Australian wine luminary Brian Croser is mightily impressed by a book published in January.
Wine and Place
A terroir reader
Tim Patterson and John Buechsenstein
University of California Press
This book is the story of my life.
For a book that starts out by declaiming that it is not written to be read in one session, it has fully occupied my discretionary reading time for the past two weeks. It's not that I am a slow reader, but that the many arguments arrayed chapter by chapter require much more than the usual amount of thought.
How then is it the story of my life?
The book asks most of the questions that I have continually asked myself during 50 years of winemaking. These are the essential questions about fine grape-growing and winemaking that in the book are answered by many voices with differing opinions, forensically sampled across the popular wine press, practising vignerons and grape and wine scientists. The juxtaposition of contrasting opinions, of the emotional against the scientific, of the terroir believers versus the sceptics, of the New World versus the Old, is pervasive and expertly poised, but the book leaves room for the reader to reach their conclusions, either confirmation of already-held beliefs, remaining doubt, or conversion to a new understanding and belief.
For me it has confirmed my fundamental understanding of the role of nature versus man in the elaboration of a great wine. For all of the skill, experience and inherited cultural practices of the vigneron, it is not possible to make great wine from a lesser viticultural site.
And, in turn, a vigneron who aspires to make a great wine chooses or inherits a distinguished site for a given variety, which delivers the environmental triggers for the vine's physiological production of the ingredients of greatness. The vigneron spends a lifetime honing through careful observation the viticultural practices that optimise those triggers and employing winemaking practices that maximise the site's expression of greatness in the wine.
Without the unique and special environmental triggers there are no ingredients of greatness in the grape and there can be no great wine, despite the employment of the most sophisticated of viticultural and winemaking practice.
The two nagging questions for the committed vigneron are: does my site really have those unique attributes that potentially confer greatness? and am I employing the most appropriate practices to best elicit those site attributes and greatness in the wine? In other words, have I wasted my life nurturing a less-than-distinguished site? Or have I squandered the site potential by inappropriate practices? A vigneron's life is full of self doubt.
The argument that engages most emotion and least logic is that of the definition of terroir and whether great wine owes its greatness to the site or to the vigneron. It becomes an emotional argument and generally pits the social commentators against the technical vignerons. The accusation that the scientific selection of site ignores the seminal role of human beings in its management and the influence of culture and practices in the elaboration of great wine is a confected argument. Both are obviously necessary but the fundamental contribution of the site is unique and inimitable and beyond the control of the vigneron except at the fringes of inputs.
The rest of the winemaking process is within the control of the vigneron. Whether you call those site attributes 'site environment' or terroir, or you expand the meaning of terroir to include the human contribution, is semantics. For me the meaning of terroir is the plain or vanilla version, which excludes the human contribution, but it is not worth dying in a ditch over the argument.
More interesting is whether the site-environment definition of terroir includes the contribution of a unique, stable and inimitable site microflora to the viticultural and winemaking processes? That is still an open question and mounting evidence points to a unique site microbial role, but the words inimitable and stable will become testing points.
This book asks all of these questions and provides the full spectrum of answers through the voices of many considered observers, commentators and vignerons.
In the end the authors make the case for the importance of place in the fine-wine story as the differentiating factor between fine wine and branded commodity wine, but more importantly between fine wine and a raft of mass-produced luxury products available to consumers. They end up wearing their hearts on their sleeves.
I cannot emphasise enough how important this book has been to me and should be to the fine-wine community. It should be required reading for all students of vine and wine.