Terroir today: The taste for the particular and the making of good taste

Terroir today: The taste for the particular and the making of good taste

Image: Jennifer Smith Maguire

Jennifer Smith Maguire (University of Leicester)

 

The word ‘terroir’ has considerable clout in the world of fine wine. Since the late 19th century, the term has been used to refer to the distinctive flavour imparted by the soil in the agricultural production of grapes; the ‘goût de terroir’ was viewed as a defining (though not always favourable) characteristic of French wine. Over time, the notion of terroir has broadened to include the local climate, topography and culture of winemaking: a complex, inseparable link between a wine and its place of production. Such a link is a mainstay of wine writing, through which particular wines are confirmed as ‘good taste’ in the eyes of the cognoscenti and their aspiring members. An article in the fine wine magazine Wine Spectator provides a case in point: featuring a Bordeaux-trained winemaker who cultivates 5 acres of land on the slopes of a mountain range, the article notes that she is one of ‘a handful of small producers…eagerly trying to prove that [their country] has the right terroir to produce great wine, rather than just great amounts of wine’ (1). The country in question? Not France, but China. Such is the power of terroir: its use both confirms the established rules of good taste, and legitimates that which would once have been unthinkable.

Terroir was traditionally regarded as the exclusive province of ‘Old World,’ and especially French winemakers. A 2004 advertisement for ‘the great wines in Burgundy’ depicts ‘John’ wistfully sniffing his wine glass:

John, the discerning New World grower, knows all about the bouquet of white Burgundy. He just can’t get it in his glass. The bouquet of a truly memorable white Burgundy stems from the “terroir.” That’s how wine growers in Burgundy describe the alchemy of local soil, climate and wine-making traditions that draw the best out of the Chardonnay grape. As for getting it into the glass, that’s what the discerning drinker might call savoir-faire or know-how. (2)

The message is clear: French fine wines have terroir; ‘New World’ wines do not (in spite of John’s discerning sensibility). However, the advertisement can best be understood as a defensive response to a shift in the global production of fine wine. One widely noted milestone in that shift was a 1976 international blind wine tasting, in which Californian wines beat their French competitors (to the horror of the French judges). Since then, New World producers—from Australia to Argentina, China to Chile—increasingly have taken terroir seriously, and are taken seriously as a result; this poses a threat to the established order of the marketplace. Terroir has not only expanded beyond the soil; it has diffused globally, beyond its French roots.

The expanded notion of terroir tells us much about the logic and infrastructure of good taste today. These are issues that I have been exploring through my research on the cultural production of the fine wine market. In addition to analysing past and present wine media, I have interviewed a wide range of cultural intermediaries in fine wine markets in France, Australia, the US and China, including sommeliers, wine writers, wine retailers and wine educators. The changes briefly sketched out above are part of a seeming democratisation of the production of fine wine (to wit: even Chinese wine is written about in Wine Spectator). This opening up of the category of fine wine poses two interrelated challenges to consumers, and opportunities for tastemakers.

The first challenge has to do with the scope of choice available in today’s marketplace. My interviewees are market actors who operate with relative autonomy in their decisions about which wines to bring to market by featuring them in their wine lists, wine columns or retail portfolios. Those decisions have a significant impact on filtering the choices placed before the end consumer. Consider that of the more than 1,000 wines that Tesco lists online, 213 are from Australia, where there are over 2,500 wineries. Or that the Australian wine writers interviewed received an average of six cases of wine per week from which they might select the few wines they write about. The global expansion of fine wine production thus creates the need for a filtering apparatus—cultural intermediaries and their media platforms—that stands between consumers and an overwhelming array of competing options.

If clearing the first hurdle might simply relate to finding a wine that tastes good, the second challenge has to do explicitly with finding a wine that aligns with good taste. As even a casual reading of newspaper wine columns reveals, the old dichotomy of Old World/New World no longer holds in making sense of what does, and does not, count as good taste. A recent Guardian wine column featuring Turkish wine acknowledged the problem:

There was a time when you couldn’t have sold a Turkish wine…for love or money. Not just because no one could pronounce it…but because people would have been embarrassed to put it on the table. These days, however, it seems to be a question of the weirder the wine, the better; and if only one barrel has been made, better still. (3)

If it was once a safe bet to prefer French to Turkish wine, today, all bets are off. This offers a pretence of democratisation: an unwavering insistence on cork over screw cap, for example, is more likely to come across as naive snobbishness than informed connoisseurship. However, summing up the logic of good taste in wine today as ‘the weirder, the better’ is disingenuous. What matters are the details: are the grape varieties regionally specific?; are the wines aged in amphorae?; how many barrels were made?; hand-picked grapes?; wild yeast?

Such minutiae of provenance constitute a sort of ‘terroir max’: everything from the soil, to the lunar cycle during harvest, to the biography of the winemaker now potentially bears on the exercise of discerning judgement. As Richard, a high-end wine retailer in Melbourne, explained:

You can’t sell wine at this level and not know it. It’s not just taste. It’s the whole thing: it’s going there, it’s talking to the people. You can’t just talk about the wine in the bottle. It’s talking about the producers, the vintages. It’s having the whole gamut of knowledge. (4)

Or, as Kenny explained of his role as a sommelier in a five star hotel:

Sommeliers are the last person in the circle. The winemaker plants the grapes and makes the wine; the wine is bottled and shipped to the distributor; it comes to Shanghai and I’m the last person: I open it and I sell the wine. And I expect myself to know every single detail of this circle, this circulation.

This level of detail typically lies beyond the time, energy and commitment of the vast majority of consumers; hence, the need for an infrastructure of cultural intermediaries to make and maintain judgements of good taste. Knowing what the wine tastes like in the glass is the easy part; as Richard says, it’s not just taste. Rather, cultural intermediaries perform the critical work of identifying and acquiring the knowledge that converts what tastes good into what is good taste. That is how they create value.

Whether a wine retailer in Melbourne or Reims, a sommelier in Shanghai, or a wine writer in New York or Perth, there has been one resource consistently shared across all of my research subjects: a shared preference for terroir max, or what I have come to think of as a taste for the particular. We can see this logic of taste operating in a range of cultural fields, from food and drink to fashion, design and architecture: meticulously sourced and locally-foraged materials, traceability and transparency, artisanal production and what Danish architect Bjarke Ingels calls ‘hedonistic sustainability’. In the case of the wine intermediaries, a taste for the particular provides a framework within which choices are made about which wines to bring to market, and also—crucially—provides them a basis for a passionate, authentic investment in the stories they tell.

If the field of fine wine is any indication, today’s logic of good taste is far more nuanced and knowledge-intensive than knowing that a good claret taken to a dinner party won’t cause embarrassment. It has also proven successful at exacting higher prices from consumers: artisanal goods tend to cost more to produce than mass, industrial counterparts, but the premiumisation and up-selling of provenance goods also reflects the value added through the taste making infrastructure. Nevertheless, there are reasons to welcome this change. The taste for the particular has the potential to make what is sustainable, local and ethical not (just) the morally good choice, but also the choice of good taste. A consumer movement led by a desire for the authentic: it may be more burdensome…but that’s what the sommeliers and wine writers are for.

References:

(1) Graham, Mark. 2010. Finding China’s Terroir. Wine Spectator. 31 October: 84.

(2) Bourgognes print advertisement. 2004. The Times (London) 23 October: no page.

(3) Beckett, Fiona. 2014. Wine: Fiona Beckett tries some weird but wonderful grapes. The Guardian Weekend. 11 October: 75.

(4) Respondent names are pseudonyms; quotations have been edited.

 

Jennifer Smith Maguire is Senior Lecturer in Cultural Production and consumption in the School of Management, University of Leicester.

 

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