The Concept of Terroir
Since our inception in late 1977, we have been engaged in the business of bringing to the market distinctive wines that reflect our devotion to the concept of “terroir”. When we began our work, there was little debate about this fundamental notion. Since that time, the business of wine has boomed, the media has focused its attention on this aspect of life, technological change has come at a rapid pace and enormous amounts of capital have been invested in our world of wine. Many of these influences have resulted in a vast improvement in the overall quality of wine. We have benefited immensely from these developments and we are grateful for having been involved in at such a stimulating moment.
That being said, we are also obliged to note that there have been trends during this period that are deeply disturbing to us. There is a fine line between making necessary refinements to a fundamental process and turning priorities on end. There is little mystery to the crafting of fine wine. At the core, one must start with the proper vineyard site and excellent viticultural practices. We had wonderful mentors early in our career that:
1) 90% of the ultimate wine is created in the vineyard; and,
2) the role of the winemaker is to let the wine make itself (“laissez le vin de se faire”).
In essence, those two simple rules codify that wine is an agricultural product and that its flavor and structure, those elements that make each wine unique, come from the combination of soil, climate, and grape variety.
We refer to this trio as the holy trinity of terroir (and it is important to note that the first two elements of the equation determine the third). The role of the wine producer is to render the fundamental character of the wine in its most clear and precise form so that it speaks to us of its geographical origin, its birthplace as it were, and the special conditions that obtained in the particular vintage. **
To accomplish that goal, clean, ripe fruit must be harvested. Without that primary product, the work in the cellar is meaningless. To accomplish that result requires twelve months of work in the vineyards. Wines of character do not magically appear at the moment of harvest nor can they be created through alchemy (or worse) in the chai. We have been witness to a recent surge of interest in organic and biodynamic viticulture. This is all to the good because a soil that is vibrant, that has not been abused by synthetic fertilizers nor by pesticides or herbicides, gives life to the sacred vine. As well, this appreciation for sustainable agriculture requires the vigneron to spend more and more time in the vineyards rather than simply applying in systematic fashion some treatment or another to eliminate problems that may not exist.
The goal, then, after the harvest, is to establish the conditions necessary to permit the character of the fruit to be expressed through the wine. A vinification and aging process that respects this objective demands great care. Here, the winemaker must make critical decisions that may reflect stylistic preferences. For example, one grower in Chablis elects to ferment and age in stainless steel while another chooses barrel fermentation and aging and a third combines the two approaches. This is the joy of the human condition, the infinite variety of ways to solve a problem and create a masterpiece. But, when this process becomes the centerpiece of the production and is elevated above the nature of the individual wine we enter a dangerous zone, a place where nature begins to be denied.
Unfortunately, many of the same influences that set the stage for this wonderful renaissance in wine have produced conditions that work to eliminate the nuances of terroir. The confluence of money, media, and technology has had a “Jekyll & Hyde-like” effect. For all its good, we now witness the evil side of this team. The producers seek the imprimatur of the omnipresent media and use the improved technology to guarantee results in order to gain the favor of the marketplace. If the mood of the moment requires immensity, then temperatures will be manipulated to maximize extract, flavors and fragrances will be imported from outside sources, and, in place of terroir, we have cartoon wine: exaggerated, special-effects creatures that have all the elements that define a wine except a soul.
Thus, when equipment is fabricated that allows for better temperature control in the cellars, or a pneumatic press is manufactured that permits the extraction of the finest juice possible from the grape, or a winery replaces equipment (including barrels) that no longer functions as it should, we should applaud that effort and investment because the result will be a wine that is even more expressive of its essence. But, when those tools are used to exaggerate qualities or transform the structure of a wine to meet some perceived market demand or a journalist’s idea of what perfection is, we have lost perspective. An overwhelming percentage of wine made today refers only to where it wants to be not from where it comes.
**This latter notion about the place of man in the process of creating wine makes us also believe in two supplemental aspects that are critical to the definition of terroir. This idea of terroir can never be truly complete without conceding, and appreciating, that there is a cultural underpinning to what makes wines from a particular region unique and that each individual who participates in forging a wine from the skin, juice, seeds of the grape can bring, if he remains humble and respectful of nature, something of his unique personality to the wine that goes into the bottle. When we refer to “culture”, we mean the traditions that have developed over decades and even centuries that translate the experience of multiple generations to set down certain “rules” of how best to express terroir. An example of this is the use of the “demi-muid” size barrel in the Rhône Valley as the most effective partner in the elevage; or, the insistence that Nebbiolo is the sole grape that can produce the greatest wines of Piedmont. The list of those guidelines is endless and we believe they must be respected or else terroir cannot be expressed. Within those boundaries, however, the individual grower can exercise his own sensitivity to place his “mark” on his wines.