What’s it all about, Douglas? Four-and-a-half billion years ago, some pointless lump of rock hurtling through the disorder of the early solar system crashes into a larger pointless lump of rock at great speed, explodes, then partially re-coalesces and slips into an orbit around the larger lump of rock in a senseless, irresistible spiral. Thence biogenesis, microbes, yeast, plants, winemakers, wine drinkers and all that jazz.
How does is all happen, really? Okay, let’s stick to what’s answerable. What, in this bullshit-benighted age, does ‘terroir’ mean? Many a rhapsody has rung out over ‘terroir’ – the idea that the wine we drink is an expression of the specific geology and climate of the land the grapevines are grown on – but let’s face it, most are based on nothing more than a commercial interest in that land.
The winemaker’s craft is almost always a matter of interfering with natural processes. Chaptalisation, acidification, deacidification – the list of -ations that are part of the typical commercial producer’s routine goes on and on. As does the list of additives used in these processes. From the time the grapes are picked to the moment the bottles are corked, wine producers in the EU are allowed to use more than 200 (that’s not a typo) additives to make their wines ‘just so’. In other parts of the world the number is even higher.
The use of these additives makes a nonsense of the idealised notion of ‘terroir’. If you’re buying your wine from a supermarket, forget it: fancy labels, probably written in fine italics, with airy references to “enduring philosophies”, “faithful traditions” and “unique expressions”. It’s basically bullshit.
There is one place, though, where use of the term ‘terroir’ is not at all bullshitty (though the soil the vines grow in may be). That is in the world of natural wine.
What on earth is ‘natural wine’? Natural wine is wine made organically or biodynamically (more on this in a moment) with minimal intervention in the vineyard (no synthetic fertilisers or pesticides) and the cellar (only low levels of sulfites (max: 70mg/l)). The RAW Charter of Quality also insists that no yeasts be added, except in the case of the second fermentation of sparkling wines, when neutral yeasts can be used (in other words, wines must be fermented spontaneously by ambient ‘wild’ yeasts).
What about biodynamics? Biodynamics is a funny one. It emerged in 1924 as a general agricultural method. Worried that industrialisation had weakened their soils and enfeebled their crops, European farmers turned to social reformer, esotericist and all-round Enlightenment man Rudolf Steiner.
Influenced by the holism of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, astrology and occultism, Steiner came up with a way of cultivating crops that did away with the synthetic chemicals and mechanisation of large-scale agriculture. Instead it was guided by the phases of the moon and the positions of other celestial objects, and used only natural aids – organic compost, biological green manures, herbal treatments – to grow crops.
Steiner’s aim was to produce a sustainable system of agriculture that would enhance the quality and flavour of whatever was grown – and make people feel healthier in body and mind. The methods are inarguably bizarre from an uninitiated’s point of view. Filling cow horns with manure and burying them for six months before dissolving the resulting fermented material in homeopathic solutions to spray on crops, ‘dynamising’ these solutions by stirring them in an infinity-symbol pattern – and that’s before we move on to spiritual interstellar beings that transmit generative forces to the earth or to super-sensory consciousness…
Scientific rationalists like me have trouble accepting such ideas. But whatever you think of them, they do overlap with a) a basic cosmological awareness and b) a sense of ecological virtue, which is concerned with promoting life, health and sustainability.
They also overlap with the making of some extraordinarily good wine. So much so that a Decanter magazine debate concluded that the wine trade should promote biodynamic methods. So much so that Tesco and Marks & Spencer now only hold wine tastings on auspicious days in the lunar calendar. So much so that they have created the biggest consumer buzz around wine in recent years.
So what does it all mean, really? Yes, some of this is sheer trendiness, the latest buzz for the Crunchy Granola Set, but then it just might be part of something more fundamental, something more elemental, something more… listen to me – it’s funny what drinking three glasses of artisanal wine under a full moon will do.
Photo: Thangaraj Kumaravel (acquired under CREATIVE COMMONS LICENCE).