Inquiring Winemaker


In Search of Grapevines and Terroir

May 2014
by Tim Patterson

WARNING: This column, normally about winemaking topics, is entirely devoted to grapegrowing. Worse, it makes fun of several long-cherished beliefs about grapes and their contribution to wine. But at least I do quote Glenn McGourty, another writer for this magazine and someone who actually does know a lot about grapes, to help with the demolition.

The reason for straying from the wonders of enology is that I am working on a book about terroir (what wine writer isn’t?). The idea is to include between one set of covers reprints and excerpts from all manner of folks, coming from all manner of angles, from romantic wine writers to soil scientists, from sensory analysts to marketeers. The aim of the collection is to defend the concept of terroir by clearing out the vast acreage of pre- and non-scientific underbrush that has grown up around it. (Things like the idea you can literally taste the vineyard soil in your glass.)

One long chapter will be devoted to viticulture, which, weirdly enough, is largely absent from traditional terroir discussions, which focus on soil, maybe climate, and the imperative for winemakers to do as little as possible. What passes for viticultural wisdom in the old-fashioned terroir mindset is a series of platitudes about grapevines, mainly about aspects of grapegrowing outside human control. Vines need deep roots (which they grow themselves) to express terroir; vines need to be dry farmed (with whatever rainfall happens to show up); vines have to be old (while you sit and wait), and so on. There is a lot of fatalism in this version of grapegrowing; terroir just happens in special places, and the rocks get the credit.

In fact, grapevines are not simply passive transmitters of earthly essences. This is a pre-scientific notion that leaves out the defining role of photosynthesis, the engine of plant growth and energy, the force behind flowering and fruiting and ripening and the manufacture of aromatic and flavor compounds and precursors inside of grape berries.

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