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Single vineyard wine: Is this our inheritance from the Druids?

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From Allen Meadows’ new book, The Pearl of the Côte: The Great Wines of Vosnes-Romanée, we can garner lessons in almost every paragraph. This from page 16:

Almost overnight [following the French Revolution], Burgundy went from a land where the idea of terroir was sacrosanct and implicit in the production of wine, to one where it was a secondary consideration as wine became a wholly commercial product.

What Allen means by “sacrosanct” is a vin de terroir, which long has signified, to the true wine lover, the highest aspiration of which wine is capable. I always understood that, but I never knew how this notion arose in the first place–and how many ancillary issues it raises.

Allen traces the notion of terroir to the Druidic “concept of animism,” according to which “all things, animate and inanimate, possess a spirit or soul.” Light, darkness, a grove of trees, an individual plant, an insect, they all were inhabited by a god or goddess, which made each thing alive and distinct from all other things, no matter how similar in appearance they might have been.

From this ancient belief, Allen continues, came the corrollary that “the wines of one vineyard were fundamentally different from those of its direct neighbor.” We accept this today; it lies at the heart of terroir, and particularly with noble wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling, whose greatest expressions people are willing to pay high prices for. Carried to an extreme, as in Burgundy (Allen’s specialty), we have the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, whose six climats [seven, counting Montrachet] can be said to represent modern-day Druidism applied to wine, through the filter of terroir.

We know today that “all things, animate and inanimate” are not inhabited by gods or goddesses (don’t we?), but we still love the concept of terroir in vineyards. So from an untruth has come a truth. But it’s a relative truth, because no one can claim, with absolute certainty, that a vin de terroir is objectively better than the best blended wine (for example, the 2006 Cardinale, to which I gave 100 points). Yet most of us, pressed, would concede that a vin de terroir is the noblest expression of wine.

Why is this so? Is it the residue of ancient thinking that still survives, in some deep part of our reptilian brain? I would argue that the appeal of vins de terroir is based, not on sensory distinction, but on intellectual appreciation. There are not five senses (hearing, sight, touch, smell, and taste), but six, the sixth being thought. It is in our brains, in our capacity to form esthetic judgments and in our intellectual faculties, that the appreciation of the finest wine exists, lending pleasure to sensory perceptions and lifting them, at the highest level, to divinity or making them, in Allen’s word, “sacrosanct” (which is why praise of such wines often sounds like a religious benediction).

This isn’t an argument for or against blind tasting, but it is to suggest that the appreciation of fine wine can best be accomplished with the knowledge of where it comes from. Whether or not the professional wine critic can perform his or her job better with or without that knowledge is something that reasonable people can disagree about.

  1. Steve, if I’m understanding vin de terroir (“sacrosanct” )rightly, it amounts to:
    Philosophy of essence: “essence is the attribute or set of attributes that make an object or substance what it fundamentally is” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Essence,
    Archetype’s expression of deep symbolic hierarchy which is predominately psychological and therefore mostly subjective, but for me it’s all manifested in the water transmuted into wine; nice that we can all have our opinions, but better to find the reality, and for you it was (among others) the 2006 Cardinale. Yes? No?
    Definitely a good read this morning!

  2. Yeah, an affection for terroir may come from the Druids. But I think it’s contemporary culture: Our world is so complicated and messed up, with unclear lines of authority and complicated decision structures, that drinking a good wine from a singe vineyard re-connects us to nature and to direct cause-and-effect. Such a wine can help restore some balance in our world-weary consciousness by compensating for some of that chaos.

  3. Terroir is neither noble nor ignoble. In wine, it is simply the taste of its place, which can make for a good and noble wine or a flawed and awful one. It is, however, a useful marker for a region’s wines. If, for example, we have an idea of the range of flavors of, say, Chablis based upon experience and tradition, the place-name means something special to the consumer. If the taste of the place is no longer a factor due to late picking, new oak barrels, acid adjusting, etc., it still may make a pleasing wine to some, but it won’t reflect its terroir. In my view, that is a loss. Terroir may not be a measure of quality, but it does make wine interesting.

    Applied to modern California wine, I no longer can taste the difference between Rutherford and Stag’s Leap Cabernets due to overripeness. Terroir was once one of Napa’s charms, but now there seems to be a coalescing of styles toward similarly ripe, sweet tastes. The result is too much sameness. Thus, such wines from different sources may be pleasing, but not very interesting to drink–at least to me.

  4. The idea that Druidic animism informed or shaped the concept of terroir is about as likely as it being shaped by Shinto animism (and yes some of my Shinto-practicing friends do believe at some level that gods and goddesses animate this world). More likely we should look to pre-Christian Rome.

    While the idea that there is an animate spirit under each plot of soil is an interesting romantic trope, perhaps there actually is something to the real geologic differences found by Robert Lautel and others between the climats of Burgundy.

    Terroir is what happens when the winemaker gets out of the way, and operates according to tradition rather than fad and fashion.

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