Terroir as Excuse

April 5, 2012

There are special wine places. These sites are situated more favorably to wind and sun, the dirt is better, the variety is perfect, the winemaker has a vision that is in accord with the natural conditions.  This combination of place, dirt, wind, sun, winemaker is the terroir of the site, the whyness of place.

There’s been a lot of chatter on the web recently about natural winemaking.  There is no real definition of what is  “natural” about those wines or the process, nor what makes some winemaking unnatural. Because of a lack of specificity there is every chance that the term will soon devolve into a meaningless marketing slogan, saying nothing in its commodiousness.

There is generally one aspect about which most producers agree and that is the desire to let the terroir of the vineyard show through the wine as purely as possible by manipulating the wine as little as possible. For these producers, purity of wine – underscoring of terroir – comes about by strictly minimizing the use of additives of any kind – including sulfur – throughout the production process. Sulfites occur naturally during fermentation, but they are not present generally in high enough concentration to protect a wine from spoilage yeasts or the ravages of time over the long term.

And while I can understand the holistic desire to let Nature takes its course, to reduce the human footprint, in other words; I can’t understand the idea that one would allow a potentially flawed product to be sold when the means for producing a sound one have been proven and are easily reproducible. These kind of wines are worse than the clotheslessness of the Emperor…in the latter case, the dude was just naked, in the former the choice to leave the wines open to all manner of microbial spunk is being dressed up as some kind of virtue.

Ironically, the net effect of runaway Brett contamination and other microbiologic challenges, so easily eliminated with the judicious use of natural additives, is the obviation of the supposed rationale for making these kinds of wines in the first place. For what shows through in the end – in fact overwhelms all that is pure and of the place – is that flaw.

Terroir is about balance as much as it is about anything else. When dogma gets in the way of pragmatism and results in unbalanced, de-terroired wines, it is the consumer that ends up paying for the mistake.

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8 Responses to “Terroir as Excuse”

  1. Homepage said

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  2. You have observed very interesting points! ps decent website.

  3. fabiorenzobartolomei said

    Just to say that natural wines are NOT synonymous with no-sulfite-added wines. Only a minority of natural winemakers eschew the use of sulfites on principle; the majority have no problem with using sulfites when necessary and are not at all dogmatic about it.

    The use of sulfites is in fact one of the least interesting and least important of the issues that concern us, though it’s the one that generates the most sound-bites among writers who haven’t done enough research into natural wines and/or who just choose to focus on that issue. More interesting and useful for the whole wineloving community is the issue you touch on, on faults, ie when does a characteristic turn into a fault? Or the environmental issue, or the health issue, or the diversity issue, etc.

    Bear in mind that there are obviously some bad natural wines out there, just like there are some bad ‘conventional’ wines. Please don’t lump all natural wines together as if there were all faulty or spoilt. Many natural wines are indistinguishable from conventional ones, so why focus on the bad or funky ones as if they were representitive of all natural wines?

    • Thank you very much for your thoughtful comment. As I mentioned in my post, I am very much in favor of taking only the actions in the vineyard and in the winery that are truly needed. Using additives just for the sake of using them, or using them out of fear, is a sign of the lack of imagination and the lack of careful thought about the ramifications of those actions.

      There are more good wines made than bad these days. But there are bad wines…no matter which “school” the winemaker belongs to. My own philosophy celebrates balance and typicity and site specificity. Dogma is not important…only wonderful wine is.

  4. A very good post Steven – and very much in line with my own (on thejosephreport). No good producer uses additives of any kind for the sake of doing so. Many do use them – moderately – out of consideration for the people who are going to end up drinking the final product. As you say – and it’s a crucial point that is often missed – is that there is NO link between terroir and brett, oxidation or VA. To suggest that these are not necessarily faults and that natural wine enthusiasts look “beyond” these factors is rather like saying that there is nothing to be regretted in an actor forgetting or mangling Shakespeare lines or a musician hitting the wrong notes when playing Bach.

    Those of us who believe in terroir (and I used to live in Burgundy, so I most emphatically do) think of it as being like the score or script. You can perform it in your own way, but you should treat it with respect. I cannot see how a cloudy, cider-like liquid reflect the terroir of the place where it was made – when another “natural” producer might make a non-cloudy, non-cidery wine from the same site.

    As Fabio says, there are good and bad wines irrespective of the “school”, but the Naturalistas – especially the zero-SO2 hardliners who bottle their wine in clear glass with corks – tend by definition to ask us to accept their point of perspective.

    • “To be or not to do.” Doesn’t have the same ring to it. Thanks TheJReport for your comment.

      I suppose the only problem I have with the “natural” wine movement, and it is the same problem I have with any other movement…is the need to name it. Once you codify something, you’ve lost all flexibility in your relationship to people or movements who feel differently about things than you do.

      As I mentioned in my comment to Fabio, I celebrate those – “natural” or not – who are trying to make the most revelatory and celebratory wines as possible. I take exception to anyone, though, who thinks he has a monopoly on truth, who is slavishly devoted to a cause despite the quality of the end product. I guess I am sad, in the end. To let the simple and honest virtues of passion and hard work and a desire to produce something personal get twisted by some coda that defies explanation into an exclusionary philosophy seems contrary to the spirit with which most of us work.

      • The trouble, Steven, Fabio, is that man is a tribal animal. We like to march behind flags – and to know which flags others follow. I have huge reservations about appellations – largely because of the way that their weakest members almost always tend to reduce their overall quality – but they seem to have an inexorable appeal, even in the New World.

        “Natural” wine (I’ve decided always to use quote marks for it) is no different: a tribe with good and bad members and spokespersons who may do it more harm than good…

      • Well put TJR. In most cases these framing devices – appellations, New World vs. Old World, “Natural” vs. conventional, do more to obscure than to reveal.

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