Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Concept of Terroir

What is terroir? Of course, it’s a French word that literally translates to “soil” but beyond that, it seems to be indefinable. According to a 2007 article in New Scientist1, attendees of a 2006 viticulture conference at UC Davis attempted and failed to define the term.

The French have another phrase: je ne sais quoi”Now, I’m no Francophile but I think this concept can shed some light on the French concept of terroir.

I’ve seen the “terroir debate” characterized in many ways: globalization versus localization; science versus nature; industry versus tradition, but all of these characterizations can be reduced down to this simplicity- material versus intangible.

Science in viticulture and enology seeks to discover the building blocks and blueprint that will produce a consistent result, and Terroiristes attack what amounts to a materialistic approach on a variety of platforms. I don't happen to subscribe to the scientific approach with wine but, do some Defenders of Terroir go too far? Maybe Roger Scruton deriding globalization as a vehicle to ordinary drunkenness for the classless and mediocre is clouding the issue.2Perhaps, the reductio ad absurdum depiction of a brave new GM-wine world in a recent Economist article,where wine “tasting” is no longer necessary thanks to genetic sequencing data which tells you exactly what flavors are present in wine is too sardonic but, seriously though...what is the point if you break every thing down to the molecular level?

It’s tempting to go sci-fi at this point with musings on whether androids dream of Red Bordeaux... However, I think there is enough room between the extremes for me to comfortably occupy: Somewhere in the middle ground between gross generalization about drinkers of non-Terroir wine, and the obtuse insistence on defining terroir in scientific terms, there’s where you’ll find me; enjoying whatever good glass of wine I have the good fortune to drink.

1"Terroir." New Scientist 193.2592 (24 Feb. 2007): 54-54. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO.

2 Scruton, Roger. "In Defense of Terroir." American Spectator May 2007: 42+. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO.