Terroirism

In the annals of complete rubbish, I would like to add my observations of the French obsession with “terroir”. My own view is of no importance and I declare that terroir is nonsense: French mystification about wine.

First,  my views are mere matters of taste, and you are completely free to believe passionately that wine is inescapably a matter of its “terroir”, the land from which it sprung, and that terroir matters extremely to the quality of wine.  Better men and thinkers than me, such as the late Roger Scruton, passionately believed in the importance of terroir. Nevertheless I maintain that “terroir” is nonsense on stilts.

The issue arises because of the success of standardized points systems for evaluating wines. The fellow who started the most successful of them, the late Ralph Parker, established a 100 point scale, which you can frequently spot attached to the label of a wine. The Parker scale offended a lot of wineophiles – as  I call them – because it rated more highly jammy flavour-forward wines like cabernets than twee or less forceful varietals like gamay, pinot noir and grenache-syrah-mourvedre blends. The latter are often referred to as GSM, which can be mistaken for a cellular telphone protocol, and the two taste about the same.

I had a cousin who made well-received and highly sucessful films. I asked him once what made for a good film, one that he would invest in. Without hesitation he said: “script script script script and director”. Likewise I shall say that what makes for a good wine is “grape grape grape grape grape and everything else, including soil.” A wine maker’s largest expenditure is for the grapes, not the storage, bottling, sales, transport or any other factor. This is reassuring to know. It means that, in the production of wine, the quality of the grape is of paramount importance, and lies not in post-grape-pressing fiddles with the chemistry of the fermentation.

Giles Fraser provoked this entry by an interesting article on Roger Scruton’s attitude towards wine and terroir, which is worth reading for the terroirist point of view. He cites the following:

“Writing in Decanter magazine, the geologist Professor Alex Maltman challenges the very idea that geology has any particular contribution to a wine’s taste. “Vines and wine,” he writes, “are not made from matter drawn from the ground, but almost wholly of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen, abstracted from water and the air.”

Exactly. It is the grape and the vine which is the engine of production. I would never deny the influence of soil and climate, to the extent they have some. But it is mystification to believe that generations of monks clipping the vines, or other extraneous factors of society and history, influence the flavour. But if  you are entitled to believe in the Holy Ghost, you may also believe what you want about terroir. Just don’t try to snob me for my unbelief.

Taste, and taste alone, ought to be the criterion of quality. Contrary to this view, and  consistently with the terroirism, blind tastings are thought to be suspect, because they eliminate all the associations of politics, culture, sentiment and history. Fair enough, if you are a terroiriste: a Lebanese wine will forever carry with it associations, pleasant or not, of the Christian near-east, and Bordeaux something else entirely.

Yet even the most dedicated terroiriste would likely acknowledge that the doctrine lends itself to snobbery, mystification and lack of broad consumer acceptance.  Winesnobs are not concerned, of course. The French like to think they have a special relationship to wine that other wine producing Latin cultures do not. Their classification systems are pre-Revolutionary: local,  particularistic, and controlled by clans. No national equivalent of the metric system has ever been imposed on or accepted by the French wine grower. Thus you still get all kinds of information about terroir or region on a bottle of French wine and almost nothing about the grape varietal. Other countries, such as Australia, were forced to develop a national approach to wine marketing that emphasized the key pieces of knowledge required to assess wine: grape varietal, and year of production.

Most French wine derives from the pinot noir grape. When I tasted my first bottle of Australian pinot noir, I had a revelation. It tasted exactly like French wine made from pinot noir.

This revelation happened in about the year 2000 in a restaurant in Sydney, New South Wales. I can still remeber the moment. I was like Galileo having seen the moons of Jupiter with my primitive telescope. If pinot noir from Australia tasted like pinot noir from France, then the concept of terroir was bullshit, just as Galileo knew that Aristotle had to be bullshit (on this subject at least) if the planet Jupiter had moons. Simple as that.

Eighty percent of humans do not have a sufficiently accurate sense of taste to engage in the flavour discriminations necessary for accurate wine tasting. This is not the same as insights into how taste rankings can be manipulated by associations of one kind or another. This finding is more like eyesight: most people do not have the capacity to taste with the discriminations that only twnety percent of us can. My wife is among the 20%, I am among the 80%. Yet I am the joyful wine drinker, not she.

My classificiations have nothing to do with terroir. I go by nation of origin, grape and price. It provides a reliable matrix by which to judge from the label. Australian/cabernet-sauvignon/$15.50 tells me infinitely more that Pouligny-Montrachet/no information on varietal/$23.50. And if the label vapours on about the wine makers’ respect for the terroir, I put it back on the shelf with the thought that they are bullshitting me, especially if the wine is American.

If all these reflections are too serious, enjoy Peter Lorre and Vincent Price in a wine tasting contest. Remember, this wine goes well with this wine. Keep drinking. The screw top has had more to do with the success of wine than terroir. Discuss.