Are Time and Terroir an Ilusion? Reflections on Mark Matthews' New Book, Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing
Issac Newton described time in absolute terms that I find intuitive. It is the same everywhere, it has constant duration, and it flows continuously in the same direction. According to Craig Callender, Professor of Philosophy at University of California, San Diego, Newtonian time is a kind of master clock that carves our world into instants.
Over the past century, however, physicists have slowly chipped away at Newtonian time, so that most are now prepared to accept a timeless universe. Atomic clocks placed at the foot and summit of Mt. Washington do not give the same time 24 hours later. Experimental evidence from quantum mechanics has demonstrated that the future can influence the past. A single event is perceived as occurring at different times depending on the velocity at which an observer is moving. Stripped of these core features, is time nothing more than an illusion?
While physicists debate the existence of time, agricultural scientists have long argued about the existence of terroir, a term that describes site specific influences on how we perceive wine. The most recent attack comes from University of California Davis professor, Mark Matthews, in his recent book Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing. Professor Matthews offers a comprehensive synthesis of research on the interaction between soil and grapevines, and finds little to support the notion that soils or other features of terroir contribute any unique qualities to the wines grown in them. In a way, it’s comforting to hear, again, that fine wine can be grown on many different soils. Winegrowers in a new region like the mid-Atlantic will find it good to hear there are no innate barriers to greatness.
Still, while a terroirless world may be easier to accept than a timeless world, both contradict millennia of recorded human experience. We can all agree that a Cabernet Sauvignon from the Medoc and one from Napa Valley taste different. Likewise, Sauvignon Blanc from the eastern Loire and New Zealand taste different. There are, of course, many factors that could explain these differences, such climate and weather, and vineyard and winemaking practices. That said, even within our own vineyards at Dodon, the taste of Merlot grown on the clay/gravel soils of Block 21 differs from the taste of the same clone grown on the sandy loam of Block 28, despite similar treatment of both in the vineyard and the cellar. It seems logical to conclude that something about the soil – its composition, structure, aspect, drainage and water retention properties, and microbial flora – has had an influence on the way in which the wine tastes.
The challenge with Professor Matthews’ thesis is that he attempts to answer the big question about terroir without clearly defining the outcome. To be fair, we don’t know a great deal about what to look for, but there are some common themes. Wines grown on chalk or limestone soils, as in Chablis for example, tend to exhibit a sensory characteristic known as minerality. If minerality is caused by this soil characteristic, then we would expect to find it in wines grown on similar soils. This is exactly what we find at Dodon in those parts of the vineyard planted on soils with layers of weathering oyster shells that share mineral characteristics with limestone. There are other wine characteristics that also seem to correlate with soil properties. Wines grown on clay tend to have a sticky quality on the palate; likewise, those grown in loam can have a powdery feeling.
Instead of looking at these sensory attributes, however, researchers have assessed far cruder outcome measures related to fertility, plant growth, and ripeness. As Matthews points out, grapevines grow well even when raised in a soilless environment, but this doesn’t mean that wines grown in diverse soils all taste the same. Although plant and fruit characteristics are not the outcomes of interest when asking about terroir, even using these crude measures, the studies seem consistent with an effect of soil properties on wine. Water restriction, whether through deficit irrigation or natural drainage, results in more color. Nitrogen availability is loosely associated with yeast metabolism and production of aromatic molecules during fermentation.
There are other flaws in Matthews’ arguments against terroir, some of which are simply unrelated to the core question he sets out to answer. For example, he points out that for most of the recorded history of winegrowing, terroir and its related tastes – goût de terroir if you will – had a pejorative connotation. Terroir wines were considered of lower quality, perhaps because of poor sanitation in the cellar that led to infection with brettanomyces, a yeast that gives wine a barnyard-like aroma. This historical view is interesting, but it is irrelevant to any rigorous understanding of the effects of terroir on wine. The same might also be said for his argument that terroir is nothing more than the invention of Burgundian marketing departments. And some of the arguments seem pointless. Although wines grown in various places can be distinguished by their mineral content, it would be silly to believe that flavor molecules are transported directly from the soil to the wine, so why spend the reader’s time rebutting them.
The idea that both time and terroir are illusions rests on the absence of evidence that they really exist. In both cases, human experience tells us otherwise. We perceive that time flows from past to future, serves as a useful measure of things like the duration of events and speed of a car, and allows us to get to appointments as scheduled. Our palates tell us that wines differ when grown in different places. The purpose of science is to explain our observations, so I’m confident that the scientists will eventually find the reasons for the discrepancy between their current research findings and our holistic experience. No fanciful belief in astral powers is required. In the meantime, the mysteries of both time and terroir are intellectually intriguing and fun to debate, so I plan to keep my watch handy and not miss tasting time.
It was a busy year around Dodon. In February, Matthieu Finot joined the team as consulting winemaker. Matthieu’s training in Burgundy and his 23 years in Virginia bring remarkable experience and a steady hand to the cellar team. In March, we were joined by vineyard consultant Lucie Morton and geologist Bubba Beasley to map the vineyards using electromagnetic induction. Our immediate motivation was to find those areas most appropriate for each varietal for our April planting of eight acres and 16,000 vines.
The mapping also set the stage for a visit from Claude and Lydia Bourguignon, consultants to some of the world’s most prestigious vineyards including Domaine Laflaive and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy, Château Trolong Mondot in Saint-Émilion, and Harlan Estates in Napa Valley. Claude and Lydia are interested in the Mid-Atlantic as a wine growing region because of the age of the soils. This is especially true of the coastal plain of Maryland where the soils originated during the first uplifting of the Appalachian Mountains about 480 million years ago. As these ancient soils weather, the ever smaller particles create surface area that allows formation of new minerals that are in turn available to the vines, adding complexity and timeless soul to the wine. Claude and Lydia offered some practical vineyard and winery practices to emphasize these characteristics in Dodon wines.
The growing season was average at best, filled with the usual challenges that require uncompromising attention to every detail. Very cold temperatures in February, below 15 degrees in 2015, are the kinds of temperatures that reduce insect populations, especially sharpshooters that spread Pierce’s Disease, even though they make dormant pruning a sometimes chilly experience. Gradual warming brought a typical mid-April bud-break, but cooler temperatures later in the month led to slow shoot development and flea beetle damage. May brought very dry weather, tough on the new plantings, until bloom, when a cool, wet stretch interfered with fruit set. The latter had two unexpected benefits. First, while the wet weather makes late season rots like botrytis more common, this year it also thinned the clusters in a way that partially mitigated that risk. Second, it allowed Tom to express his natural “farmer’s pessimism.” Put another way, it reminded us that nature is always in charge around the vineyard.
The remainder of the summer was largely hot and dry until harvest, when wet weather began with five inches of rain the third week in September. The new plants grew very slowly, good in the long run from a quality perspective, but also resulting in delays in production from those vines and in some cases, loss of the wines. Like most things, these conditions have advantages and disadvantages for bearing vines. The chief advantage is that it slows growth of the foliage and encourages early veraison, allowing the vine to put more energy into ripening the fruit. On the other hand, hot dry conditions encourage increases in potassium uptake, resulting in lower acid levels and wines that can taste “flabby.” On balance, since we can achieve the benefits of the dry conditions by letting the grass and weeds grow to compete with the vines for nutrients, we would have preferred a bit more rain this summer.
Harvest was, well, harvest. A low pressure system stalled off the Carolinas, bringing daily threats of rain and twice daily weather reports from our friend and colleague Bob Marshall, founder of the WeatherBug network. The rains during flowering and again in September created the conditions for late season bunch rots and led to marathon sessions at the sorting table. That said, despite year of almost perfectly backwards weather, we finished with 17 tons of excellent fruit that will produce about 1200 cases of wine that demonstrate the exceptional power, elegance, and harmony of the Dodon site.
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