Is France the Birthplace of Terroir? by John Szabo, MS

The following piece roughly outlines a presentation I delivered at the 2014 Vancouver Wine Festival. The Title of the seminar was: France: The Birthplace of Terroir. Please leave your comments.

John Szabo, MSLet’s bring this gathering to order. I’m John Szabo and I’ll be leading and moderating this tasting. In the interest of time, I’ll save the introductions of the panelists we have with us today for when their respective wines come up for discussion. We’ve a great deal to cover and there’s never enough time. We’ll be tackling the very essence of fine wine and the rich concept of “terroir”.

Which brings me to the title of the seminar: France: the Birthplace of Terroir: Admittedly, it’s a controversial title, and I’m sure many looked at this and thought: “ahh, here we go again, another instance of Gallic arrogance”.

But let me assure you that this is not a seminar designed to prove that France is the only country with terroir. Nor is it to show that France makes the world’s best wines.

Though while I didn’t come up with the theme – I was simply asked to moderate – by way of introduction, allow me to suggest a defense of the fact that France is indeed the birthplace of terroir.  (And note that this is my take, and not that of Wines of France, or Sopexa’s or of any of the panelists here). And while it may not be airtight, I hope it’s at least controversial, and that it causes some arguments before the end of the day.

So bear with me for a few minutes as I make my case.

Let’s start with a definition of terroir:

“Vitivinicultural ‘terroir’ is a concept that refers to an area where the collective knowledge amassed from, on the one hand, the interactions between the identifiable physical and biological environment, and on the other hand, applied vitivinicultural practices, imparts distinctive characteristics on the products originating from that area.”

This is the definition of terroir as agreed upon by the OIV (International Office of Vines and Wines) in Georgia in 2010.

Master Class TastingIn other words, terroir is not just about the dirt, or the weather patterns over time that become climate, or the particular wildflowers and bugs flitting about in the vineyards. If such were the limited definition of terroir than it would have no birthplace, or rather the birthplace would be the entire earth at its very beginnings.

But if we admit that terroir is also about “collective knowledge” amassed over time, and the resulting “applied practices” that lead to something distinctive and recognizable, then the human element becomes a critical part of the concept of terroir. In other words, it takes both place and people. And I tend to agree with this.

To fully understand any terroir, it has to be observed and studied deeply. And those observations must be recorded accurately so that they can be transmitted over time. Knowledge must be amassed and shared, and passed down so that a picture of something unique, consistent and recognizable can come into focus.

And in order for this careful observation and sharing to happen, I’d say it’s also critical not be hamstrung along the way by commercial needs or basic survival, as perhaps some of the winemakers in the room might agree.

If your actions as a winegrower are driven solely by the need to get a product out the door to keep the business afloat, or to get rich, or in order to have something more drinkable than a medieval water source for the year, you’re not very likely to do what it takes to unlock the secrets, and therefore potential, of your particular patch of dirt.

And even if you hit upon some of these secrets, you’re not likely motivated to share them with the neighbors, who are also competitors. And as the average farmer in the Middle ages, nor are you likely to have the critical skills, or time, to observe, record and pass on for posterity. Most of the people actually working the land were illiterate, landless serfs.

Gerard Bertrand La ForgeSo it takes the right people under the right circumstances to develop the concept of terroir. It’s not just green-thumbed men and women of the land, but also those with time, lots of time on their hands, with a safe and secure roof over their heads, with assured food on their table, and the ability to record what happened and what was done each season. It’s even more likely to happen when you have a community of like-minded individuals all working towards the same goal, and not in competition with one another.

And above all, to discover terroir, it takes supreme humility. The process should be ego-less, with the realization that you can’t pre-impose your ideal of what the product should taste like, or what you believe the market wants to buy, lest what the land has to say fall on deaf ears.

And finally, in the case of vitivinicultural terroir, this utopian community has to be in the right part of the planet where the climate and soils are suitable for growing grapes, and you must have the right grapes available.

And so that’s why it can be said that concept of terroir has a birthplace: it took an extraordinarily unique set of circumstances to converge in time and space for the concept to form.

So why is France the birthplace of terroir? One simple reason: religion.

Chateau de BeaucastelNow, France is hardly the birthplace of religion. But it is the birthplace of a particular aspect of Christianity that would make the unencumbered study of terroir possible: monastic life.

That’s right: monks (much less so nuns). Monasticism is the devotional practice of individuals who live ascetic, cloistered lives dedicated to worship, with ideals that are largely at variance with those pursued by most of us. And in all aspects of life, monastics are guided by Jesus’ urging to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

Monks, therefore, with no worldly goals, with ample time to devote to their labours, their safe, cloistered surroundings, their ability to read and write and share information, their comfort at the knowledge of living within a community devoted to its mutual upkeep and well-being, were the perfect candidates to give birth to the concept of terroir.

And making wine, since wine is a critical component of the Eucharist, was naturally one of the products Christian monks sought to produce.

Now, of course, the Greeks and the Romans and certainly the Georgians long before them recognized that different vineyards made better or less good wine, more ageworthy and less ageworthy. And we know that they made attempts to improve upon their products.

But it wasn’t a complete understanding of terroir as defined by the OIV. The time, and the systematic methodology, and all of the others circumstances mentioned here above (especially the humility and the need to be free from commercial constraints), wouldn’t come together until quite some time later, and it would happen in France.

Simonnet - Febvre ChablisChristian Monasticism was introduced in Western Europe by Saint Martin of Tours, who founded the first monastery in what is France today, the Abbey of Marmoutier just outside the city of Tours in the Loire Valley, around 372 AD.

Martin of Tours is still remembered on November 22nd each year as the patron saint of wine growers (and beggars). But Saint Martin is far from the whole story, and we’re not quite at the birth of terroir just yet.

The story shifts briefly to Italy, and to the Benedictines, who were the biggest monastic deal of the middle ages. Saint Benedict founded the Benedictine Order around 529AD with a monastery at Subiaco in Lazio. But Italy would miss its chance to fully claim the birthplace of terroir for a couple of reasons (although they did a lot for winegrowing to be sure).

Firstly, Benedictine monasteries were not centralized; each house operated more or less in isolation and information wasn’t shared between houses. And secondly, and more importantly, by the 11th century, many of the Benedictine orders had gone commercial, you might say.

The Cluny Abbey, for example, was the largest in Europe, and had become wealthy from rents, tithes, feudal rights and pilgrims who passed through Cluniac houses on the Way of St. James. The massive endowments, powers and responsibilities of the Cluniac abbots had drawn them into the affairs of the secular world, and their monks had abandoned manual labour to serfs. In other words, they had lost their connection to the land, without which no concept of terroir can be born.

Then in 1098, a Benedictine abbot, Robert of Molesme, left his monastery in Burgundy with a handful of supporters, who felt that the Cluniac communities had abandoned the rigours and simplicity of the original Rule of St. Benedict. He founded the first Cistercian monastery in the village of Cîteaux, near Dijon, close to Nuits-St-Georges. The term Cistercian derives in fact from Cistercium, the Latin name for the village of Cîteaux.

The Cistercians took to a pure and acetic life with counter-culture zealousness, and in various points went well beyond the austerity of the original rule of Benedict. The emphasis of Cistercian life was on manual labour and self-sufficiency, supporting themselves especially through agriculture and other activities like hydraulic engineering and metallurgy, and also notably, brewing ales. We owe those fine Trappist ales to the Cistercians.

The Cistercians quickly became the main diffusers of technological innovation in the medieval world. The order spread all over western Europe, into Germany, Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, Croatia, Italy, Sicily, Kingdom of Poland, Kingdom of Hungary, Norway, Sweden, Spain and Portugal. At the order’s height in the 15th century, it would have nearly 750 houses.

It was a monk named Alberic, successor to the founder Robert, who would become a critical figure in the birth of terroir. He forged an alliance with the Dukes of Burgundy, and engineered the donation of the monastery’s first vineyard in Meursault. Then an Anglo-Saxon Abbot named Stephen Harding, who had in turn succeeded Alberic, began to acquire farms for the abbey to ensure both the survival of its brothers and of their work ethic, the first of which was the Clos Vougeot.

So, with all of the terroir-favorable benefits of monastic life, farming what was then, as now, some of the most suitable vineyard land in the known world, with a handful of excellent quality grapes, these monks set about making wine in the image of God: perfect. And perfection in this sense didn’t mean plentiful, nor commercially attractive. Perfection was as humble and accurate a picture of their God-given patch of land as possible.

Over centuries, the monks devoted themselves to deferentially studying their vineyards, observing a lifetime’s worth of vintages with heavenly patience, and amassing through the years a wealth of collective knowledge of “the interactions between the identifiable physical and biological environment, and applied vitivinicultural practices that came to impart distinctive characteristics on the products originating from that area.” The concept of terroir as we know it today came into sharp relief, and, one could say, was born.

Romain Duvernay HermitageToday, of course, France has no monopoly on terroir. The Cistercians shared knowledge between all of their houses throughout Europe, and the concept has since spread to every corner of the winemaking planet. But the land that is in France today, and the monks who devoted their lives to it, do make a strong case for having evolved the concept of terroir. It’s something to consider in any case.

Following are some general terroir themes and over arching questions to be considered during the tasting.

Matt Kramer ranted recently about our obsession with precision brought about by technology and things like GPS. He writes:

 “We live in a world of pinpoint precision. We now expect total certainty when identifying what taste the land will yield. The boundaries of Burgundy’s vineyards that were sanctified by the French government no doubt always suggested “precision and certainty.” But in an earlier era, it was understood that such boundaries, like stone walls separating land parcels, charted force fields of flavor more than anything that could be calibrated absolutely.”

So then, how precise is terroir? Does it chart, as Kramer suggests, more of a range of possible flavours rather than an exact and predictable expression? Or does greater precision mean greater terroir?

What are the viticultural and winemaking techniques that best reveal terroir, and which mask it?

There are surely some great and unique terroirs that struggle to sell their wines. So what is the relationship between selling price and terroir?

More obliquely, since science doesn’t have all of the answers, and we can’t measure, for example, minerality, or even less quantify “terroir” in a wine, I wonder then, can atheists make wines of “terroir”, or can atheists truly appreciate wines of terroir? In other words, does making, or appreciating vin de terroir require a leap of faith of sorts, a belief in something that can’t really be proved?

If you have any thoughts on these issues or on terroir in general  – leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you.

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo MS