The Phenomenology of Terroir


I have called this talk, The Phenomenology of Terroir; you may therefore have some expectation of a degree of philosophical rigor.  Your expectations, however, will be non-systematically thwarted, as I was, as a philosophe manqué many years ago, never particularly rigorous; I found that that the more sensual, tangible medium of winemaking and grape growing was a far more congenial playground for intellectual exploration.  I will instead talk about what one would call the poetics of terroir and how an appreciation of this idea conditions and deepens our experience of wine.


You may wonder what this very specialized, wine-geeky word has to do with neuroesthetics.  If we really grasp its meaning, I think that we will be squarely within the purview of today’s conference.  Terroir, I am hoping to show, is something like a Platonic form, or perhaps more concretely, a beautiful, ordered wave-form that arises from a harmonically attuned vineyard – one wherein every element is in perfect balance.  The formal information that is in this special vineyard is preserved, amplified, perhaps refined during the fermentation process of the grapes and emerges by dint of the winemaker’s skill, as the flavor characteristics of the wine.  Some as yet unelucidated mechanism involving the minerality of the wine, acts as a medium to transform this information into a distinctive, unmistakable taste, analogous to the transformation of radio waves into aural sensation.


Terroir, for the as yet uninitiated, is one of the most beautiful notions derived from the Gallic sensibility – that singular and extraordinary fusion of the highly analytical and highly sensual.   “Gout de terroir” is sometimes mistranslated as the “taste of the earth” or “earthiness.”  It is something like that but rather much more.  Terroir is the quality found in some wines that transcends the winemaker’s personal style or aesthetic and somehow captures and renders transparent the distinctiveness and individuality, the unique fingerprint of a particular vineyard site.


A great terroir is the one that will elevate a particular site above that of its neighbors.  It will ripen its grapes more completely more years out of ten then its neighbors; its wines will tend to be more balanced more of the time than its unfortunate contiguous confrères.  But most of all, it will have a calling card, a quality of expressiveness, of distinctiveness that will provoke a sense of recognition in the consumer, whether or not the consumer has ever tasted the wine before.  Without becoming overly anthropomorphic, I would suggest that a great terroir site has something akin to intelligence, which is the ability to successfully adapt to a variety of climatic challenges.   The soil of a great terroir will have particular physical characteristics that allow it to extract more or less the correct amount of moisture from the soil appropriate to its needs, and trigger certain physiological signals (Dude, where’s my fruit? It’s time to stop growing.) in the plant at appropriate times, again, more consistently than its neighbors.  The soil will have a chemical make-up that provides for all of the macro-elements in more or less balanced ratios, and very critically, will possess a definitive, eclectic assortment of oligo-elements.


No one knows how this works, but perhaps the presence of these trace elements adds more complexity to the vineyard color palette, which in turn enhances the complexity and distinctiveness of the wine palate.  Withal, the crop yields must be kept severely limited to enhance mineral concentration and the vine roots need to explore the entire soil profile.  Note: the pernicious practice of drip irrigation, as it is routinely practiced here in California, essentially infantilizes plants, turning them into pure sterile, consumers as if they were grown in flower-pots, making them gatherers rather than hunters, the viticultural equivalents of Chauncey Gardner, if you remember Peter Sellers in “Being There.”  Needless to say, this essentially negates the possibility of the expression of terroir.


Very naively I once imagined that you could simply analyze the mineral content of “great” terroirs, do a regression analysis and simply chuck in a little bit of manganese or whatever it was that you were missing.  But this in fact misses the whole point:  if there were a terroir extract or even a terroir “formula” that the lazy or ill-favored winemaker could add, sort of like oak chips or organoleptic tannin, all wines would begin to taste the same (such as they in fact do in the New World) and the essence of terroir would become trivialized and devalued.


The terroir intelligence does not entirely repose in the site itself, of course, but within the relationship that exists between the land and those who have farmed that land over generations.  It is through experience, observation and countless iteration that some very clever person or persons determined that a very particular grape variety or individual genotype thereof on a particular rootstock on a particular soil type produced a wine that had a unique, special quality.  (More auspicious and important than the discovery of a new star, to paraphrase Brillat-Savarin, but maybe slightly less significant than a determination of the current reincarnation of the Dalai Lama.)


 Terroir’s differentiating signal somehow shines through the non-trivial level of noise of climatic variation that occurs from one vintage year to the next in the Old World, at least.  You could possibly argue that the absence of significant climatic variation, such as we experience for the most part in the New World, precludes an expression of terroir.  For the other part of the equation is the skill of the winemaker not only in rendering Clos de Vougeotness, but also in capturing the positive qualities of the vintage itself – its 2001ness.   This notion is somewhat anathema to American sensibilities.  We are happiest of course when every year behaves more or less the same, ideally a “great” vintage, of course.   Perhaps this is because as recently-come-to-the-party wine connoisseurs we behave a lot like small children; we never tire of hearing the same song played over again and again.


Terroir is a composite of many physical factors – soil structure and composition, topography, exposition, microclimate as well as more intangible cultural factors.   Matt Kramer once very poetically defined terroir as “somewhere-ness,” and this I think is the nub of the issue.  I believe that “somewhereness” is absolutely linked to beauty, that beauty reposes in the particulars; we love and admire individuals in a way that we can never love classes of people or things.  Beauty must relate to some sort of internal harmony; the harmony of a great terroir derives, I believe, from the exchange of information between the vine-plant and its milieu over generations.  The plant and the soil have learned to speak each other’s language, and that is why a particularly great terroir wine seems to speak with so much elegance.


We are talking today about beauty and how we apprehend it when we are lucky enough to see it or sense it.  I would like to talk briefly about the vast chasm that exists between Old World and New World understandings of vinous beauty – the great Transatlantic Misunderstanding, if you will.  As you know, we can make an effort to quantify the qualitative elements of classical physical beauty – ratio of nose length to distance from the eyes and so forth – and create an idealized model of a beautiful person.  But as we also know, this idealized model will never be as beautiful as the beauty of a particular individual, whose features may in fact be utterly out of whack from the parameters of so-called classical beauty.  There is just “something” about the singular beauty that stands out, and likewise there is just something intangible that is missing from the composite beauty.


In the Old World, excellence is linked to typicity, on a macro as well as micro level, which is to say that a St. Emilion (a fairly large geographical appellation in Bordeaux) can only be great, if it is recognizable as a St. Emilion, but obviously it must also have something more.  This typical St. Emilion must embody both its generic identity qua St. Emilion, as well as a certain uniqueness within the appellation – the exception that proves the rule – as reflected in a brilliant terroir, such as Cheval Blanc, where its Chevalness is always unmistakable.  Does the consumer need to have a mental map of a wine’s provenance, to be able to fully appreciate its quality?  Yes and no.


Really grasping the concept that a wine can be both a wine and a place is like suddenly acquiring the ability to taste the wine with two tongues, or to now hear a mono recording in stereo.  Feeling the place through the wine triggers something like synesthesia.  If you have a history with the place, there is no doubt that it will create an even far deeper limbic reaction.  But a great terroir wine will provoke a feeling that I can only describe as akin to homesickness, whether or not it is for a home that may only exist in your imagination.


Somewhereness.  For a European it is everything.  You need to come from somewhere and probably your family has been in that somewhere for years upon years; you need to know where you stand in a hierarchy, where you fit in.  In our New World egalitarian, meritocracy, it doesn’t matter where you came from, it’s what you have achieved.  New World wines are really all about achievement; they are vins d’effort, rather than vins de terroir.   


Some of you may know that the most influential American critics, Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator favor a particular style of wine, one that is not impossible to build from the bottom up, as it were, in the New World – the so-called “fruit bomb,” a wine of hyper-concentration and hyper-fruitiness (the vinous equivalent of a triple C-cup, without being too crude about it), largely in virtue of its extreme level of ripeness, something that is less easily accomplished in the Old World.   I don’t think that Robert Parker himself single-handedly created the current wine aesthetic, but rather that he is the taster of the Zeitgeist, in a culture that greatly esteems surface over depth and is generally in rather too big of a rush.  I suspect that our fixation on the soft, plump, ripe “International” style is in fact a variant upon the phenomenon of our recent but seemingly permanent fixation on comfort food; I’m sure that it involves neurotransmitters – a subject far beyond my ken. Why we are seeking to medicate ourselves this way at this time I will have to leave to the shrinks.


Why do people like these very obvious wines anyway?  How do they end up winning blind tastings side-by-side with great French crus?  Have the world’s wine tasters lost their collective minds or at least their collective palates?


The answer I think is in our primate brain, one that tends to make us favor the fully ripened flavors of New World wines over the slightly less ripe, more elegant and restrained flavors of Old World wines.  Whether it is a banana, a mango or the tannins of a grape seed (which itself turns from green to brown when it ripens) I believe we have a strong hard-wired genetic predisposition to dig totally ripened fruit.  Further, our culture seems to re-enforce the precedence of instant gratification and physical pleasure over the more time-consuming and sometimes challenging process of the discovery of qualities that lie beneath the surface and are needful of excavation.  Terroir has the power to evoke in us primal memories and associations.  And certainly human intelligence is in part about perceiving and judging memory – in soil, wine and self.  The construct of terroir is perhaps an atavistic product of our deep human need to link to the natural world, a need that has not vanished, despite its being systematically thwarted at every turn in the times in which we live.


The other reason why not all of these apparently Grand Cru-come lately wines are not in fact not so grand is very simply that we, as tasters are extremely fallible; we are sometimes very easily taken in by very showy, obvious characteristics; the wine is très flatteur, the French say.  If we are tasting a rather large number of wines of an afternoon, such as is done by the most powerful and feared professional wine tasters, generally we are capable of discerning only the grossest, most obvious qualities – concentration, texture and balance, presence or absence of gross defect and maybe just a hint of the subtle je ne sais quoi of a wine, which we can call its “charm.”  But the real soul of the wine, its real essence is invisible to us in such a fleeting encounter.  Wines, like people, take a long time to get to know.


The powerful, concentrated impressive New World wines are capable of shocking and awing us into submission, and perhaps that is all that they really need to do to establish credentials of their legitimacy.  But they impress, they don’t charm.  They are all bluster, which tells you with absolute certainty that they have something to prove, that they are in fact, lost.


Terroir speaks in a very still, small voice.  It is easy not to hear it above the stentorian tones of 100% new oak, 15% alcohol and extreme tannic extraction.  It is hard to hear it above the clamoring for the new, the novel; it’s not new, it’s as old as the hills.


We New World winemakers don’t really know where we stand; we are lost, but most of us don’t know it, and that’s as lost as you can be.   The modern language of wine criticism is an anatomizing one – it slices and dices a wine into its component parts.  Fruitiness, check, tannin, check, concentration check.  We have lift-off and a 90+ point wine.  We use this language to calm ourselves like a character in a fairy tale might, walking into a dark wood.  But the sum of the parts in this case is in fact orders of magnitude less than the whole.  The anxiety of influence operates on New World winemakers as efficiently as it does on writers and artists.  We Californian winemakers are always thinking about French wines and how we can make wines that are both like them and unlike them.  Because we can never really convince ourselves that our wines truly and deeply belong, on some level we reject the notion that belonging really counts.


At this point in the presentation I would like nothing better than to trot out a real terroir wine or two and let you taste for yourselves what I’m talking about.   Instead I will offer some florid language and show you some pictures.  But, before I do, I need to bring up again the concept of minerality in wine and what its relation to terroir might be.  I believe that virtually all of the New World wine critics utterly miss out on the importance of minerality, especially vis-à-vis the ageability of a wine, where I believe it plays the signal role.  It is obvious to me that every wine of distinction must contain a rich concentration of minerals in some sort of favorable ratio, but no one to my knowledge has worked out an algorithm for this.  I have lately become convinced that it is not just the mere material presence of minerals that lend a wine stature, but what is really at issue is how these minerals are organized.


Because when you taste a terroir wine, what you get above and beyond the particular aromatic nuances associated with a particular soil type – (schistous soils, for example, are said to give wines a sort of raw petroleum-like aroma, a benign thing, by the way) – more importantly, you get a sense of the organization of the wine.  Somehow the intelligence of the soil and the vine interaction has been transformed into intelligence in the wine glass.  There is the manner in which the various taste impressions sequence on your palate.  You get the sense of the multi-dimensionality of the wine.  This sort of flitting, playfulness is enhanced as you, the taster, interact with the wine, smelling it with your nose well in the glass and then from a distance further away, swirling it, giving it a dose of oxygen.  This is like rotating a precious stone, so as to be able to view its facets from many different angles.


You get the feeling that there is something like capacitance at work – the release of different flavor components seem to be gradually released, almost metered out.  Minerals are most certainly linked to the redox chemistry that goes on in a glass of wine – chemistry that is so complex that you understand why acid-base chemistry has historically been the default point of entry for comprehending wine chemistry or alchemy.


To be an inspired wine taster, you must be capable of experiencing synesthesia.  “Ça descend la gorge comme le bebé Jesu en culottes de velours,” the French say.  It goes down the throat like the baby Jesus in velvet underwear.  A great terroir wine you can visualize as possessing a center, a core; I sometimes visualize terroir wines as planetary systems, with the minerals exerting the gravitational pull of the sun.  Or, I see the minerals as the backbone, the skeleton of the wine, that which gives the wine stability and persistence.  The various nuances of flavor radiate out from this center, as do the symmetric ripples in a pond.


I have always felt that language is highly inadequate to really describe the sensation of tasting a wine, certainly the language that merely breaks a wine down into its constituent components.  Maybe a haiku, a spontaneous response, would make for more cogent wine criticism.  But it turns out that there is a very odd, particular technique called “sensitive crystallization,” employed by practitioners of biodynamics, a system of farming based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, the early 20th century anthroposophist.  Biodynamics deals with how we might seek to harmonize our farming practices with the subtle forces of the universe, following the astronomical calendar – free cosmic fertilizer, you might say, and utilizing the biodynamic preparations, which essentially is a form of viticultural homeopathy.  All of this is done with the aim of capturing and preserving more life force in our agricultural product, as well as more originality in our wines.  Sensitive crystallization is not a precise science, at all, by a longshot.  You do a number of replicates and they can all be a little bit different, but you do begin to see some recurring patterns that are quite suggestive.  To do it, you take your material, in this case a couple of milliliters of wine, mix it with a copper chloride solution, put it carefully into a Petri dish, and allow it to evaporate in a controlled environment.  Voilà, you will observe a distinctive pattern, which is interesting if you have some inkling of how to make heads or tails of it.


I am somewhere in the sub-neophyte category as far as my ability to read these crystallizations.  Certainly for many of the scientists here, this will seem like utter mumbo-jumbo and the pictures mere artifacts of phenomena very imprecisely grasped.  But use your imagination and see what these pictures tell you.  For me they can sometimes capture the essence of a wine far more accurately than words can do.


Here is a 2002 von Volxem Riesling from the Saar.  The great acidity of the wine makes for a deep relief, but nevertheless you can see how powerful this wine is, like a sun-burst.  Note the highly articulated, dense and symmetrical branching pattern, indicating a strong presence of organizing forces in the wine.


Compare and contrast with a 2005 Riesling from a very young vineyard in Soledad, CA, which just happens to be ours.  You see the pine-like needles that seem to shoot out very forcefully.  They indicate strong growth forces in the vineyard.  The vacuoles just below center indicate that the wine has a strong aromatic potential.  Perhaps as the vineyard gets older and the vines and soil become better acquainted, we will observe a greater degree of organization in the crystallization, and more importantly, in the wine.  The one saving grace is the tinge of green that you observe at the periphery; this is an indication that this is an organically grown vineyard and contains some life force.


This is a wine called Koko Peli made in southern France in Collioure, from very, very old vines.  It is a real mineral wine – notice the depth of relief of the branching crystals and the absence of vacuoles.  Note also that there are two loci in the center of the picture – this wine is made from two separate vineyards with slightly different soil typologies.


Here is a sensitive crystallization of a rosé wine made from a funny grape from Provence called Tibouren.  Note the aromatic vacuoles and the very dense branching and the fact that the crystallization moves out to the very edges of the Petri dish.  The peripheral zone of the picture speaks to the connection that the vine has to its soil.  The crystal seems to hit the edge of the Petri dish and bounces back, indicating that these vines are very deeply rooted.


Here is a picture of a very famous and fairly expensive California Cabernet Sauvignon, a 2000 Silver Oak, for which I’m told people line up in the cold, wee hours of the morning at the winery to purchase upon release.  Note that there is a discontinuity in the peripheral zone, indicating a lack of connection with the soil.  There are numerous gaps in the crystallization and parts of the image are rather blurry.  This is not a vin de terroir, that expresses a strong sense of place.  I suspect that the vacuoles signify the very strong expression of highly aromatic new American oak.


In conclusion, terroir is a descriptive mechanism that speaks to the intelligence or organizational force of a particular viticultural site, and miraculously persists through the vicissitudes of fermentation and maturation of a wine.  It is a very special lens that allows us to experience a wine in a profound manner, sparking a sense of recognition and connection to a larger whole, which is the basis of true aesthetic satisfaction.


(This talk was delivered to the 4th Annual Symposium on Neuroaesthetics at UC Berkeley, on January 21, 2006)