The Times Takes on Terroir

By Ray Isle Posted May 09, 2007

There's an interesting article in this past Sunday's NY Times Style Magazine, T, by food writer/scientist Harold McGee and chef Daniel Patterson of San Francisco's Coi. Essentially the thrust of the story is that terroir—the idea that wines express a specific place—is bunk.

It's a bit of an odd piece. The initial problem is a slippery reduction of terms that happens between the first paragraph and the second; terroir, as the piece initially sets it out, is "the relationship between a wine and the specific place it comes from." By the next paragraph, though, they've reduced that to the idea of "the concept that one can taste rocks and soil in a wine."

The problem here is that the concept of terroir that McGee and Patterson have decided to take down doesn't actually have much to do with what terroir actually means. A good definition can be found in Jancis Robinson's Oxford Companion to Wine: "the total natural environment of any viticultural site...major components of terroir include soil and local topography, together with their interactions with each other and with macroclimate to determine mesoclimate and vine microclimate..."

Their real argument is that wines don't directly express the mineral content found in different soils. This in itself seems a bit of a straw man—I don't know many wine drinkers who would claim that a soil higher in potassium yields a wine with a potassium-like flavor. That said, I'm as guilty as the next wine writer of describing certain wines as having a minerality or mineral character. But the leap from describing a taste as "mineral" to directly correlating a specific mineral flavor to a specific mineral in the soil is (as I'd think McGee and Patterson would probably agree) just as inaccurate as ascribing a wine's raspberry aroma to the presence of raspberry bushes near the vines. 

I suspect that scientists (and chefs like Patterson, apparently) would like the description of taste to be as free from vagueness as, say, the taxonomy of different species of frogs. The problem is that any mode of criticism that uses language to describe or criticize something non-verbal—be it dance, art, food or wine—is necessarily going to have a certain amount of either inaccuracy or elasticity (depending on whether you want a negative connotation or a positive one). In a glass of Chablis, one person's "limestone" is another person's "minerality" is another person's "tightly focused austere grace, recalling the cold black and white images in Murnau's Nosferatu"—though certainly the last person should be taken out and thrashed soundly. 

At the same time, McGee and Patterson do have an entirely valid point when they note that a central (they'd say primary, I suspect) agent in what a wine tastes or smells like is man's intervention. True enough. Without human intervention, all those glorious grapes in Montrachet would rot and finally fall to the ground...and by the end of the article, they seem to reach a kind of compromise, with the nice phrase "'somewhereness is given its meaning by 'someoneness.'"

Ah, terroir. It's a thorny topic and has been for some time. But the article's well worth reading, whether you disagree with it or not. 

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