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.