Friday, March 04, 2005

Stylizing Terroir

Tom at fermentations has written an interesting post in which he deals with a number of interesting questions regarding style and terroir.
1-‘shouldn't the traditional wine style that is associated with a region be seen as part of the terroir’
2- ‘Isn't a desire to see wines be "terroir-driven" just an aesthetic philosophy?’
3-‘ Couldn't a wine lover, with just as much care and enthusiasm for wine, take the position that style-driven wines are on an equal plane with terroir-driven wines?’

I would agree that these two concepts should be considered with equal worth, though on different terms. From my understanding of the notion of ‘terroir,’ I would have it include all those factors that are beyond the control of human intervention, and that influence the ‘raw material’ that the wine-maker has to work with when it comes time to ferment his wine. These include meso and micro-climates, soil and sub-soil structures of which indigenous yeasts and micro organisms, and topography.

These factors are all constants and to my understanding can create subtle differences between wines made under similar conditions and ‘exigence,’ even if the vineyards are but a few miles from one another.

It is here that style comes into play. How a particular winemaker works his vines, the degree of ripeness he seeks, how he deals with fermentation, etc.., have a very profound, and without a doubt, a greater effect upon the wine that we guzzle back on Friday evenings. While there is little doubt that there is a general movement towards a riper, ‘fruit forward’ style, this component is in constant flux. For example, in the early 90’s, Burgundy went through a faze of heavily extracted, dense, and oakey wines. Over the past few years, we have seen a number of younger winemakers move in the complete opposite direction. There is room for all and it is this diversity of styles that make wine so interesting.

It is here also that we as consumers value and judge the style of the winemaker. On a personal level (and that is the beauty of blogdom), I appreciate much more those winemakers who work to expose those subtle differences that are a product of his particular terroir. I love ripeness, but I find that the heavily extracted style pushed by Parker and Rolland tend to mask subtle aromas and flavours at the expense of nuance. It is my chief complaint against much of the wines of the New World, that they are too massive, too intense. And as I see wine as an accessory to eating, I find that they are not delicate enough for the majority of foods. But that is my stylistic penchant.

So am I thus a style–driven ‘terroir aesthetic?’ I think the answer to question 3 is that ‘terroir-driven’ wines must be regarded as a style of winemaking. But in the end, isn’t it just about making great wine?

1 comment:

Cor Balfoort, the Netherlands said...

When it comes to factors defining 'terroir', I would most certaintly include a certain site's micro-ecosystem. This also implies that the factors you mentioned come into an equasion that not solely consists of constants, as this eco-system can be influenced. Terroir-proponents who e.g. use biodynamic concepts in viticulture, strongly stress these aspects, even claiming the highly complex and as of yet not completely understood biological and biochemical mechanisms of interaction between a healthy soil and a vine to be prerequisites for proper terroir expression.
Next to that, terroir expression requires a wine making style (or philosophy, if you wish) that is sufficiently non-interventionist to allow the potential of the specific terroir to express. There are other ways to make good wine, no doubt, but they will not bring out terroir as clearly as this approach does.

When some winemakers in the New World claim that terroir is a marketing tool of the French, they overlook that New World winemakers who do aim at this expression succeed equally well as any French winemaker doing this. A Ridge Monte Bello from Santa Cruz Mountains, a Vanya Cullen wine from Margaret River or an Eben Sadie wine from South African Swartland will easily demonstrate that terroir exists everywhere: there are just terroirs in a wide range of qualities, and you need to have to ambition to allow it to shine.

I would agree that the desire to see wines be "terroir-driven" is merely one of many ways to let a wine express a certain winemaker's ambition. If that makes it an aesthetic philosophy or maybe not more than a historically grown belief based in a tradition of success obtained from high potential vineyards is open for discussion. Certainly the concept is as much abused by lazy winemakers as it is denied by wine-technologists.

From the consumer's perspective, I would argue that any position can be taken with regard to style preferred. As a terroir-adept, I would however argue that solely style-driven wines - while possibly at similar heights of quality - will never quite reach the intriguing individuality that the best terroir-driven wines possess.