A focus on “terroir”--the idea, not the dirt--has been a perhaps inevitable response to wine’s ongoing globalization. That does not mean, however, that the idea is necessarily true. In fact, the search for “terroir” as the source or locus of any good wine’s identity may well be a quest for fool’s gold. It looks enticing, but ultimately is worth little.
Globalization takes many forms--economic, political, social, and more. As a whole, it can be considered a shift of attention from local and regional concerns to international and even transnational ones. Such a shift clearly is being felt in the world of wine today. One has only to look at the emergence of the East Asian market, and the stratospheric prices now being fetched for first-growth Bordeaux, to recognize that the world of wine is getting ever larger, with the centers of power and influence no longer what they once were.
For wine lovers, though, the most important aspect of globalization is not really economic or political. The market is awash in wine, including a great deal of very good wine, and while only the so-called one percent may be able to afford to buy Château Margaux, the rest of us have more choices from more places available to us than ever before. No, the more significant aspect is cultural--specifically, what a number of scholars have described as the worldwide homogenization of culture.
Such homogenization is what the advocates of “terroir” as wine’s most distinctive feature or calling card are reacting against. They contend that a good wine should taste of its origin, meaning the place where the grapes were grown. This does not simply mean the geology of that place, but rather the entire environment, including both micro and macroclimates, other forms of vegetation, and the like. No two places are exactly alike. Why, then, shouldn’t we object when a glass of Chardonnay from France tastes virtually the same as one from Italy, or California, or Australia, or Chile, or . . . well, you get the idea.
For anyone who cares about wine as anything more than a source of alcohol, it’s hard not to feel real sympathy for this line of thought. After all, one of the great joys of wine comes in its diversity, and globalization encourages uniformity. Furthermore, there can be no doubt that where the grapes for a wine are grown has a profound influence on how that wine will taste--both in a broad sense (for example, when comparing a wine made with Syrah grapes in Côte-Rôtie with one made with the same variety in the Barossa Valley) and in a more narrow one (as with the premier or grand crus of Burgundy, some separated by little more than a cart path).
The problem, however, is that places simply don’t have tastes. Most, though admittedly not all, scientists contend that the specific location in which a fruit-bearing plant grows may affect its health, but, unless diseased, not the taste of its fruit. As Harold McGee and Daniel Patterson, having interviewed a host of scientific researchers, concluded in an influential “New York Times Magazine” article back in 2007: “The idea that one can taste the earth in a wine is appealing, a welcome link to nature and place in a delocalized world . . . The trouble is, it’s not true.”
What is true is that the counterpoint to global homogenization is wine’s ability to taste distinctive or particular--that is, to taste of itself rather than of something else (another wine, perhaps, or a standard style). That ability has many sources. But place is one of them only if the place in question has a history of producing distinctive-tasting wines.
The scholar Marion Demossier makes this point forcefully when she argues that “terroir” is actually less a geographical concept than a historical one. A wine exhibits “terroir,” she argues, when it tastes of the past reinterpreted. That only happens when the history of a particular place as a time-proven source of distinctive wines becomes reimagined by growers and winemakers alike.
Though this seems to stretch the meaning of “terroir” almost past recognition, it does help explain a place like Burgundy, where for hundreds of years people have valued the taste of wines from particular places both because the wines grown there tasted exciting and because they tasted distinctive--in this case meaning unlike wines made from grapes grown 50 or 100 meters away. These wines instead tasted of themselves, meaning that they resembled previous wines coming from the same place without being identical to those wines.
What complicates all this in today’s globalized wine world is that the trend towards homogenization began with ambitious producers self-consciously emulating prestigious wines made far afield. One sometimes hears it said these days that it’s fine for inexpensive quaffing wines to taste much the same as other wines made elsewhere, but that truly good wines should aim for more--the sort of distinctiveness often reduced to “terroir.” The historical record, however, suggests just the reverse.
In 1976, when Steven Spurrier’s now famous Paris tasting shocked the world, the stunning verdict wasn’t so much that a few upstarts from California received higher scores than French wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy, but rather that the judges to a man (no women had been invited) could not tell which were which. The wines all tasted essentially the same. Meanwhile, the biggest selling dry red wine in the United States was E & J Gallo’s “Hearty Burgundy,” a blend of different varieties that had absolutely no European model. Much the same was true of similar tastings held later in Australia, Chile, Italy, and elsewhere. The biggest compliment one could pay a New World producer back then was to tell him (and eventually her) that his wine tasted much the same as a great French cru.
A great deal has changed since 1976, and the imitation game today often runs in the other direction, with European vintners selling wines that resemble styles made fashionable by American, Australian, and other New World producers. What remains sadly true, however, is that a great many pricey and allegedly prestigious wines do not taste very distinctive at all. All the ongoing talk about “terroir” won’t change that.
Of course, what can impel change is consumers becoming more discriminating. My good friend and colleague, Michael Franz, wrote in a column here on Wine Review Online last month that we live in a “golden age for wine buyers.” He’s undoubtedly right. Relatively soft prices coupled with technological advances in production and an increasingly competitive sales environment are bringing more good wine to more people. Some of those wines, particularly those coming from undervalued places and made with fairly obscure grape varieties, often do taste distinctive. But of course, these are not the wines that fly off of store shelves. Cultural homogenization thrives on sameness, not difference, and like it or not, we are all its victims.