Points of Terroir
Reprinted from “The World of Fine Wine” Issue 23, 2009, pp31–32 where my article was first published.
I must commend “The World of Fine Wine” for its in-depth range of subjects and writing. I like it too, because of how it reports on wines. Take for example the report on the Barbaresco wines1: Barbaresco 2004. A detailed and interesting article on these wines is followed by very readable tasting notes from three top reviewers. These tasters clearly see the wines from different points of view but, reading the three descriptions on any one of the wines allows one to interpolate to give a very nice and quite sufficient picture of what they had in front of them. Their scores are also included and I am not the slightest bit surprised that these are more divergent – inevitably 2–4 points out of 20 apart for the 48 wines, indicating differences in individual preference rather than any consistent bias in the way they are scored. Full marks for publishing all the scores.
It is clear the texts give us a good handle on how the wines appeared and that the scores mostly have little significance except for the writers who scored them and those of the public whose palates resonate with their point of view. Averages of the scores are also given in the article and on this point the editor should quite simply have known better than to do this. Such averages are quite simply, statistically meaningless and at the best can only be misleading. Unfortunately the public now seems to expect “definitive” averages (as misleading as they can be) and these appear more and more in wine magazines and of course influence the results of wine shows.
If three respected palates can have divergent views about the same wines, this must surely be about personal preference for particular styles, the reasons for these differences being understandable and quite diverse relating to anything from their culture to their own individual physiology. But is it possible that writers such as these still share common values or fundamental assumptions as to the preconditions for a wine to be considered fine? In principle I believe that reviewers should be capable of recognizing and separating much of their personal response to a wine from a more objective assessment. In other words it should be reasonable to say: “this is not the style of wine I aspire to drink but it is technically well made and displays all the aspects I have come to expect from fine wine.” And (controversially) I would expect scores (if they must use them) to reflect the objective viewpoint, making the simple scoring method more useful to the wider public. Generally, this does not happen. Too often the line between personal preference and what may or may not constitute fine wine becomes blurred.
Prior to addressing the principles of what constitutes fine wine, I have to address a fundamental difference between writers on what is the starting point in this discussion. There seem to be shades of opinion between those that would consciously or unconsciously require wines to measure up to an existing paradigm and those who start from the standpoint of an aesthetic whole, and evaluate on its intrinsic merits. Reference to “typicity” is the prime example of the former attitude – it harks back to comparisons with fine mainstream examples (generally Old World) of that variety of wine which the writer admires. Even within France there is now a reaction to this sort of conservatism … “personally, I was shocked by the conservatism and lack of imagination or sense of wonder displayed by many of my colleagues at the tastings of the 2003 vintage. Conditions that year resulted in entirely atypical wines.” (Michel Bettane4). If we were to follow and adopt the typicity standpoint, I guess our sculpture would still be following the Greek traditions, painting still perpetuating what we see from the Renaissance and music still trying to emulate JS Bach but there are good reasons why societies move on. Bettane’s article Typicity, I hate you4 and my own articles 2,3 broach this subject more than adequately.
Discussions founded on typicity so often seem to miss or at least constrain the notion of terroir. Few would oppose the notion that the great wines of the world are so because of their terroir. Therefore surely the New World must explore and be open to the aesthetics produced by its own terroirs. True, making wines which are close to Old World classics offers the advantage of similarity at a fraction of the price but this is unlikely to be appreciated by the locals and apart from the price point advantage, it can hardly be rewarding for those who seek a genuine expression of the local environment and culture. The bourgeois criticisms of the revolutionary Impressionists in the late 19th century offer a parallel example – fortunately the Impressionists prevailed. Cultures change and move on and this is one of several reasons why the music and visual arts of different periods change as they do. First and foremost, therefore, fine wine needs to be a full and honest expression of the terroir that it derives from – as well as the physical environment this includes the culture in which it is embedded. A wine with characteristics which interfere with or conceal the expression of this terroir would have to be considered less than desirable. Within these I include herbaceousness, high alcohols, oxidized or reduced palates, jammy/raisiny characters and spoilages such as volatile acidity, brett and sulphides where they occur at levels which interfere or compete with the perception of terroir-sourced flavours and aromas. These seem to me to be fundamental considerations which wine-writers can use in the objective part of their accounts. It seems to me that the ideal situation is for the wine to be tasted in the culture within which it arises e.g. its own village and the further away the tasting is conducted the more important it is for the writer to be aware of the effect of viewing it from the standpoint of a different culture… “The difficult art of winetasting requires a considerable measure of humility …..It also requires a thorough understanding of local traditions and those unchanging characteristics noticed over the years that vary with local climate and soil type in each appellation …” In some respects when we taste wines from other countries we are tourists, an open mind and a certain amount of humility is required to appreciate the town monuments that the locals regard as significant. We should be careful about making adverse judgements which may be influenced by a lack of understanding or knowledge of the complete terroir. If you wish to measure the local situation by what you left at home, why travel?
The expression of climate is an interesting facet of terroir. Unlike soil, topography, etc it changes so that while one may expect it to be part of the common thread of the vintages, it also varies within a window of probability and contributes variations in the wine’s personality from vintage to vintage. Fine wine needs to express the vintage as well as the terroir. Irrigation is now accepted as a tool of viticulture but there will always be argument as to whether or at what point it interferes with the expression of terroir which we should be seeking. My argument is that if the weather prior to vintage is dry and the consequential wines are of high concentration, then this is a legitimate feature of the terroir, provided that the grapes are not dehydrated/raisined at harvest with the final wine appearing jammy rather than showing clarity of fruit expression. I accept that climates that are too dry can justify irrigation and that irrigation can be applied at a level which maintains the vines rather than dilutes the wines, but commercial imperatives being what they are, I find too many wines which I would describe as “dilute” rather than “delicate” as some writers prefer to describe them.
This leads me into the Robert Parker phenomenon. In terms of readership, he remains the most successful writer there has been. His success has been due partly to his use of the 100 point system for scoring wines, and partly to his particular palate which rewards highly concentrated wines which are frequently very high in alcohol and in some people’s opinions over-ripe. There has been a reaction to this view of wine and the opposing school has swung the other way with an apparent preference for “delicate” wines and a style dissimilar to that espoused by Parker. Personally I think we should be able to live with differences in preferences such as these but I would tend to object if either school claimed it represented the “true vision” of what represented fine wines. The unfortunate fact is that concentrated wines need not be either overly alcoholic or over-ripe and jammy, they are still capable of being a legitimate expression of terroir and should not be dismissed as Parkerised through a misguided politicisation of the wine-tasting and writing industry. It is true that wines such as many from Burgundy can legitimately be described as “delicate” but this can be at least partly attributed to the appalling weather conditions they frequently suffer from around vintage. On the other hand, wines derived from reliable and dry vintages should be expected to show better concentration than the average from this part of the Old World and therefore the produce from other more fortunate climates should be criticized if it does not show this. I would again cite Bettane’s discussion4 of the very fine, dry ’47 and ’03 vintages in France which some pundits have dismissed as “atypical”.
It is also worth noting that fine wine needs to incorporate the dimension of time as well as terroir. i.e. it has aged and become more complex. Since the great majority of wines are reviewed as mere adolescents, the test of similarity to great wines cannot be a measure of quality in a Pretender to the Throne. Comparing say red burgundy with NZ Pinot noir and deciding two such wines are very similar makes the assumption that they are going to age in a similar fashion. The short answer is that they don’t. So the final question for critics is whether the wine they are tasting has the potential and structure for ageing in the bottle and what the final product is likely to be. The answer is not self-evident, a crystal ball would be helpful but is not available, and most NZ wines do not have the track record to even hint at what they may or may not be capable of. So far I think it can be said that NZ wines do not do very well in this respect. The pedigree of a wine is an important consideration and any writer who does not take this into account when talking about one in its youth or adolescence is not doing his public full service. Those Chateaux etc that have a “genealogy” of many earlier vintages – even stretching back over a hundred years – create further intrinsic interest for the brand and current wines and I think that the consequences for their pricing and reputation can be well justified.
Our discussion of quality does not end with the yardstick of terroir and time. Length of flavour is self-evident. The idea that the personality of the winemaker can/should show through is a particularly interesting one, but if this obscures or competes with the expression of terroir it is self-defeating. On the other hand as a consistent expression in the wines in question it is positive factor – surely a comment on the direction of evolution of this winemaking and part of the wine’s cultural context. Complexity and balance are also important. On the one hand these are internally referenced within the wine, but on the other, their perception will still be influenced by the writers’ own physiology and culture. They involve subtle judgements based on observation and are in danger of falling into the grey area between genuinely attempted objective evaluation and personal preference unless the writer makes a considered effort to avoid this. The influence of ageing can also be unexpected and marked. My final point relates to how we need to examine these wines … It has been established with research that there is a maximum of 5 or 6 similar wines which can be tasted and fully evaluated from an aesthetic point of view. Beyond this aspects of one’s perception become dulled and the more obvious features of a wine carry more weight than one would otherwise wish to accord them. Hugh Johnson, a wine writer for whom I have enormous respect, comments: “The custom is entrenched … of devising vertical or horizontal tastings … One learns rapidly in those conditions of close encounter. Who can say, though, that appreciation is at its height? I weep for the losers – bottles that, standing alone, preceded perhaps by a fresh young white and followed by something different again, would have made their statement frankly and been heard…” Well said.
“When we taste wines from other countries we are tourists, an open mind and a certain amount of humility is required to appreciate the town monuments that the locals regard as significant.“