For the approximate 8,000 years of wine’s existence, terroir has been the underlying principle by which great wines are “explained.” I put explained in quotes because of course wine has never been explained. While some of the more practical details of winemaking are known (but only as of 1857 when Louis Pasteur discovered the process of fermentation), most of the important questions remain unanswered. Wine is still largely a mystery, starting with the fact that great wines don’t come from just anywhere. Yet where they do come from can’t be predicted (or reproduced). The Earth appears to have her own vinous erogenous zones—a few places of harmonic convergence, where grapes and ground are transformed into thrilling wine. Moreover, it is a wine’s mind-blowing ability to taste in a way that intimately reflects the place where the grapes were grown that separates wine from beer and spirits. Barley and potatoes, alas, do not give detailed “voice” to their environments. But grapes do.
Over the last few decades, a nature-nurture style debate has begun to take shape regarding the concept of terroir. Is a wine great because of natural forces that have come together in near Platonic perfection? Or must all great wines be “realized” by the skilled hand of a winemaker?
A few years ago, when I posed this quandary to the winemaker Randall Grahm, owner of Bonny Doon winery neat Santa Cruz, California, Grahm’s eyes narrowed. “The question of the existence of terroir is the enological equivalent of ‘Is God dead?’” he said. “But without terroir, winemaking is a hollow game, a hall of mirrors.”
The God reference was apt.
Archeological evidence confirms that wines were first known by the place they came from (not who made them). But place became wine’s central paradigm in the Middle Ages as the result of monastic thinking. Especially in Burgundy.
The Benedictine Abbey of Cluny, founded in 909, was the wealthiest and largest landowner in Burgundy until the French Revolution. At the height of their dominance, the Benedictines controlled more than 1,500 monasteries. Indeed, until St. Peter’s in Rome was built, the magnificent Burgundian Abbey of Cluny was the largest cathedral in Europe. A reform movement within the Benedictines resulted in the formation of a second order, the Cistercians. Among other talents, the Cistercians were Europe’s most magnificent book makers, with monks serving as copyists, illuminators and binders. By the time of the Revolution, the library in the Cistercian Abbey of Citeaux boasted over 10,000 volumes.
In temperament, ideology, and in every practical way, Burgundy’s monks were ideally suited to the creation of their most valuable product—wine. They were contemplative, patient, spiritually comfortable, systematic in approach, committed to grueling physical labor, well bestowed with land, and most important, literate. Their self imposed mission: to delineate and codify Burgundy’s vineyards to understand where the Earth (God) spoke in the spiritual form of great wine.
Plot by plot, they cleared and cultivated the most difficult limestone slopes of the Côte d’Or, studiously comparing vineyards and the wines made from them, recording their impressions over centuries. Tantamount to a near millennium-long research project, the work of these monks not only revealed Burgundy’s greatest vineyards—but, in fact, established terroir as wine’s core concept.
Recently, here in the Napa Valley where I live, I gave a seminar called What Makes Great Napa Valley Wine Great? One of the panelists was Dr. Carole Meredith, Professor Emerita of the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California at Davis. Meredith is the co-inventor of DNA Typing for grapevines. At the intersection of science and wine, she’s a heavyweight. A few years ago she retired to the top of a mountain in the Napa Valley to plant a vineyard and make syrah. She and her husband work the land themselves without employees. An attendee asked Meredith why her syrah tasted the way it did. “Place,” she answered. “Or if you want, the French word—terroir.”
“But what exactly about the place?” the attendee persisted.
Meredith smiled a scientist’s smile. “I know that knowing a lot about wine means I know how little I know.” And then, like any good Burgundian monk might have said, “The answer is just place.”
“The Taste of Place” by Karen MacNeil. Originally published in Covey Rise magazine; 2017