Guest Blog from John Atkinsion MW: The Tyranny of Rocks: Terroir and Trompe l'Oeil

The walls of Burgundy’s vineyards match the pyramids for mass, but not elevation. Giza memorializes God-Kings where the shallow blockwork of the Côte d’Or recoils from the burden of the sublime. The Cistercians could find no way out of God’s maze and left us a labyrinthine vineyard  puzzle as a keepsake.

Instrumental science eventually got the world out from under God’s feet. Only at the end of the 17th Century was curiosity no longer considered a sin, but “the mark of a finite being with infinite pretension” (Blumenberg). Copernicus’s heliocentric universe was big, measurable and predictable.

The medieval world had drawn a sharp distinction between God’s infallibility and human frailty and capriciousness. In the post-Enlightenment world human culpability persists, though the contrast is made with a secularized nature that can’t perjure itself rather than a God whose perfection was taken for granted. Commenting on William Buckland’s cross-examination of history by geology, John Forrester concludes: “Rocks don’t lie!” Buckland provides sound reasons to doubt the veracity of our storytelling, whilst Forrester inadvertently sloganizes terroir for us.

The Enlightenment cleared a new space for mankind in the world, but inherited misgivings about human frailties continued to undermine self-affirmation. In Burgundy, Cistercian submissiveness was displaced from God to nature. The magnitudes of influence remained unchanged even if they were articulated through an amalgam of aspect, climate and geology rather than the actions of a transcendental deity. Human agency was limited to spectating a non-human creation. Burgundy producers who feel pressured to play down the impact of their daily exertions toe a deeply scored line.

There isn’t a conspiracy at work here; rather, within Burgundy the limits of knowledge are set by a past that discouraged curiosity and downplayed human expressivity beyond the elaboration of the divine. If, today, we follow our (E)nlightened instincts and use science to disentangle the individual threads of terroir from one another, we find our investigations quickly jam against a knot. In the same way that the Cistercians had imagined God’s creation to be irreducible, so terroir is presented as causative, immanent and totalizing. Roland Barthes wrote that faced with the world we vacillate between two possibilities: we can analyze and measure what is before us, or we can admit its obduracy and poeticize the “otherness” that deep-down alienates us from things.  Coupling the aesthetic with the analytic isn’t straightforward when romanticism and theory share the same object.

Terroir is depicted as a window on the world, yet the more we polish the smeary glass pane in front of us, the more sharply our reflection is returned. Writing about fashion, Jean Duvignaud observes that in societies where nakedness was customary the introduction of clothing eroticized women: “Nudity is only attractive when culture creates it”, he concludes. The desire to be side-by-side with nature, to experience things stripped bare – “as they really are” - is a persistent theme among wine critics. When I planted my vineyard I chastened myself with hand-hoeing, biodynamics and geological maps. Ten years later, and I now accept my time is best spent removing leaves and manipulating shoots. Back in 2005, the rock-strewn soil we planted looked like a stretch of wilderness, but through the repetition of tasks and my own inventiveness and toil, I now see industry and production where once I’d imagined Eden. That it even occurred to me that biodynamics might ultimately decide the success (or failure) of my start-up only illustrates the extent to which I was held captive by a seductive version of creationism.

Of course, it’s possible to imagine a time, a few centuries from now, when everything in the vineyard will be done through force of habit: the wisdom of past vintages will concertina into routines; production decisions will become second nature, so much so that the only nature that gets mentioned will be that of sun, rain and rock. The endless experimentation, failed trials and tweaks for posterity will all be forgotten as my heirs direct curious listeners toward a hidden world of geological strata that provides them with the blueprint for their activities.

Alternatively, these farmers of the future might look back at our time with bemusement, just as we now look back upon the complacent astronomers of the Middles Ages who saw measurement and skepticism as sinful. Religious dogmatism sustained the cramped dimensions of the Ptolemaic Universe, and future generations of wine drinkers might diagnose a similar malaise amongst predecessors who thought wine quality and the expression of environmental causes approximated to the same thing. They might well point out to one another that the evidence for a wider sphere of influence was with us all the time. From their perspective, every family, village and region develops its own culture of production through time, and this helps explain the inter-regional differences between Champagne and Sherry, as well as the intra-vineyard disparities between Coche-Dury and Lafon at the point where geological and climatic explanations fail. For them, our faith in environmental predestination was just nostalgia; we couldn’t quite free ourselves from inherited magnitudes of influence - medieval sentiments - that with the benefit of their hindsight seemed to stifle our accounts of our activities more than it inhibited the activities themselves.

This last point feeds into the error I made when planting my vineyard: that of taking terroir too literally, and trying to force old imaginings into an earnest work schedule.

Feuerbach drew a useful distinction between knowledge and curiosity. Curiosity operates with few constraints, hence Blumenberg’s allusion to our being “finite beings with infinite pretensions”.  The Enlightenment led to an outburst of curiosity and conjecture, as though rationality needs the impetus of imagination to properly reset its boundaries. Human intellect doesn’t like a void, and curiosity fills empty space with its own hybridized speculations forged out of old and new beliefs. Curiosity got the better of me when I splashed out on a hoe and geological maps in the same day, but it might also explain how Jancis Robinson can neglect the immanence of human activity to millennia of production and extol wine as “Geography in a glass.”  

My hope is that my bemused farmers of the future will both acknowledge the debt they owe their forebears - all the know-how and expertise that the past has shaped and gifted them - and better understand the relationship between vine physiology and the environment. Having rid themselves of the residues of medieval prejudice they will talk openly and confidently about their own creativity and contributions, and how these entangle productively and aesthetically with nature; their words will match-up with their deeds. They will look back at early 21st Century wrangles about terroir and natural wines as being well-intentioned, but mistaken. They won’t argue about whether Coche or Lafon captures Meursault in the highest vinous resolution because they realize nature doesn’t offer us any means of deciding between the two. The reason why we felt there was a decision to be made was because we never properly broke with the Cistercian suspicion that we were trusted observers and flawed creators.

From my perspective, our understanding of the evolution of wine style, at both regional and domain level, is enriched if we yoke the environment and man together. Just as biology has taught us that the egg came before the chicken, so, analogously, primitive production necessarily preceded any discussions of geology and climate. If we believe we can peel back centuries of doing and making and reverse the order of events so as to expose some kind of primordial purity, we are, to use Duvignaud’s insight, confusing “nakedness” with “nudity”.  I’m happy to accept natural wines on my terms, but not the rhetoric that’s served up with them.

Wittgenstein warned us against becoming “bewitched” by language. On our chilly Island, there is a long history of wine criticism and a very short history of wine production. My hunch is that with little to counterbalance our curiosity, we’ve all too readily taken Burgundian producers at their word and failed to recognize the fact that when we’ve asked How things are? we’ve instinctively been told how things were; - their answers are infused with medievalisms. Attributing everything to terroir, or sayingyou do nothing are just ways of clambering back under God’s feet.

Ultimately, if what producers do matters more than what they say, then no damage has been done; the wines will speak for them in their absence. Notwithstanding this, at a recent natural wine dinner the French importer told me that most of the early adopters in France didn’t have wine backgrounds, but were drawn into changing careers by rhetoric. Like me, they’d idealized terroir and then become seduced by their own creation. I lost faith when I realized that behind the hard work there was only more hard work. There was no unveiling of essence; though, unarguably, recognising my earlier ideas as trompe l’oeilmust count as some sort of revelation.

As wine critics we have a duty to be self-critical. Not only should we expose the anachronisms of others, but we must be wary of projecting our own ill-founded prejudices onto our loosely jointed industry. If I don’t see any difference between replacing indigenous varieties with Cabernet and unravelling Champagne blends into climats, it’s because I see vine roots extending into the cultural soil of Aÿ and Jerez, and not just reaching into the static chalk strata below. Rocks don’t lie, but neither do they tell the truth.

Posted by John Atkinson MW