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Is “terroir” a social construct, or an objective fact?

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If the definition of insanity (as Albert Einstein is reputed to have said) is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results, then I must be insane for delving yet again into a discussion about the meaning of terroir—even when I know that such exercises will result in utter futility, as they always do.

Even so! The topic is irresistible to me; like momma’s milk to a thirsty baby, I’m unable to turn my head away when someone makes claims as absolute and contrary to accepted wisdom as those of Valéry Michaux, a French professor whose work was summarized (all too briefly) in the online edition of yesterday’s the drinks business.

Her position, as I understand it, is that there is no such thing as terroir, if by terroir we mean the chemistry of the soil, the climate or [even] local knowledge.” (By inserting the word “even”, I mean to associate Michaux’s position with that of another professor, the esteemed Emile Peynaud, who holds that the combination of natural terroir—soil and climate—together with the creativity of man elevates the entire wine-forming formula into what he calls “cru.”)

Whether or not you include the grower and winemaker along with climate and soil in your definition of terroir, for Michaux, is irrelevant. For she believes that the end quality of a wine, as well as its critical reception in the marketplace, is due to neither (or not much, anyway), but instead is the result of “the cluster effect,” a term borrowed from economics and sociology that refers to the type of activity that happens when “interconnected businesses working together in a region” collaborate, in a “very focused and strategic approach…to bring partnerships for funding, research and revenue opportunities.” This latter definition, from Forbes, uses Silicon Valley as the prima facie example of how the cluster effect works: small startup companies, rather than taking a “go it alone” approach, instead use a “strength in numbers” strategy to “accelerate…commercialization activities, raise additional capital, and attract new companies.”

Michaux also turns to the Silicon Valley model of the cluster effect in her thinking about wine. She attributes the success of certain wine regions, including Champagne and Rioja, to the same forces of “a strong entrepreneurial culture, direct competition, continuous experimentation, innovation and mutual help and solidarity” that characterize Silicon Valley firms, who engage in mutual-aid activities based on the “rising tide lifts all boats” theory.

Tantazlizing stuff. Since the drinks business abstract was so short (only 249 words), I turned to the Google machine for more information on Michaux, and found this longer coverage at The Australian, which says her theory may “horrify oenologists everywhere,” by throwing into academic doubt the entire collage of “climate [and] chemisty of the soil” as being responsible for the world’s greatest wines. Their greatness has nothing to do with the “myth” of terroir; it is a function solely of “strong governance creating a single territorial brand” [e.g. Champagne, Rioja] welded to “an alchemy between different virtuous circles” [professionals from various occupations] resulting in “the dominance of the best-known wines.”

Let’s break it down by taking Napa Valley as an example of a successful area. Michaux surely is onto something when she suggests that “an alchemy of circles” is at least partly responsible for Napa’s success. These circles surely include the historical figures that settled and elevated Napa, the George Younts, Captain Niebaums and de Pins who helped make Napa Valley a household name.

Another circle would certainly be the wealthy friends of the wealthy Napa owners: they helped spread the word (and the wines) to their own circles in San Francisco, New York, London, thereby giving Napa international cred. Yet another circle consisted of the writers and critics who wrote about Napa Valley, making it famous; and the more they wrote, the more other writers visited Napa Valley, were wined and dined, and further embellished Napa’s halo. (I think of Harry Waugh as a perfect example of the overlapping of several of these circles.) A final circle is the international coterie of winemakers and consultants (Michel Rolland comes to mind) who work in Napa, and whose influence is worldwide and powerful. And then of course there were the critics, Parker especially, who early championed Napa Valley Cabernet in the circles among which they had influence.

Circles within circles within circles. Certainly Napa Valley would not have risen to its present-day esteem without the active cooperation of all these groupings. Where I take issue with Michaux, though, is in her abrupt dismissal of the notion of terroir as the physical properties of the region.She seems to have written her recent paper in response to a 2012 Call for Papers from the Reims Management School, in Reims, France, the topic to address a “provocative” statement contained in a 2011 book, by Roger Dion, that “’Terroir’ is a ‘social fact’, the human construction of a territory both historically and strategically, so as to make better use of its resources than other territories and to respond to the specific expectations of a particular clientele.”

Once again, there’s a lot of meat there: certainly, no wine “territory” can possibly be of any use for the commercialization of wine without “human construction”; for vinifera grapes do not grow by themselves and automatically turn themselves into fine wine. “Strategies” are indeed called for; and strategies require collaboration on the part of all stakeholders, and cost money. And just as certainly, the “particular clientele” that is willing to pay premium money for the wines of Champagne, Rioja or Napa Valley does so with the expectation of buying in, intellectually speaking, to the notion of “quality products” grown in “Grand Crus,” as has been the case since, at least, “the royal families and merchants” did so during the Middle Ages.

Still, this argument, convincing as it is in some respects, fails to account for the fact that most of the world’s wine regions never have achieved the acclaim for terroir as have Champagne, Rioja, Napa Valley and some others (Burgundy, Bordeaux and Germany’s better districts come to mind). What has held back the others? Was it the absence of “interconnected businesses working together” (armed, presumably, with fiendishly manipulative genius)? Or was it that these non-successful regions simply lacked the terroir to produce great wine?

I leave the answers to the conversation. Maybe, instead of futile insanity, we can actually advance the issue a little.

  1. Bill Haydon says:

    She’s a business professor, not a scientist. As for her “cluster effect” couldn’t talent in an agricultural field be drawn to and cluster around those regions capable of making the best wines. In my opinion, she is firmly putting the cart before the horse. In fact, her entire argument is a cluster…..

    Here is a rather compelling study by actual scientists on the matter.

    http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0097615

  2. What a bizarre thesis. It entirely ignores the fact that Bordeaux wines taste differently than Rioja wines. How would the organizational effectiveness of various business elites influence the way wines taste? It is a well established fact that small differences in climate and soil influence the taste of wine. If this is true, then there is no doubt that terroir exists. The only question is whether cultural influences are sufficiently robust to be included in the account of what influences wine flavor. If the habits of winemakers regarding when to pick, fermentation temperatures, type of yeast used, etc. or cultural preferences for a certain flavor profile are widespread then perhaps those habits should be included in “terroir”. I’m not sure what any of this has to do with “creating brands”

  3. I always likes this one:

    “Terroir is deeper than soil.
    It’s more varied than climate.
    It’s a combination of people, culture, tradition and place that allows grapes to grow and express all that is involved in their nurturing.” —Jake Lorenzo

  4. Last year at Riesling Rendezvous in Seattle, I took part in two tasting panels of Riesling, what I once thought of as a lightening rod for terroir. The panels were all experts. Most of the audience were probably experts, in so far as you’d consider me an expert, etc. We blind tasted dozens of Rieslings and guessed their origin. We all had a success rate of about 30%. So, anecdotally, if Riesling is as transparent as I think it is, what does that day about the concept of perceptible terroir? I’m growing less fond of the entire concept; not that wines cannot or shouldn’t be reflective of place, but that much of what we attribute to place isn’t an aspect of place at all.

  5. redmond barry says:

    In Matt Kramer’s Burgundy book he talks about visiting 2 vineyards in Gevrey, I think a St Jacques and Combottes, , with a wine maker, who points out that Combettes is positioned to be a little cooler and thus a little leaner. This seems so obvious as to need no emphasis,although I guess enough cold-soaking and hot fermenting can make these differences less apparent.

  6. redmond barry says:

    Dude, it would be interesting to know the sources of those Rieslings and the patterns, if any, of the mistakes the tasters made.

  7. Bill Haydon says:

    Redmond, And you didn’t even touch on the late picking, megapurple, extended skin contact post fermentation and over-oaking.

    PARKER UBER ALLES

  8. What it most likely is, is a symptom, or set of symptoms, with either unknown, or very poorly understood etiologies.

    Though perhaps the biggest byproduct is confirmation bias and people forcefully spouting conventional “wisdom” as fact.

  9. Bob Henry says:

    A news report that might have escaped the attention of wine professionals and wine enthusiasts, and which gives some credence to the concept of “terroir”:

    “Sequencing Study Lifts Veil on Wine’s Microbial Terroir”

    Link: http://news.ucdavis.edu/search/printable_news.lasso?id=10762&table=news

    “Microbes May Add Special Something to Wines”

    Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/26/science/microbes-may-explain-some-of-the-mysteries-of-terroir-and-wine.html?_r=0&pagewanted=print

    ~~ Bob

  10. Bob Henry says:

    Joe,

    Was the Riesling Rendezvous sampling structured along such distinctions as (1) “macro” geography [country of origin -- Germany, Austria, France, U.S., Australia, New Zealand], (2) “micro” geography [one or more appellations within a single country or U.S. state -- Finger Lakes, Washington, California], (3) classification (Kabinett, Spatlese), or (4) vintage?

    ~~ Bob

    [Awaiting my bibliographic comment about "terroir" to clear "moderation."]

  11. redmond barry says:

    When a Doc says a condition is “idiopathic” it means he doesn’t understand it.

  12. Tim yew York says:

    Terroir is a concept that says ‘it’s soil, climate and culture’ I.e. everything influences everything. So it doesn’t really explain anything.

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