Earlier this month marked the debut of a new wine podcast (brave souls) hosted by food and wine maven, Fiona Beckett, and the seemingly tireless Master of Wine, Liam Steevenson. It’s called Bâtonnage—a play on the French term which in English means “to stir the lees”—and if the first episode is any indication the series promises to be intellectually “stirring” (doink) and highly entertaining. But let’s be clear, this is not a program for the faint of heart or the beginning wine student. The initial topic, terroir, is a contentious one, even for those with a keen interest in wine, and it no doubt left some listeners slack-jawed and dazed. That’s OK, not everything should be easy.
The first guest, John Atkinson MW, is known to me from our mutual use and misuse of Twitter. I find him to be a thoughtful, articulate wine professional who is frequently given to colorful metaphysical allusions. I credit John with my decision to purchase the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy which I never would have thought to do otherwise. I told you, it’s not easy.
The panel’s discussion began with a bit of carbon dating. There was consensus agreement that the modern concept of terroir first surfaced only thirty to thirty-five years ago. Before that, the term was frequently used as a pejorative, as in goût de terroir, indicating an unpleasant, earthy flavor. Later, the term developed as a way to attribute an abstract character in a particular wine to the coalescence of geographical, geological and climatical factors unique to a specific site. That last bit provides a good working definition of terroir as it is commonly understood today.
To illustrate the point, the panelists quickly turned their attention to Burgundy, the area where terroir finds its most ardent defenders. Terms such as village, cru, climat and lieu dit are all terms of terroir, if you will, which are used to differentiate highly evolved sites according to a universally accepted hierarchy. The post-war doldrums and the decades that followed posed a threat to that hierarchy and marked a low point in Burgundy’s fortunes. The false promises of modern chemistry, high-yielding clones and creative blending with foreign wine sapped the vitality from the brand and jeopardized the very health of its soils. Under such conditions the pretense of a distinguished, if not unique, terroir was unsupportable.
A key development in Burgundy’s rise from the depths was the waning influence of the négociants and the rise of domaine bottling. Suddenly the calculus changed and the advantage shifted to the conscientious vigneron/encaveur who was now properly incentivized to exploit terroir by improving his processes and the environment for grape growing. Apropos, John asked whether négoce-bottled wines speak of terroir better than the many analogous grower-bottled versions that suddenly appeared. I gathered from the discussion that the panel supports the view that multiple data points and the three-dimensional view afforded by variety adds more to our understanding of terroir than a single, multi-parcel, multi-grower blend. With variety we can search for and recognize consistently common features.
The discussion turned even more interesting when the panel began to debate whether there can ever be a human imprint on terroir. Both John and Liam offered an expansive and holistic view of things. Their theory (as I understand it) is that terroir must be viewed together with factors derived from historical precedent, custom and even accident. Did Philip the Bold’s decree to banish Gamay inadvertently create the template for Burgundian terroir, is a question they might ask.
Liam suggested that man may have a greater role to play than we assume. The repetitive process of learning one’s vineyard and coaxing the best from its crop is really about the progressive refinement of a given terroir. Much of the knowledge gleaned from repetition is passed from generation to generation which, in turn, becomes part of the terroir. In this context one may ask whether a man like Henri Jayer has added to the collective knowledge that defines Cros Parantoux?
That debate gives rise to other definition-expanding questions: does a well-paid, year-round crew of skilled vineyard workers, pruners, harvesters, and sorters have a role to play in our perception of terroir? Terroir purists will shudder at such an expanded definition, but it’s a conversation worth having.
As the panel sought to flesh out a contemporary definition of terroir, they failed to acknowledge the growing evidence of a microbial terroir. It’s postulated that unseen microbial life in the first meter of soil may be even more impactful on the nuanced flavors of wine than our current models allow. There is already talk of soil customization by some eager entrepreneurs who seek to duplicate the subsoil environment of famous terroirs. Is this a good thing or just an attempt to copy a successful model? Perhaps that’s a discussion for another show.
My only criticism is a technical one, but nonetheless important: production values are poor. The sound is tinny and distant and when compared to other professional podcasts—Levi Dalton’s I’ll Drink To That, for example—there is some catching up to do.
In terms of content, professional rigor, enthusiasm and fun, Bâtonnage is already near the top of its field. This particular episode left me with the impression that it’s no accident that the fetishization of terroir has run concurrent with the improved standing and high-flying finances of several contemporary wine regions including Burgundy, Barolo and Bordeaux. But the struggle to place it in context everywhere else is a challenge. That indicates to me that history and precedent have a lot to say about terroir even when, as Liam points out, the New World appears to have ceded the concept of terroir to the Old.