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Drinking Out Loud

All Right, What Would You Have Said?

A semester-long college class called “Terroir.” I was invited to speak
Photo by: Jon Moe
Matt Kramer takes terroir to school.

Matt Kramer
Posted: October 17, 2017

Professor Kevin Pogue is a geologist at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. Whitman is a small, private liberal-arts college that is well-regarded for its academic rigor. Walla Walla, as Wine Spectator readers are well aware, is equally well-regarded for its Cabernets and Syrahs.

Professionally involved as a consulting geologist in Washington’s wine industry, as well as personally motivated by a love of wine, Professor Pogue is a bit unusual among his academic geologist colleagues in his full-throated belief in, and support of, the concept of terroir.

Many geologists, especially, recoil at the conventional submission that the geological composition of a vineyard—chalk, clay, gravel—somehow translates into wine itself as distinctive, identifiable flavors.

They submit that since no uptake mechanism is known by which the flavor of, say, chalk—if indeed it actually has a flavor—is transmitted to the vine and consequently into grapes, the conventional, longstanding belief that the composition of soil actually flavors a wine is impossible, even absurd. Consequently, the very word “minerality” is nonsensical to them.

So when Professor Pogue, who teaches a semester-long class called “Terroir” and is long on record as believing that, yes, soil composition can inform the flavor of a wine, invited me to address his class, I was inclined to accept.

So what did I say? Chances are, if you’ve read my work for any length of time, you surely know that I strongly subscribe to the idea of terroir. So I won’t go into the sort of detail to which the students in the “Terroir” class were subjected. (I didn’t see any of the 20 or so students nodding off, but then I didn’t look too closely, either.)

Briefly, what I said was this:

• Those who are skeptical of the concept of terroir point accusingly at the ambiguity of it. The word gets bandied about these days often with little or no real meaning. But the one thing worth recognizing about the idea of terroir is that it’s a metaphor. It’s a lens through which we can see, and perhaps understand, the natural world.

• As a metaphor, terroir is nothing more—and nothing less—than a way of being alert. It’s a way of both acknowledging and accepting that the Earth—not just the soil—can speak.

• Why then has the word and concept of terroir gone for so long without much of a working definition? Imagine if your family has a 1-acre plot of tomatoes. Over time, you find that not only do certain varieties of tomatoes grow better in your particular climate and soil, but that different qualities emerge—greater or lesser ripeness, more or less flavor distinction, higher or lower yield—depending upon the part of that 1-acre plot in which the tomatoes are planted.

• Now take that knowledge and multiply it over, say, the span of five or 10 generations of tomato farmers in your family. Your intimacy with the land, magnified by the collected wisdom of generations of your predecessors, is so profound as to transcend articulation. The multigenerational results are so obvious, to you, that the tomato itself says it all.

Now substitute the word “Burgundy” or “Mosel”—or the name of any other long-term, highly evolved winegrowing area—and you can easily understand why, to them, terroir is obvious, self-evident, an expression of site that says everything necessary simply through what’s being grown there.

• We Americans have a peculiarly difficult time grappling with, and accepting, the undeniably ambiguous notion of terroir. Why? Partly because so few of us have occupied any one piece of land for any long period of time. Famously, we keep moving on.

More fundamentally yet, unlike, say, the Japanese or the English, we Americans have no exaltation of the small, the prescribed and the confined. Precisely because we’re a nation that thinks big in every sense, we're dubious about the legitimacy of the miniature. Can there really be a discernible difference between one postage stamp–size plot growing, for example, Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, and another? Could there really be a consistent, recognizable difference in wines grown a handful of yards apart across both a span of vintages and an array of growers? Is such a thing possible?

• We must resist the modern-day pressure to reject the legitimacy of anything that cannot be measured and scientifically proved. The scientific method is a powerful and irreplaceable lens through which we can see and understand the world. It should never be ignored or dismissed.

By the same measure, the scientific method and the metrics that necessarily underlie it should also not be seen as the final or only word on a subject. What science doesn’t yet know or hasn’t yet proved far exceeds—as any good scientist will tell you—what is known and has been proved. As no less a scientist as Richard Feynman, the Nobel prize-winning physicist, once said, ”What is not surrounded by uncertainty cannot be the truth.”

• Lastly, I strongly suspect that everything I have ever written about terroir, which has been couched in the conventional, traditional language about grapes and rocks and wine, will be swept away in the next few decades by the burgeoning investigations into what’s called the microbiome or microbiota—the microscopic bacterial and fungal life in the soil.

I strongly suspect that the real terroir will be this microbiome, which we already know differs dramatically from place to place even in a quite small parcel of land due to soil composition (chalk, gravel, clay), moisture and temperature, among other factors.

I’m increasingly persuaded that it is the particularity of the many micobiomes in a vineyard that is the true terroir. And that scientists will finally discover the mechanism by which, as the French writer Colette so poetically put it, “the unemotional chalk weeps in wine, golden tears.”

And that was it. Would you have told them differently? Would you have said that terroir is just so much romantic claptrap promulgated by wine writers and romanticists such as, well, me? Or would you have said that terroir, as you understand it, is something more or different than a metaphor, a lens?

Anyway, the above sums up what I told this college class on terroir. Perhaps what you say here could get you invited to Professor Pogue’s class next year.

Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  October 17, 2017 12:17pm ET
As one who supports the idea of terroir but remains skeptical about the transmission of specific flavors from the soil to the wine, I can agree wholeheartedly with this nuanced summary of what terroir is and might be. Of special interest: the part about the microbes, which clearly differ from one place to another, even within the same vineyard.

The issue of chalk in the soil resulting in chalky notes in the wine? That's not addressed. Could it be that the same microbes may be responsible for characteristic aromas in both the vineyard and the wine? Maybe, but I'll believe that when they find the same set of microbes all over Chablis.
Chas Paddock
West Boylston, MA. USA —  October 17, 2017 4:58pm ET
The term 'terroir' itself has been misused long enough to Confuse anyone and everyone. However, Matt, your tomato analogy is spot on. Consider San Marzano D.O.P. tomatoes from Italy. The depth of flavor and inherent sweetness are like no other. Many brands have labels that say 'San Marzano' style and they are grown in many different places in the world but none compare to D.O.P. San Marzanos.

As in the tomato analogy, I believe that terroir is the sum of the knowledge that the grower and the winemaker understand intimately.

For me, it's very difficult to taste the influential subtleties of terroir when my wine preferences are at a macro level. I like Tuscan wines but not Barolo. I like Bolgheri blends but not Bordeaux blends. I prefer Cotes-du-Rhone style reds, California Zin's and Syrah, and Italian Primitivo/Negaromaro table wine.

Heidi Benaman
West Linn, Oregon —  October 18, 2017 3:08am ET
Confirming Mr. Kramer's lesson on "terroir" to Professor Pogue’s students - "terroir" and its importance extends to a vast of array products and how it creates uniquely distinctive and wonderful flavors in so many things that come from the earth. Perhaps the students should have a context as to how many fairly commonly known examples of terroir's influence resulting in distinctive "branding". Just a few examples: Walla Walla sweet onions (all about the terroir they come from), Kona coffee beans, and even Cuban cigars (before most of the old plants were ripped from their terroir to make room for sugar cane!). Glad to assist the students filing out a list during my visit to Walla Walla wineries this mid-November!
Alan Gavalya
Hampton VA USA —  October 19, 2017 11:19am ET
I would only add that "terrior" might include all aspects of location such as the microbiome as you stated as well as altitude, rainfall, temperature, etc. The combination certainly contributes. Additional, the microbiome can actually modify the vine's genetics to make it more location specific.
Good read Matt.
Tom Miller
Birmingham, AL —  October 20, 2017 3:20pm ET
Apparently "terroir" can also have a huge impact on price (whodathunk) as shown in the Hot Wines section of the October 18 WS Insider. Five Domaine Leflaive wines are shown from 5 separate vineyards, all located on a total of 89 acres within spitting distance of each other (with a good wind). Average price = $580 per bottle. Total cases imported for all five wines = 432. Total bottles I'll probably see = 0. But that terroir really rocks.

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