Does Terroir Equal Wine Quality or Just Opinion?
We are talking about wine here. This is the conclusion of Geneviève Teil, a very smart researcher for INRA, the French national agricultural research institute, who spoke with Decanter Magazine.
Her comments come in the context of the continual questioning of that country’s AOC appellation system, a system upon which America’s own American Viticultural Areas are based. The problem many have with the French AOC system is that committees are formed in order to taste wines that qualify for and desire to place an appellation on their label, such as “Bordeaux”. These committees are charged with determining whether these wines possess “typicity”, or taste like they should, given where they come from.
Step back for a moment and imagine the response to a proposal here in California that wines must be approved by a committee of tasters to be evaluated for the degree to which the wine tastes like they should, given where the grapes were grown. I suspect there wouldn’t even be a debate on this proposal. I suspect we all would merely chuckle at the suggestion and getting back to making just whatever the hell kind of wine we want to make.
But getting back to Ms. Tell. She goes on to say, “The problem is that many modern winemaking techniques have clouded the idea of what is typical. New oak is used to sweeten up the taste and add a touch of vanilla spice, cultivated yeasts encourage certain aromas over other ones…The AOC system has become an economic tool instead of a safeguard of our terroir.”
Here in California and across this country we’ve always know that our own AVA system and other systems like it are mostly economic (marketing) tools. And this won’t change for a very simple reason: There is no objective way to determine specific characteristics that result from specific terroirs, let alone the large swaths of land that are identified as official American Viticultural Areas such as “Russian River Valley”, “Sonoma Coast”, “Dry Creek Valley” or “Bordeaux”.
This reality is a slap in the face to notions of objective standards of regional typicity or “terroir”. But what is perhaps a more interesting issue is Ms. Tell’s contention that “The way that we decide what constitutes quality…has to be drastically redefined.”
Now, this strikes me as doable, but it is not a science project. It is a marketing project. “Quality” always has been and always will be a subjective idea. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t convince a majority of wine drinkers that a true wine of “quality” possesses balance among its primary components (acid, tannin, alcohol and fruit) or perhaps that a quality wine possesses extremes of soft, juicy dark fruit. It’s just a matter of convincing folks of what quality is, not proving it.
Back over in France, you’ve got a group of vintners who have made wines that have been rejected as AOC wines; that is, despite these wines technically qualifying to use the “Bordeaux” appellation on their labels based on how the wine was made and where the grapes came from, but a committee of tasters have determined these wines don’t quite taste enough the way they all believe wines from the particular region ought to taste. Given that a wine holding the “Bordeaux” label is a far more valuable commodity than a wine from Bordeaux due to not getting committee approval must hold the Vins de France appellation, you can understand why producers of these wines are upset.
There is a way to fix the problem presented by the tasting committees: Go to the American System and embrace the economic meaning of an official appellation, rather than some sort of “terroir” meaning. This would represent a drastic change to the French AOC system, but its value is found in that it would become an honest system.
For that matter, the French would do well to throw out ALL rules and regulations concerning the AOC system other than requiring that a wine that has “Bordeaux” or “Burgundy” on the label must be made with grapes from those appellations. Purists will scream that by not regulating HOW wines can be made the historic characteristics of a wine labeled “Burgundy” or “Bordeaux” will be lost to the whims of winemakers who choose to do what they want, thereby degrading the meaning of these and other historic French appellations.
The thing is this however: if wines made from grapes grown in a particular terroir or appellation do possess specific qualities resulting from a specific terroir, those characteristics will show through over a range of wines. Nothing will be lost, except the fiction that a group of tastes are qualified to determine what is or should be typical of a region’s and what is not, and therefore what is quality and what is not.