Wine and Place: A Terroir Reader by Tim Patterson and John Buechsenstein

This is part of our special feature on Food, Food Systems, and Agriculture.

A crucial wine debate swirls around the concept of terroir. A French word with no perfect English correlative, the term can be approximately, and beautifully, thought of as “somewhereness.” In other words, “the spirit of place,” the taste of somewhere, the textures and aromas that create a signature of place. It is more than the soil of the land. It’s the traditional, and local, best practice. Terroir wines are posited as a counterpoint to mass market wines and wine standardization, and the concept is cited by wine journalists, wine makers, and wine connoisseurs as a distinguishing characteristic in fine wines. Scientific and historical researchers, however, tend to be critical of the notion. Viticulturist Mark A. Matthews notes “terroir appears in less than 1 percent of the instances in which science journal papers address “grape + wine,” and the papers that do use the term have not been highly cited. Thus, the scientists who employ terroir are firmly in the minority, if not the fringe.” (2015: 199) Or as sociologist Geneviève Teil writes, “Actors experience ‘terroir’ while scientists appear to be incapable of doing so.” (2012: 480)  Winemakers and wine writers Tim Patterson and John Buechsenstein then find themselves in a conundrum. As they note in their comprehensive wine anthology, Wine and Place: A Terroir Reader, they believe terroir is a real phenomenon, yet like all abstractions, its standard descriptions are “worthy of skepticism.” As the anthology’s editors, Patterson and Buechsenstein seek to systematically explore terroir from a broad range of perspectives and disciplines, “letting the reader come to their own conclusion about terroir.” Does a wine taste like a place, is there a “somewhereness” within a glass of fine wine? Or is the concept a myth, a marketing ploy, a social construct?

Patterson’s and Buechsenstein’s passion and curiosity for wine are apparent in the anthology’s 111 carefully selected, compelling excerpts. These brief extracts—ranging from just twenty-two words to ten pages—present an impressive tour de force of the main debates in the contemporary wine world. These excerpts address wine from its emergence in prehistoric times to its contemporary debates on climate change; from perspectives in the earth sciences to the social sciences; and from cutting-edge research from the wine biome to biodynamic wine production. The excerpts are fairly evenly distributed between wine journalists (25 percent), earth science researchers (22 percent), and winemakers (20 percent), with several contributions from both viticulturists (15 percent) and social scientists (15 percent).

The breath of historical perspectives provides the reader with a nuanced view on the elusive concept of terroir and its evasive experience of “somewhereness.” Selections reach back to the birth of wine in the Paleolithic period, through its quality evolution under Benedictine and Cistercian Monks in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, up through the industrial revolution through today. The editors include twentieth century dictionary and encyclopedia definitions of terroir, demonstrating fundamental inconsistencies in usage and understanding of the term.

The book is also data-driven, as, like any strong, lasting idea, these editors know that terroir can’t simply be wish-fulfillment—it has to have solid ground if readers are to adopt it conceptually. These readings cover topics such as soil, altitude, and climate, stressing the critical importance of these variables to wine production while contextualizing the extent to which these observable characteristics are translated into observable wine qualities. The editors’ selections are ambitious and informative, though the topical maps and data charts on specific wine regions are more likely to appeal to connoisseurs than the casual wine reader. Still, these chapters are essential to the editors’ objectives to hold the idea of terroir up to rigorous scrutiny.

The argument for and in suspicion of terroir also includes more personal accounts of the vine and the cellar, including perspectives and research from winemakers themselves. Here, the anthology presents personal insights into some of the most pressing contemporary vinicultural debates, including organic production, sustainability practices, and biodynamic wine production, the natural wine movement, and the wine biome. Specific selections range from scientific analyses of grape compounds, water stress and irrigation, and ideal vine yields; to concrete experiences into the consequence of scientific factors as experienced by winemakers and wine consultants. The juxtaposition of these perspectives effectively convinces the reader that whether or not terroir is real, the centrality of the human factor in vine cultivation and vinification is incontestable.

The anthology’s strongest challenges to the terroir concept include excerpts on sensory experiences, on the marketing of terroir, and critical selections from social scientists. In these sections, compelling evidence is provided to support the role of suggestion, imagination, and social constructions in tasting “somewhereness.” One of the anthology’s most compelling pieces is found in the section of sensory experiences. Here Alex Maltman’s excerpt explains the “minerality myth” or the cognitive fallacy, which arises when wine drinkers attribute specific taste characteristics to geological minerals. According to Maltman: “Do (flavors of soil and granite and limestone, or minerality) go straight from the earth to the wine to the discerning palate? No.” Other selections demonstrate emergence of new quality wine areas and the challenges of protecting terroir given both market pressures towards homogenization and climate change challenges. One especially thoughtful and provocative selection on contemporary challenges include a nuanced excerpt by Jamie Goode and Same Harrop on the “Parker Effect”—the phenomenon of wine producers adopting certain flavor profiles in order to yield a higher rating in Robert Parker’s influential newsletter The Wine Advocate.

For the most part, this anthology shares characteristics with fine wines: complex, nuanced, and well-balanced. Just a few minor critiques. As the book is currently structured, the strongest pro-terroir readings are in the book’s first few chapters, and the strongest counter claims come later. Historical social science research would have been more appropriately placed in earlier chapters, such as Chapter 2 (History and Definitions) instead of their current location in Chapter 8 (Marketing). And the social science selections were unexpected. Robert Ulin writes on the social construction of quality and hierarchy in Bordeaux but—as the editors note—he doesn’t research on the social construction of terroir. Many other researchers do. Marion Demossier, Gilles Laferté, Kolleen Guy, and Phillip Whalen would have been invaluable to demonstrate the social, historical, and economic development of the terroir idea; complementing the Wolikow and Jacquet excerpt on Burgundian wine politics. The dominant debate in the book is between earth scientists and artisanal winemakers. The careful historical research of social scientists occupies a relatively subordinate role, to the book’s detriment.

I further found many pages chronicling the post-1962 definitions of terroir in Chapter 2 to be somewhat dry. Here, the editors may have found a more compelling selection in Rod Phillips’ 2016 French Wine: A History. Phillips traces and contextualizes the evolution of dictionary uses of the term from the sixteenth century to the present. He demonstrates how both a shift in the word’s meaning and the birth of the term typicité coincide with the victory of Californian wines over their French counterparts in the 1976 Judgment of Paris. The anthology includes a graph demonstrating an increasing use of the term terroir over time, but the chart remains unexplained and unexamined. A contextualized description of the evolution of the term, as per Phillips, would help the reader link the use of the word with efforts to protect French producers from emerging quality markets.

Finally, I would liked to have seen more geographic regions represented in the anthology. Of the selections that focused on one specific country or region, nearly half focused on France, and a third on California. While this makes sense given the fact that terroir originated in France and the editors are California-based wine producers, there were no readings on Italy (the second largest wine producer by volume), South America, or South Africa. These would have been welcome additions to the volume.

Overall, the book covers a tremendous amount of ground. The editors aim to provide their readers with tools to “make up their own mind” about terroir, and the excerpts they selected represent persuasive positions from both sides of the debate. The strength of this book—the diversity of brief excerpts and book selection—could also be its weakness for readers interested in one particular perspective or comprehensive argument on terroir. But the editors leave no stone unturned in the quest to get to the bottom of the terroir mystery. Upon completion of the anthology, the debate about terroir rests largely unresolved. If you want a whirlwind exploration of a vast, complex topic, buy this book: there’s nothing else out there like it.

 

Reviewed by Elizabeth Carter, University of New Hampshire

Wine and Place: A Terroir Reader
By Tim Patterson and John Buechsenstein
Publisher: University of California Press
Hardcover / 344 pages / 2018
ISBN: 9780520277007

To read more book reviews click here.
Published on September 5, 2018.

 

Works Cited:
Matthews, Mark A. Terroir and other myths of winegrowing. Univ of California Press, 2016.
Phillips, Rod. French Wine: A History. Univ of California Press, 2016.
Teil, Geneviève. “No such thing as terroir? Objectivities and the regimes of existence of objects.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 37.5 (2012): 478-505.

 

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