I tend to think that the simplification of the term terroir results from the word itself, which suggests territory, landscape or geography. Of course soil and weather are fundamental variables in determining winemaking outcomes but all but the most vehement traditionalists now accept the importance of ‘the human dimension’. However, these human variables are still seen as secondary with certain ‘territories’ celebrated, and privileged, despite evidence that they produce mediocre wines if the land is not paired with a winemaker who can problem-solve. Would a novice make great wine just because the grapes are from Le Montrachet? I doubt it. Is an experienced winemaker hamstrung by the environment? Of course their efforts can be thwarted by heat or hail but good winemakers in new terroirs are exploding an orthodoxy that is essentially a triumph of branding. As Prof. Warren Moran points out; “To attribute priority to the physical environment over the cultural is … a mistake. The expression of a place and its people in a particular wine is better captured in the term typicité – the distinctiveness of a wine from a particular place/appellation. “ Call it typicité or terroir, what is the human contribution and how can we best understand it?
Practices in the vineyard and the winery are often well-described in their contribution to the resulting wine. An obvious example is the use of oak, which itself can be broken down into the type of oak, the size of the barrel (surface area to volume ratio) and length of time the wine spends in it etc. etc. We can control this type of physical variable and generate data that is informative. Tom Harvey at Mclaren Vale commissioned 6 winemakers (3 of each gender) to make a wine from the same batch of grapes . This ‘winemaker’s series’ from ’Alpha Crucis’ allowed each to chose when and how to harvest, and then ‘treat’ the Shiraz. Andrew Jefford felt gender was not the significant variable and that choices around oak and yeast selection were most telling. But, he concludes “In the end I realised that winemaking resists dissection, just as I suspect woodcarving or stonemasonry does. If you tried to work out the significance of every tiny gesture, you’d go mad. It is the web of interactions which counts…” Of course wines are incredibly complex, and display emergent properties when we interact with them, but we should not abandon the struggle to isolate key variables. Given the money involved in wine, the exploration of such factors will continue despite the cost and complexity. The technology to carry out this exploration, such as mass spectrometry and frmi, will also facilitate this by becoming cheaper and more sophisticated.
More interesting (at least for for me as a psychologist) is what historically informed such decision-making and the current cultural influences influencing outcomes. Trial and error, superstition and intuition all contributed to the evolution of the wine trade. In her book The Meme Machine Psychologist Susan Blackmore builds on an idea from ‘selfish gene’ theorist Richard Dawkins by proposing a cultural replicator, or meme, functioning like a gene. Examples might be a playground game that survives across generations or an aphorism with proven utility such as a ‘A watched pot never boils’ (the mechanisms of which we now understand through a scientific perspective). Such memes are often community and culturally specific because they relate to the environment and the lived experience of groups. For example, the decision to pick grapes might have been informed by memes before the advent of meteorological data or tests of phenolic ripeness. Memes could explain much that is labelled terroir, not least its evolution as the apotheosis of branding (is the idea of Le Montrachet itself a meme as much as a geographical location?). Different approaches might be needed to unpick how these ideas shape wines but we have exciting qualitative methodologies that may help us in this. Such approaches may prove more fruitful than traditional paradigms which, for example, have failed to demonstrate what ‘minerality’ is and where it comes from…
Blackmore, S. (2000) The Meme Machine Oxford Paperbacks
I have added some new references to my Wine Books and Research page. There are a couple of interesting ones I hope to review soon.
Charters, S. (2006) Wine and Society: The Cultural and Social Context of a Drink Butterworth-Heinemann
Cross, R. Platinga, J. and Stavins, R. N. (2011) The Value of Terroir: Hedonic Estimation of Vineyard Sale Prices Journal of Wine Economics No.1 2011 p 1-14
Gokcekus, O. and Nottebaum, D. (2011) The Buyer’s Dilemma: Whose Rating Should a Wine Drinker Pay attention to? AAWE Working Paper No.91 Sept 2011
Goldstein, R., Almenberg, J., Dreber, A., Emerson, J. W., Herschkowitsch, A. and Katz, J. (2008) Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better? Evidence from a Large sample of Blind Tastings AAWE Working Paper No.16 April 2008
Outreville, J.F (2011) Does the Bottle Size Matter? An Investigation into Difference between Posted and Market Price AAWE Working Paper No. 86 July 2011
Sandler, M. and Pinder, R. (2003) Wine: A scientific Exploration Routledge
In May 2010, Prescott & Conran launched Château Boundary, “a free wine club, for beginners, enthusiasts, connoisseurs and those who simply enjoy vinous treats“. Being an interested local I joined and asked for a ‘look around’. The generous response was an invitation to a tasting of the wines of Mas de Daumas matched with a menu of classics from the Languedoc at the Boundary Restaurant (website here). The Boundary complex itself was opened on New Years Eve 2008 and now includes a food store, bars, eateries, roof garden and rooms. It is situated in an attractive large Victorian warehouse and has been a major addition to this thriving bit of East London.
Mas de Daumas resonated with me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the Mondavi versus Aime’ Guibert stand-off portrayed in the film Mondovino (a perfect David v Goliath and Old World v New World clash of ideologies). Secondly because I used to visit this area of France 2 or 3 times a year and some of my favourite wines are produced there. It is an area full of passionate, and sometimes radicalised, winemakers. I love it.
One of Charlemagne’s advisers founded the first vineyard in the Gassac valley over a thousand years ago. In more recent times the wider area became associated with poor viticultural practices and inauspicious wines. However, in 1970 whilst searching for a family home, Véronique and Aimé Guibert found an old farmhouse, owned by the Daumas family, in the heart of the beautiful Gassac valley. Not winemakers themselves they were fortunately friends with Professor Henri Enjalbert, a geologist and author specialising in the relationship between land and grapes. He visited and, according to the Domaine website (here) “raved about the ice age scree covered land likening it to the best soil in Burgundy’s Côtes d’Or“. He is reported to have exclaimed ‘It’s quite possible to make a Grand Cru here but it would probably take 200 years for it to be recognized and accepted as such!’. Enjalbert suggested that underground cold water springs and the influence of the surrounding mountain created a micro-climate reminiscent of the Medoc. The first vintage arrived in 1978 and by 1982 the wine had plaudits, such as Gault et Millau which described Mas de Daumas Gassac as ‘a Languedoc Château Lafite’. Emile Peynaud also showed an interest and when journalists asked him why he bothered with an unknown Languedoc domaine when he was used to dealing with the world’s great vineyards, he replied : ‘I’ve advised the greatest producers in France, but never before been lucky enough to be present at the birth of a grand cru’. So I expected quite a lot from the tasting (despite some years ago not being particularly impressed by a bottle of red from the Domaine).
I was lucky in sitting next to Samuel Guilbert, oldest son of Aimé and a polished Ambassador for the Domaine. I thought the whites showed better than the reds (which were relatively young). I particularly liked the 2008 Mas de Daumas Blanc which sang with a wonderfully intense Bisque. The 20% Viognier gives it perfume and aromatic notes without it becoming cloying. Lutetian limestone is cited as adding minerality and the other main varieties used in the Cuvee are Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay and Petit Manseng (also at around 20%) with each contributing its own characteristics. The last 20% is made up of more obscure varieties (often not the usual Languedoc suspects due to the micro-climate) in very small amounts. This style of wine demonstrates the winemakers’ vision and skill at combining complex elements to create something integrated and coherent.
I was impressed with the cooking at Boundary and the lamb and cheese courses would have made any red drinkable. I also had a Proustian moment with the oven warm Madeleine. It was a thing of beauty with a perfect foil in the Mas de Daumas Vin de Laurence pictured left. I could appreciate how the psychology of memory was laid bare by this humble cake.
Enthusiastic Head Sommelier Gabriel Danis was on hand with a copy of the ambitious wine list. It is comprehensive in its coverage and has good ‘Sommelier suggestions’. I also noted that 125ml measures can be requested as an alternative to 175/250ml. There is something for everyone on the list, no mean feat, and a good balance between established makers and bottles that shout out ‘try me!’.
I had a lovely night and would encourage you to take the plunge by joining the ‘club table’, which during my visit included the amiable, and clearly very astute, Peter Prescott. I also send my regards to Alex and Paul and hope we get to meet again some time as it is always good to come across kindred spirits. Chateau Boundary’s approach to wine supports this conviviality and should be applauded.