to judgement and criticism.

‘A wine can only be great if it is made to try to express terroir as perfectly as possible’
Aubert de Villaine, Burgundy

Not only is this a challenge to winemakers, but it’s also a challenge to tasters. As William Kelley suggested to me a few weeks ago, Domaine Romanée-Conti is no longer an estate we critically appraise, but rather something tasters calibrate their critical abilities against. Terroir absolutism, if you like. That which must be obeyed. Aubert is imploring us to have faith, but to what extent is our obsequiousness a consequence of price inflation? And aren't  people nowadays just consuming the value of DRC rather than the wines themselves?   

As far as I’m aware the world doesn’t provide us with tablets of stone or a manual to help us decide which wines are better representations of itself, all we ever really have for comparison is other wine and vague consensus, as was the case with the Australian Chardonnay and the suggestion that it should revert to its old,  rich and more familiar form. (At this moment its worth reminding ourselves that 90s Australian Chardonnay – as I remember it – was off-dry, sterile filtered, refrigerated, etc.) 

One way of thinking about Burgundy is as an experimental design. These lyre-trained vines out the back of Auxey Duresses ripened earlier than nearby 1mx1m, but this system is now banned. Viticulture and enology only appear as the enemy if they’re threatening to undermine a hierarchy from which you profit. Irrigation would certainly improve the fortunes of most of Burgundy’s vineyards, just as it would benefit plantings of similarly anisohydric merlot in Bordeaux, but in so doing it would smooth out some of the differences between crus. Currently, irrigation is deemed anti-nature, but Chileans and Argentineans who plant without rootstocks have grounds for complaint. Naturalization of some techniques rather than others is typically self-serving. The people at the top of the medieval church insisted on a natural ordering – God, lazy priests, peasants – and dismissed all challenges to the regime and their status within it as heresy. It's the same story with wine.      

Alternatively, where wines are unfamiliar to us, we allow sentiment to be our guide. Words like terroir, purity and authenticity are extremely seductive. 

I’m always struck at how spirited the word ‘Enlightenment” was in the context of a world that was opposing spirituality with science. Arguably, emotive vocabulary becomes even more irresistible in a world losing depth and meaning, or its stock of familiar certainties. The Songlines in the title of Bruce Chatwin’s book structure the deep relationship Aboriginal Australians have with the land, but this relationship was decimated by colonization. Maybe terroir provides an alternative point of connectedness for the New World, but one that will always seem more virtual, more reliant on bolstering words than the indigenous version it replaces.  

I think Lapierre's 400 'likes' shows how deeply emotion runs through wine preference, and how powerful sentiment can be. But all those well-meaning words count for nothing when you’re blind tasting.

We put Morgon Lapierre 2014 in the 2016 MW exam, as a one half of a pair with Morgon Jadot 2014. There's nothing wrong with Jadot, in fact, someone said it was Chambertin, but of the 129 people who took the exam, not one said the Lapierre was the better wine. Most recognized it as Beaujolais, but the quality level was somewhere between entry-point Nouveau and villages; yet here it is, topping Jamie Goode’s Instagram likes. And not to be superior, in the run up to the exam, I was a liker too!

Stalking the idea that the environment is immanent to the fine wine is Gary Farr’s Pinot Noir, David Bicknell’s Oakridge Chardonnay and David Clark’s Bourgogne. In their own different ways, each of them repatriated an element we'd previously taken as site specific, and proved it nomadic and reproducible. In the Burgundy blind tasting I attended, the theme was Morey St Denis, but among the variations the least divergent pair was Farr-Dujac.

I will revisit the genotype – phenotype distinction later, in the context of domaine bottling in Burgundy, and how this has led to a proliferation in styles, but I want to pick up here on the idea of long timelines and compound change. 

Timelines, change, examples

Gary Farr spent 19 vintages at Dujac. In the context of wine, nomadic and imitable is not as easy as buying a book of long haul return tickets. Twenty years is what passes for a generation in wine production, and this duration seems to have real resonance for vignerons, like the lapsing of true and real time.

When I asked Francois Billecart about training a Chef de Cave, he told me they should spend 20 years building the edifice of previous generations, and only at the end of their tenure can he/she suggest a few changes for posterity. As confirmation, our just retired Chef de Cave, Francois Domi, embraced barrel fermentation after 20 years in charge, and Billecart is now the 4th biggest user of oak barrels in Champagne. Twenty years before this innovation, Billecart pioneered double-debourbage and cool fermentation.

Thomas Kuhn, the philosopher of science I referenced at the beginning of this talk, wrote: “Examples are what we use when we haven’t got a theory". Wine has a long history and a short chemistry; following examples buffers winemaking against the uncertainties of production, but they also become the expressive and divergent pathways that separate one grower from another.  

The Jesuits used to say, 'Give me the child until seven, and I will return you the man" – it’s hard to think of a better analogy for sparkling wine production, as we think of bottles darkly navigating Maillard and autolysis. Sticking to rules and following examples increases the probability of a successful outcome.

Production is foregrounded by events and cycles that span decades: contracts, rootstocks, varieties and laws. The effects of tweaks to 1er Cru Burgundy or vintage Champagne may only become visible 10 or 20 years after the wine is bottled. Change has a long timeline. Each thickened year of wine production adds up to a score of our own. 

Gary Farr experimentation with whole clusters fits into his and Australia’s extended timeline. A fledgling, convergent late 20thCentury industry finding its feet, then diverging after one of our generations has passed. The same will be true in England; as it was true in Burgundy, after domaine-bottling took hold. Different domaine taking different steps, their actions, processes, hunches and understanding bound and networked together into singular examples and divergent trajectories. 

Terroir Wars

This could be the point where we quit. Terroir was being used 250 years ago, but nobody formalized its meaning, or systematized its use. Ben Lewin MW claims its meaning may have been ambiguous in the past. If you believe wine derives its character from the soil, and there are good and bad flavours in wine, so there must be good and bad terroirs. I can only speculate on this because nobody ever did the working out on terroir, and that’s the problem. Think of a medical diagnosis – pathology, symptomology, methodology, testing – you can’t just go to your boss and say I’m suffering from gout give me the week off! 

Researching this talk I looked up some vintage wine books in the MW library. 

I really admire Hansen’s book, published in 1982 – anthropology, ethnology, geology, viticulture, but no mention of terroir.

So I looked through more. George Saintsbury’s Cellar Notes, Cyril Ray, Harry Waugh, and Alexis Lichine – owner at that time of 4thGrowth, Prieuré Lichine. Still no terroir.

 @UK Wine info helped me out.

I’m not sure what Googles methodology is, but for non-francophone writers, terroir is a millennium thing. 

Other people will have their own theories about this, but I suspect that what we’re seeing is a reaction to the war of words between the New World – conspicuously, Australia – and France in the 1990s. With its market share under threat, France claimed terroir was a point of difference setting it apart from, and above, the New world’s offering. Australia retaliated, and claimed terroir was just marketing. The whole debacle brought terroir to the consciousness of consumers and producers, but given the looseness of the definition - its lack of rigour – soon everybody was claiming it.


Apropos the terroir wars, some have appointed themselves as the true keepers of terroir, a kind of priesthood – and something I’ve been guilty of at times - whilst others have sought to bring rigour to the term and treated it like wine’s very own cosmological principle.

One discernable trend I’ve picked up on is that for a few serious journalists, Burgundy seems to signpost the authentic pathway terroir ought to take – notice the imperative form again - and I want to move onto this idea after we’ve looked at a few definitions and assumptions.

There is no consensus.

Most of these statements try and set boundaries, both conceptually and territorially.

Kramer and Jefford are very democratic. Their version of terroir sounds a little bit like what liberals call “the commons”, a shared resource that everyone has access to. It just seems to be a question of planting vines, and then terroir, “with relatively simple winemaking”, will imprint on the wine. Somewhereness yields a very flat ontology. It feels very Greek to me, like a swirling, continuous logos.

Tracking Somewhereness is everywhereness. If it is just a question of planting vines, then terroir just seems to work like a postcode. The idea the vine trailing over my pergola at home exhibits terroir seems to bloat the concept to the point of meaninglessness.

On the back of everywhereness, is everythingness. Monty is a good friend, and this was the straightforward answer he gave when I asked him for a definition. I’m in danger of putting words into Monty’s mouth, but I do get a broader sense when I talk to him that what he’s really getting at is a flourishing ecosystem – think of yeast, lactobacillus, mycorrhizae - for which microorganisms are indicative. Monty is a biodynamic writer and consultant (I’ve never opened a fridge more denuded of brands), and if you read the books then all manner of astronomical and totemic forces get summoned to the cause. 

So with everywhereness and everythingness there’s no hierarchy and a sort of dispersal of influence among multiple physical and biological actors and agents. Now, I don’t find this idea unattractive; we live in the “varnish layer” of the Earth’s surface, to quote Bruno Latour, and realizing the extent to which everything is interconnected is, perhaps, our only salvation; but it doesn’t tell us much about terroir - maybe because it tells us too much.    

Michael Broadbent’s idea resonates with Shand’s. Broadbent believes the term is misappropriated and should only refer to the natural environment. Personally, I have a problem with this: it naturalizes winemaking so that it can instate the minimalist relation, Environment  Sensation. But if you really want to go back in time to some sort of first principle, then go back far enough, and there’s no distinction between culture and nature. We need to be careful of origin stories that rely upon a beginning that never was.

The INAO includes man, so recognition that winemaking isn’t just some spontaneous event – a throwback perhaps to pre-Pasteur thinking when yeast and lactobacillus were just thought of as coincidental to fermentation. It also draws upon history, and that's fine, as long as we see history as being unfinished business, and we recognize that the past gives us shaky beliefs as well as immovable walls.  

Sichel’s idea is interesting in its positing of boundaries. Peter Sichel claimed, that only 7% of Bordeaux exhibited terroir, so there’s a certain threshold to quality that needs to be achieved; though Peter then went onto say that terroir has nothing to do with quality. 

Then, two rejections. The Australian Wine Bureau we’ve already mentioned, but Bill Nansen seems to be claiming that terroir is made-up in its modern, dispersed, everywhereness sense. As an author who makes his corn writing about Burgundy, I suspect he thinks there’s a precedent set by Burgundy that needs following. Certainly writers like Jon Bonné seem to align themselves with this point of view, which we might summarize as follows: - Burgundy had longer to sort and frame a range of environmental factors through the prism of elementary winemaking, and other regions need to take note so as not to misappropriate terroir. 

This is the viewpoint I want to challenge: not only are we being told what the model of terroir should be, we’re also being told what wine ought to be. The past has done its job with Burgundy, now we just need to correct the errant ways of fallen appellations.  

Finally, I like this from a New Zealander making one of France’s most iconic wines. He refers to man, soil, environment, but are their contributions as equivalent as he suggests: a third man, a third nature, a third soil? Maybe climate is more important in Chile, and soil more important in Burgundy. In other words, we use different models in different places. Again, I find this a perfectly reasonable idea. I think we underestimate the isolation of wine regions historically, even within the same country. Champagne, Jerez, and Bordeaux just went about things in different ways, they formed distinct networks of production; there’s no sense in which they expediently departed the true path to authenticity and purity taken by the Côte de Nuits' vignerons.

Terroir and the Côte de Nuits (See previous blog entries parts 1 and 2)

‘Terroir and the Côte de Nuits’ was self-serving research. At home, I’d found this shallow lump of Bajocian limestone, and wanted to know what this meant for production. Nothing I read could explain the advantages, so I pieced together various bits of research and came up with a theory as to why certain vineyards routinely performed better than others on the Côte’s brashy soils. 

What I liked about this account, was that it seemed to explain why certain soils are always better, whatever the weather. In hot, dry years, vines planted on the best soils maintain access to water; whilst in wet years, hydric stress comes more quickly. It also seemed to capture the heterogeneity of the Côte de Nuits, without delving into topography and slope angles, which count for little on east-facing slopes. I wished I’d investigated microbiology a little more, but again, just as the Côte d’Or is a homoclime, so its ecosystem is likely to show only minor variation. 

My conclusion was that Grand Cru designation was linked to maturity and concentration. 

Framing and Walls

Burgundy’s inordinately long two thousand-year timeline helped capture some of these differences empirically and structurally. Walls surrounded Chambertin as early as the 7thCentury, and the sustained patronage of dukes, princes and the church provided the region with the stability and resources to flourish. What was bad for peasants was good for wine. There was no opportunity cost attached to centuries spent comparing climats.

Shared and rudimentary vinicultural methods and techniques brought consistency and aesthetic visibility to, what was, God’s creation. For two millennia the effects of geology trickled down through Burgundy’s human strata, recurring tropes and intensities augmenting the vineyards in which they worked.

There isn't a strong geological necessity for the existing pattern of vineyard framing; the senses only get you so far, particularly when they’re up against the vanity of property ownership. The geology and hydrology of Clos Vougeot is notoriously divergent, but even Romanée-Conti is transversed by a fault between the Bajocian and Bathonian beds. The terrain is so fractured, and the accumulation of colluvial and bio-detritic material so erratic, that framing inevitably captures some combinations of geological differences, but not others: the territory could be sub-divided in alternative ways to yield different but equally interesting variations on a Burgundian theme. Difference precedes identity, if you like.

The local pattern of rural settlement - Nuits, Vosne, Morey - shows looser geological underpinnings than the climats. Geological survey maps reveal that variation is much greater down the dip slope of the Côte than it is along its length, yet we can’t resist falling into the nominalist trap of taking the village name as representing something more than the settlement to which it refers. Some differences count more than others. 

The gradients of history ran shallowly across the middle ages. Collective winemaking, extended timelines, and restricted ownership – church, dukes, regents – together with framing and wall building, led to a system of theme and variations based upon the climats. Small batch winemaking wasn’t on offer; winemaking was scaled on how big a chestnut tree you could find and fell.

The Monks’ devoutness minimized human endeavor and maximized God’s omnipotence. Human activity merely confirmed the expressivity of God’s creation. The problem of discretely determinable phenomena originating out of nature unaided is not raised in 15thCentury Burgundy. In fact, as I’ve already mentioned in the context of historicity, even in the twentieth century growers still seem accustomed to a world view that largely excludes their own efforts, talents and inventiveness; or at least that’s how they choose to appear to their visitors.

The French Revolution broke-up the ownership of Burgundy’s vineyards by  church and state, and redistributed their tenure amongst local growers and families. Napoleonic laws of succession that required vineyard holdings to be split evenly between children, proved too effective. Incessant probate meant vineyard holdings often became too small to be commercial, and the divergent trend in ownership only served to reinforce the convergent trend in winemaking, as negociants stepped in to amalgamate small lots of Meursault and Chambertin into commercially viable and exportable quantities. Whatever differences existed between individual grower’s output were largely dissipated in blends.

Only with the advent of domaine bottling in the latter half of the 20thCentury do things change. The rewards for selling in small volumes began to exceed those derived from selling to negociants. (The people who built Burgundy’s walls never considered the economic consequences of a world of 8 billion people.) Not only did direct commercialization become more profitable, but multiple vineyard ownership introduced after the French revolution finally started to be replicated in a divergent winemaking trend. Of course, appellation laws remained in place, individual climats were bottled separately and everyone still spoke in the same cowed tones, but the gradient had steepened. Growers could follow their hunches, institute their own practices and refine examples for posterity. It wasn’t that they’d abandoned the environmentally and territorially oriented schema of climats bequeathed them by history, rather they had de-territorialized and claimed an element of production that patronage and negociants had previously denied them – the difference between tasting Coche and Lafon, or Dujac and Ponsot, if you like.  The theme and variations enshrined by the climats is overlaid by another schema: - the particular theme and variations of individual domaine’s production. 

To adapt an insight of the philosopher Gilles Deleuze, we are confronted with a sedentary distribution of qualities coming from the vineyards, and a nomadic distribution of qualities issuing from the domaine, quite literally in the sense of Gary Farr’s adaption of whole bunch fermentation in Geelong. The ground beneath growers stayed firm, but they themselves had shifted; though you’d never realize this by listening to them. Coche and Lafon both see themselves as revealing the phenotype of Meursault Genevrières, though the two wines are very different, the expression of house style trumping vineyard designation as a source of similarities and differences. To stretch the genetic analogy, what we have now, with the generation of new possibilities and mutations, looks far more like a form of sexual reproduction that cloning.  

Coche’s style is very reductive, mineral, to step on another vinous landmine. I remember a story about Jean Francois Coche taking delivery of a very expensive press, but abandoning it for his old Vaslin because the lees it produced were too light. The chemistry of reduction is amplified by heavier solids, the flavor vector, thiol-acid, gets a boost, and the impression of salinity intensifies. When I visited Coche a decade or more ago, actions and protocols were put in place to generate and exaggerate this particular character, starting in the vineyard, where spur pruning trends towards thicker skins, lower yields and elevated solids, compared to guyot. Once in the cellar, heavy, healthy lees developed and sustained the wine in a reductive state; and finally, diligent and timely handling at bottling meant the chain of reactions initiated during elevage continued beneath the cork. Jean Francois was doing intricate chemistry, but by following examples rather than writing equations. 

As well as sedentary and nomadic distributions, Deleuze also offers us the useful concept of molecular arrangements, which can be set against our earlier relation of proximity and equivalence - Environment  Sensation.  Molecular interactions are much more dynamic, and involve changes of state, and the appearance of new compounds with new properties. Reversing these sorts of combinations is not straightforward. Moreover, as with chemistry, the properties of the resulting compounds may be entirely unrecognizable from the elements out of which they’re composed. The danger of being overly reductionistic or clinging on too tightly to naturalistic accounts of wine, is that we miss out on the extraordinary inventiveness within production that makes DRC, Curly Flat and Monte Bello what they are today.

Coche, Lafon, Boillot, Jobard and the other owners of Meursault Genevrières may still use a language of proximity and static equivalences, but if we watch what they do, and follow how their bottles evolve - instead of just listening - then their activities and wines are much more molecular and dynamic than their words indicate. The reason why we believed that there was anything like a unitary genotype-phenotype relationship holding between wines and climats was because the expressivity of individual growers was oppressed by scale. Through much of Burgundy’s history, ownership was in the hands of the few, whilst after the Revolution wines could only be commercialized if the fragmented parts were blended into bigger wholes. The climats became the only source of differences by default.

If today we are living through a golden age for Burgundy, it’s because of the generous multiplication of possibilities that domaine-bottling has provided. Necessarily, berries and yeast will be decisive vectors of outside influence, but there is nothing like an imperative or manual arriving at the pressoir with them. The Beaune Périphérique is full of busy wine supply stores where you can buy an array of cultured yeasts, yet William Kelley told me of the 260 visits he made last year, only one admitted to inoculating their ferment. 

As said, at creative writing school they push the maxim, ‘always show, never tell’; it’s an adage that also holds for the cellars of Vosne, and we become part of this story when we equate their economy of words to an economy of actions. Enological time may appear to stand as still as the cellar air, but this is an illusion that comes from the assuredness of following examples. 

Just as individual domaine confront and handle nature’s ordeal and bounty differently, so other regions also react differently to the world put in front of them. The stories of Avize, Clos St Hune, Jerez and Monte Bello are not the same. As I’ve mapped it, the path Burgundy went down is just a consequence of its history, and there’s a big distinction to be made between having a history and being compelled by some earthy imperative. Champagne and Bordeaux aren’t errant regions: they just have distinctive pasts. They are ‘otherwise’, just as Lafon and Coche can be considered ‘otherwise’ to the negociant wines that came before them.

The fact that terroir was never formalized perhaps means its sense will always be more evocative than analytical. Identifying a phenomenon that is 'Chambertin' has arguably become harder in recent years as domaine have become more autonomous. Notwithstanding this, those making and those of us tasting Chambertin will continue our vane pursuit of its essence. Phenomena may elude us, but essence will continue to exert a siren force over us. 


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  2. Hi John
    What I actually mean by a 'modern construct' is that historically (a generation or two ago and older) a wine of 'terroir' was a base wine, a rustic wine - let's say 'earthy.' Almost mirroring your graphical representation of the use of the word in books is the change to a clearly aspirational use of the word - today terroir is overwhelmingly used in a positive sense. My point was that it wasn't always so...

  3. Thanks, Bill. I'm attached to the idea there can be good and bad soils, just as life is full of good and bad experiences, successes and flops. I'm suspicious of attempts to cleanse the term of its pejorative sense, but perhaps my only reason for thinking this is that it reflects the consensus around terroir when I first became aware of it, back in the early 90s.

    Thanks for reading the piece and your clarification. I've always enjoyed the colour 'Burgundy Report' brings to the region; and 'buy again: yes/no' is about as unambiguous and useful as criticism gets.