Wine Context: Religion, Terroir & Pinot Noir

Recently a number of my Lifford colleagues flew down to New Zealand for Pinot Noir 2013, their triennial conference that is attended by many of the world's top producers of the grape, critics, writers, importers and enthusiasts. Last week I was forwarded a link to the transcript of Matt Kramer's keynote address titled: Can Atheists Make Great Pinot Noir?  It is definitely worth taking a moment to follow the link for a great read...

Not surprisingly, this is one of the best things I've read recently. Matt Kramer seems to be one of the few broader thinkers amongst the major critics in wine writing and who I've been most philosophically aligned with. Like the title of my graduate work "The Cultural Production of Fine Wine" I've long believed the context, history and sociology is as important to understanding wine as the technical production or tasting. Too often bottom line answers are produced out of strictly scientific data, but as science proves and disproves itself time and time again (as is inherent in its method) there is a lot of value in the things that aren't scientifically proven or measured...like terroir and biodynamics.

A cross outside the vineyards of Burgundy's Vosne-Romanée.

Kramer makes an interesting and important link between the religion of monks who developed France's major wine regions and how their sacred terroir (of Burgundy, Alsace, Champagne, Loire, etc) came to be so revered today. By using single varietals like Pinot Noir for an unbastardized interpretation of the terroir they were attempting to let the voice of God shine through as purely as possible in flavour. It may not be the voice of God we're looking for anymore in viticulture, but this history has no doubt influenced the same venerated approach and intense respect for the soil that they have today. It accounted for something otherwise unaccountable, as Matt Kramer suggested making 2+2=5.

There are many technically perfect or stylistically typical wines where 2+2=4, but they lack that je ne sais quoi that takes it to 5. And we all know those wines that we've tasted that have it, that are somehow extra special and most often come from Old World regions with this type of history. They taste like they're slightly outside the box but perfectly within it, which almost always is an effect of terroir, not "winemaking". Kramer highlights that it's no coincidence the highest proportion of biodynamic viticulture today is found in Burgundy. Even if it not explained in these terms, this is partially how biodynamics helps with viticulture these days. By instilling a philosophy of minimal interventionism and working with the earth's cycles, it allows the vineyard to find its own equilibrium to naturally showcase its terroir...Fostering the conditions necessary to potentially let 2+2=5.

Shortly after the New Zealand Pinot Noir conference, a similar one was held in the Mornington Penninsula and Ted Lemon, winemaker at Littorai in California and Burn Cottage in Central Otago, gave a speech about New World Terroir that helped bring Kramer's idea full circle. Lemon recalled his early days in Burgundy learning winemaking and in his research stumbled upon a history of prestigious vineyards just outside of Paris, which nearly all memory of has disappeared. Lemon extrapolates this forgotten history of once-prestigious terroir to an idea of Noble Places, instead of only inherently superior dirt. He positions 'terroir' as a human construct that is "composed of historical, cultural, economic, scientific and agronomic components." Similar to Kramer's history of religion underpinning the development of France's great regions, here Lemon uses the concept to explain why the New World does not yet have the same venerated 'terroir' sites, because "there will never be pure, great and true New World terroirs until we accomplish the esthetic and cultural parts of building the edifice."

In other words, 2+2 will not equal 5 solely on the basis of growing grapes on an inherently "better" piece of dirt. Kramer demonstrated this with his mention of the character-less and boring Burgundian wines made through the 70's and 80's when many producers experimented with chemicals, pesticides and fertilizers. Reverting back to the more natural processes developed culturally over time has brought back the ability to produce the superlative wines they were known for. It seems the foundation for many of the greatest wines in the world is as much cultural as it is physical, whether it be through religion, biodynamic philosophy or some other cultural construct. And overall this is another great example how in wine the context is everything.