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