The Dr. Seuss Definition of Great Wine
I can’t help but continue to return to the subject of "terroir". I feel deep down that by understating this idea and how it is used by winemakers and wine drinkers I’ll somehow better understand my own interaction with the natural and social world I live in.
I know. This sounds rather loopy..even "new ageish". Yet, once one chooses to investigate the intellectual and emotional aspect of any discipline, including wine, you are forced to deal with issues that touch on your view of the world and how that world touches you. Terroir is a polarizing concept because how you understand it in large part demonstrates your relationship to the world around you. And depending on how you understand terroir, you are likely to find yourself on opposite ideological ground from those who view it different from you.
I was brought back to thinking about this after reading another outstanding article by Dan Berger at AppellationAmerica.com: "Lost in The Numbers: An Old Terroirist’s Commentary on Wine-by-the-Numbers and the lost of Regional Typicity".
For those of you really only interested in what wine tastes best to you, you may not want to continue. Yet rest assured, you won’t be thought less of for you departure. There is no requirement that one must look deeply into the meaning of wine to be a wine lover.
That said, Berger’s article is far less a rumination on numbers and reviews as it is an exposition of the most important and interesting questions that surround the idea of "What makes Great Wine". Berger argues that great wine must offer "varietal definition and regional typicity"; it must taste like the grape or grapes it is made from and it must deliver characteristics of the terroir that influenced the growth of the wine’s primary source material.
Now, you could argue that "Great Wine" is that bottle that most pleases you and therefore there can be no real definition for what constitutes great wine. That idea is so uninteresting and so conversation-stopping and so anti-spiritual that I really refuse to even contemplate it…at least without having lots of wine in my system.
No, I tend to believe that there are standards. Just because you really really love that piece of literature entitled "The Cat in the Hat" doesn’t mean it’s a great book or great literature on par with "The Sun Also Rises." No, "The Sun also Rises" is not only a far better piece of literature than "The Cat in the Hat" it’s also Great Literature.
Yet what of this notion that to be great, a wine must show varietal definition and regional typicity? The most interesting part of Berger’s article, and there are many, is when he looks into the inherent competition between these two strains within great wine. He recognizes that there are those who would argue that "terroir" or regional typicity trumps everything else. And here he uses the French AOC system to both demonstrate and call into question this single minded idea:
"If terroir were so compelling an idea,
why did the French need to restrict the grape varieties of Montrachet
to Chardonnay? They could very well have argued, “Terroir defines a character in every
wine that emanates from a particular soil and growing region, so it
matters little which grapes grow here. So we will permit any grape to
grow here, because the character of the resulting wine will reflect the
soil at least as much as the varietal does.” And thus they could well
have permitted to grow in Montrachet, with their faith in terroir giving them the
confidence that the resulting wine would be reflective more of
Montrachet, the region, than of the grape or grapes that made the wine."
The answer lies in the French view of terroir. To the French, "Terroir" is much more than the composition of soil and climate and aspect of the land that delivers particular character to a wine. Terroir, to the French, is TRADITION.
Below is an explanation of the AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controlle) system taken from the French proprietors of that ridged system of rules and regulations that tell French growers what grapes they can grow and how they can grow them in the various regions of France: L’Institut National Appellation d’Origine:
"The Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée identifies an unprocessed or processed agricultural product, which draws its authenticity and typicity from its geographical origin.
This status guarantees a close link between the product and the terroir, which is a clearly defined geographical area with its own geological, agronomical, climatic, etc. characteristics, as well as particular disciplines self-imposed by the people in order to get the best out of the land. This notion of terroir encapsulates both natural and human factors, and means that the resulting product may not be reproduced outside its territory.
The purpose of the AOC is thus to protect a duly established reputation.
The production conditions of the product are also the result of a culture and a history: they include local, loyal and consistent customs and are included in the decree."
Do you see what I see? "terroir, which is a clearly defined geographical area with its own
geological, agronomical, climatic, etc. characteristics, as well as
particular disciplines self-imposed by the people…production conditions of the product are also the result of a culture
and a history: they include local, loyal and consistent customs and are
included in the decree."
What goes without saying here is that the characteristic taste of Bordeaux wines that are attributed to the "terroir" are as much a result of the production techniques (which include varietal selection) as they are the composition of the natural make up of the land.
So to return to Berger’s contention that if the French really believed in terroir they would not limit the varieties that can be planted, I think we can offer this conclusion: The French DON’T believe in "Terroir". Rather, they believe in a Traditional Stylistic Framework that has been worked out over the centuries.
I think many of you are now thinking "it has taken centuries for the French to understand which varieties do best in particular regions and vineyards; that this longevity and experiences is the source of their greatness." Perhaps. But has anyone tasted a Riesling from Burgundy? Has anyone tasted a Pinot from Bordeaux? Not that I know of. Were these grapes once planted in these regions? Probably. Are we sure these varieties COULD NOT perform well in these regions? Probably not.
And this brings me back to California and the nature of the American. Clearly ours is not a nation of tradition. Our entire history rests more on breaking new ground rather than plowing the same turf over and over. From the breathtakingly new quality of our Constitution to our early adoption of the idea of innovation as an economic principle to the unprecedented move westward into new lands, Americans have kept tradition as a secondary guide to the more overwhelming embrace of what is new and what is possible. We are experimenters at heart.
This inclination to embrace change and novelty has made it impossible for us to sit comfortably with the notion of terroir that informs the French. Perhaps over time market forces will do to the rest of the American wine industry what it has done to Napa Valley where you find a near mono-varietal status in the vineyards. Perhaps Russian River Valley will one day be filled only with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. But it won’t be because no other varietal is adapted to those terroirs. It will be because Russian River Valley Pinot Noir demands a higher price than Russian River Valley Zinfandel.
And this, in turn, brings us back to the idea of "Greatness" in wine. Here in America, and in much of the new world, Greatness is being determined by the market. And the market often has nothing to say about the idea of regional typicity or varietal definition. Market-driven definitions of "greatness" come down to the idea mentioned earlier: "If I really like it, it’s great". And this, of course, is the "Dr. Seuss Definition of Great Wine".