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THURSDAY THORNS
05/17/2012
Thursday Thorns
“Terroir Is Utter Bullshit”

By Charles Olken

Note the quotation marks please. While I like the argument, it contains, in itself, as much B. S. as it is claiming to debunk.

The other day, in the Telegraph, an English paper of note, a wine columnist penned the following, complete with the quote above.

‘Terroir’ means nothing

“Wine’s current war of liberation (as the romantic school of oenology likes to see it) is being fought against an establishment steeped in ancient, but frequently suspect, nostrums.

“A favourite one is the French concept of “terroir” which roughly translates as “sense of place”. The basic shtick is that grapes growing on a picturesque slope beside, say, the River Saône, will taste detectably different from those growing a quarter of a mile away, let alone in Chile or Bulgaria.

“Viticulturalists increasingly regard this not only as bunkum, but as a cover-up for bad wine making. What really matters is the quality of the grapes and the skill of the winemaker. The terroir myth has, nevertheless, worked astonishingly well to maintain the perceived specialness of traditional wine areas. Now its credibility is collapsing: “Terroir,” says the wine writer Malcolm Gluck, “is utter b-------.”

OK, I will admit that I got a little kick out of those intemperate remarks. Took me straight back to my college days, about 2:30 in the morning, after too many hours of studying and several more hours of drinking and talking ourselves blue in the face until we solved the problems of the world. Until the next morning when we realized how silly we sounded with too little sleep and too much beer and wine.

Here is the crux of the problem. On the one hand, the terroirists insist that the “sense of place” notion is the single most important measure that a taster can bring to a wine. Never mind that little things like picking dates, fermentation temperatures, aging regimen, yeast choice and many other variables can all conspire to make grapes from the same vineyard be unidentifiable as siblings after the winemakers have worked their magic.

Still, there is a sense of place to many wines, and it is identifiable to some degree by those familiar with what those places can contribute when they do make those contributions. Russian River Pinot Noir, for example, can deliver the most delightful, clear and pure fruit redolent of cherries with hints of dried flowers. We can often pick out those wines in our blind tastings. The same can be said for West Rutherford Bench Cabernet Sauvignon, for Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel and for western Sonoma Chardonnay—just to name several obvious examples.

On the other side of the coin, it is also true, as the second paragraph of the quote seems to opine without quite saying so, that the grape itself lends a fair bit of identifiable character to well-made wine whether we are talking about Cabs from Rutherford or Bordeaux’s Left Bank, whether we are talking about Chardonnay from Sebastopol or Burgundy, and so on and so on. You get the picture. A well-made Sauvignon Blanc may range from grassy to melony but whether from Western Australia or Washington, Santa Barbara or Sancerre, well-made examples speak to variety.

Terroir absolutists disagree, of course, as to do the “strict varietal character” posse members. And what is perhaps the ultimate irony is that they are both right and not right at all. Terroir does exist. It is not bunkum. Terroir adherence is a fine measure of a wine, but it is not the only measure. Varietal character is varietal character in virtually all wines, yet terroir adds its own notes to the wine’s song. And, if one will admit the truth, attractive wines need not have either terroir adherence or varietal persuasiveness to be good.

Tasting good is yet another measure entirely. A blended Pinot Noir from several appellations with a bit of Petite Sirah for structure may not be identifiable either as to grape or to place. But, if it tastes good, where’s the harm?


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