The glory of Burgundy is its exquisite delineation of sites, its preoccupation with terroir: What does this site have to say? Is it different from its neighbor? It is the source of Burgundian greatness, the informing ingredient.
Matt Kramer, Making Sense of Burgundy, 40.
Goût de terroir is a phrase wine connoisseurs use to refer to associations between wine flavor and vineyard characteristics. For instance, that a certain Sauvignon Blanc tastes flinty because the grapes it was produced from were grown in flinty soil. Or, more figuratively, that a Pinot Noir grown in ground containing relatively more chalk will taste more delicate than a robust Pinot raised in less chalky soil. Although often taken for granted by casual wine drinkers, such associations are a topic of dispute among experts.
In this controversy, US wine writer Matt Kramer’s book chapter “The Notion of Terroir” (first published 1990) remains a touchstone.1 Kramer is a leading proponent of the widely shared view that a fine wine should express the identity of the place in which its grapes were grown. This evocation of “somewhere-ness” is best exemplified, he finds, by wines made from the numerous small vineyards of Burgundy in eastern France, each a terroir unto itself with a particular goût, or flavor.
Beginning in the early Middle Ages, the ancient understanding that a grapevine and its environment should suit one another (introduced into France by the Greeks and Romans) was refined with increasing precision in Burgundy. This important development in French agriculture is primarily credited to the monks of Cîteaux Abbey (founded 1098), who established and cultivated many of the region’s vineyards and made wine from the grapes. Over a period of 700 years, the labor-loving Cistercians transformed an isolated 30 miles of forested hills into the meticulously subdivided vine garden known today as the Côte d’Or. This section of Burgundy has long been regarded a source of extraordinary wine.
The Cistercians’ efforts were based on their discovery that distinct contrasts in taste and bouquet among local wines corresponded to geophysical contrasts among their vineyards, such as variations in soil, elevation, and exposure. Because the sensory differences could not be attributed to the grapes or the winemaking, which were largely invariable, the determinant had to be the form and composition of the land itself—la terre—which displays considerable diversity in the region.
Despite subsequent social change, including Revolution-era property reform and 20th-century struggles over vineyard definition and ranking, the outcome of the Cistercians’ toil has largely been preserved, even extended. Although Burgundy produces a good deal of wine not up to Kramer’s standard, to this day the demarcation of the Golden Slope and the consistent pattern of variance among its best wines represent a persuasive example of terroir’s conceptual validity. Appreciating these differences vineyard by vineyard, year by year is a passion shared by Burgundy lovers everywhere.
The mechanisms by which a vineyard creates terroir effects in the glass are unclear. Counterintuitively, most evidence suggests the connection between terre and verre is tenuous to nonexistent. Sensitive to this point, Kramer insists that a literal understanding of terroir—that rocks, dirt, and topography straightforwardly determine a wine’s taste and expression of somewhere-ness—is too narrow. Terroir, he writes, “holds yet another dimension: It sanctions what cannot be measured, yet still located and savored. Terroir prospects for differences. In this it is at odds with science, which demands proof by replication rather than in a shining uniqueness.”2 In other words, each wine terroir is a semi-metaphysical anomaly, unreproducible in the lab or in a vineyard somewhere else. This is the kind of thinking I like best in Kramer, who is aggressively opposed to wine-science reductionism.
Kramer attributes the abiding enthusiasm of modern France for somewhere-ness in wine to “two forces in French life: a long-standing delight in differences and an acceptance of ambiguity.”3 These forces seem contradictory. Differences seem to imply the opposite of ambiguity. But Kramer’s point is that recognizing and enjoying terroir variation among fine Burgundies—their individuality, their anticonformism—does not require explaining the source of that variation in precise geophysical terms. Which is where the French acceptance of ambiguity comes in: “But to acknowledge this requires a belief that the ambiguous—the unprovable and unmeasurable—can be real.”4 Plainly, for Kramer, somewhere-ness in a wine involves something else—something that concerns la terre but that you can’t (and should not expect to) put your finger on in terms of origin.
There is little love lost between Kramer and the terroir materialists. The latter don’t deny the consistent differences between top Burgundies or that these differences appear linked to where the vines grow. For the materialists, though, there are insurmountable barriers to accepting that, for example, soil mineralogy affects wine flavor. A scientist will tell you with apodictic certainty there are few to no minerals in wine and that rocks and dirt don’t have flavors anyway. Similar injunctions apply to relating sensations such as delicacy or robustness to vineyard minerals. That is to say, limestone-heavy soil is not responsible for that oyster-on-a-half-shell thing you love in a premium Chablis, and what may strike you as limestone, chalk, slate or, more generally, minerality in a wine has nothing to do with limestone or other such substances. The materialists have not been able to clarify the Burgundy paradox in a final sense. But they have come up with an abundance of intriguing correlations between wine sensory qualities and, for instance, the supply and drainage of water, soil microorganisms, ion charges around vine roots, or—the terroir materialist’s Grail—a combination of such factors.
The materialists and Kramer appear to agree that terroir effects are unmeasurable. But to believe that terroir wines possess an appreciable unmeasurable dimension—an audible vineyard “voice,” to adopt another Kramer metaphor—means as much to wine science types as miracles do to atheists. For these sober drinkers, wine is chemicals, the land a growth medium, the nose, tongue, brain a tasting machine—and the terroir issue will be settled on empirical terms or not at all. Sticking to his guns, Kramer contends terroir is “too subjective to be reproducible and therefore credible”5 for its skeptics. For my part, I remain instinctively Kramerian. With Kramer I feel that terroir doubters “are blocked by their own credulity in science and its confining definition of reality.”6
My personal take is that wine terroir cannot be regarded as a sensible, or empirical, object alone. For example, a landscape by Cézanne could be reduced to paint and canvas in the manner of reducing a wine terroir to its physical components. But this would do little justice to the painting or the issues Cézanne addresses in it (including that it consists of paint and canvas). Duly appreciating a Cézanne or a terroir wine requires the mental finishing of abstract cogitation, and the understanding that perception may require such thought. For me, a great Burg reaches its final realization not in the taster’s brain but in the undulating landscape of the taster’s mind.
I can add that I see wine itself as a place along the lines of a Heideggerian “clearing,” where the sensible world (of objects as they are given to the senses) and the conceptual world (of “objects” that don’t affect the senses but remain meaningful for us) meet and become acquainted, as it were. As a dedicated blind taster, I view (and masochistically enjoy) Kramer’s locating and savoring as part of an inevitable effort to explain wine flavor and bouquet in words, including such illogical but useful descriptors as “minerally” or “stony.” In fact, I find “locating and savoring” a nice image for the groping in the dark that constitutes human learning and—oh rare sunlit glade—the occasional, quickly obscured glimpse of what may be.
In any case, so goes the thinking on terroir. The systematic differences between wines and vineyards are not illusory. Yet they have not been scientifically explained. In this epistemological contest between Dionysians and Apollonians, the latter—geologists, chemists, climatologists, geographers, biologists—seem to hold the advantage. Their opponents, however, have not yet thrown in the towel. As such, the wine terroir controversy may encapsulate a wider conflict in contemporary culture.
That the notion of terroir could develop in Burgundy Kramer attributes to a relationship between the people of the Middle Ages and the natural world that was more intimate than ours and at the same time less secure. Kramer quotes French historian Marc Bloch: “In short, behind all social life [of the period] there was a background of the primitive, of submission to uncontrollable forces, of unrelieved physical contrasts.”7 For Kramer this close physical proximity to nature engendered a “raw, preternatural sensitivity,” including to differences in wine terroir.8 Had the legacy of this sensitivity not been preserved in the form of the Burgundian vineyard, we might well find it impossible in our own nature-alienated era to imagine wine terroir, much less create it, Kramer argues.
One must be cautious to speculate about the psychology of people living a thousand years ago. As Kramer notes, we can see the result of the Cistercians’ labor and surmise how they could help terroir differences stand forth (frequent tasting, precise varietal and clonal selection, strict yield limits, careful harvesting, simple cellar practices, copious storage capacity, scrupulous record keeping). But “the impulse, the fervor” of the Cistercian vineyardists and winemakers—why they did it—“is beyond us now.”9
Kramer is doubtless right the fanaticism the Cistercians displayed in their viticulture (and elsewhere in their lives) is hard to picture. But I think we can in fact gain an idea of what motivated the monks’ discovery and development of wine terroir if we consider Bloch’s “uncontrollable forces” were not limited to concrete problems like bad weather, illness, or hunger, as daunting as such matters frequently were. The profoundly unpredictable world the Cistercians inhabited was also afflicted by human unruliness, what Bloch hints at with “a background of the primitive,” what a medieval Christian would condemn as heathen or evil, what a psychologist might diagnose as innate brutality, what I would term a taste for nowhere-ness.
Such unruliness has had a long, obstinate life, and at least since the time of the ecstatic maenads, wine has been its close companion. Nietzsche even argued that in Greece developments as elaborate as tragic drama and Socratic rationality were required to finally tame the tumultuous Bacchus cults. Yet to tame (or ban, as Islam would) was not to eradicate, and despite the many miles and centuries that wine would travel from Bacchus’s homeland to France, it never lost its connection with the jouissance the maenads knew, an experiential realm in which meaning was suspended, subject and object indiscernible, love and hate one, pain and delight coextensive.
As is well known, wine had many important functions in the Middle Ages: in church ritual; as a sign of hospitality, status, and institutional power; as nourishment and medicine; as a commercial product. The Cistercians understood that the higher a wine’s quality, the greater its value in these roles could be. But for me the marking out of vineyard differences and the continuous refinement of those boundaries and the practices applied within them do not only reflect a will to make better wine.
As Bloch explains, in the society in which the Cistercians passed their lives of work and prayer Christianity was far from completely established. Medieval France still bore vibrant traces of myth and magic, and the unlettered, fertile imagination of the period was welcoming toward many forms of the supernatural, not just those favored by Christians. Pagan celebratory traditions such as May Day and other, less quaint customs of popular religion had set down long roots in Celtic and Roman Gaul (see Frazer on the Corn Spirit for some harrowing examples of harvest-related practices). It is also important to note that in the medieval mentality—Christian and proto-Christian alike—social and natural calamities and blessings belonged to the same category. War or peace, blight or the glory of a full harvest—all was the result of hidden wills.
Thus, to a Cistercian, a vineyard was never merely a field of wine grapes. It was always also an emanation of the unseen, destructive or benevolent powers that determined the course of things. This is why for me it is possible to view the Cistercian recognition and expansion of wine terroir as an attempt to influence, restrict, and finally master the socio-natural anarchy so tightly affiliated with wine and that rode so close to the surface in the Cistercian world. Not unlike the tragedy and the Socratic method, the Cistercian ordering of the Burgundian vineyard—one might also consider here wine’s place in the rite of the Eucharist—echoes that Greek ambition lamented by Nietzsche to gain a controlling physical, emotional, and intellectual grip on perilous and mysterious forces—those in nature that could give rise to wine grapes (and just as easily destroy them) as well as those that wine could unleash in the human heart. Thus, the impetus for the Cistercian pursuit of wine terroir was not limited to a wish to make better Pinot and Chard. Wine terroir also sprang from a desire to subject wine and its strange power to a moral order, to prevent a fragile society from collapsing into Bacchic nowhere-ness.
As Bloch’s successor Georges Duby observes, the gorgeous yet strictly regular lettering that Cistercian leader Bernard of Clairvaux demanded of his calligraphers was matched by the strict ordering of the Cistercian vineyards, “offered to the light of God, where the vines, which pruning rendered more productive, are aligned in long straight rows, as the trained human body too is straight, as the human soul must be and the human regard—rigorously directed toward God.”10 Unmistakably, the evolution of wine terroir in Burgundy typifies the Church’s ever more encompassing effort to taxonomize man and nature, to domesticate and recast reality in Christian form.
As additional expressions of this project one can cite other aspects of Cistercian culture, which spread rapidly beyond Cîteaux to every corner of Europe: the architecture of the Cistercian churches and monasteries, the writings of the remarkable Bernard, chanting, horticulture, stockbreeding, mechanics, counting (the Cistercians invented their own numbering system), labor organization, politics. All these examples of ordo-ism were characterized by a dedication to austerity and practicality. All reflect an unrelenting effort to regulate human and natural unruliness according to an ideal model.
Cistercian vineyard systematization also reflects wider social developments of the period. For example, in the ascendancy of patrilineage and primogeniture over the large kinship group-based family structure and inheritance pattern, we can recognize a kind of social viticulture that parallels the endeavor to establish and propagate the best grape types and rearing methods. Similarly, in the emerging concept of the individual human being with a personal identity—something Bernard in fact deplored—we can note an analogy with the delimitation of vineyard sites according to the unique and enduring identities of the wines grown in them.
In sum, the Cistercian art of the vineyard reflects the quasi-maniacal control impulse underlying the creation of a new, fully Christian social and metaphysical order. Small wonder Kramer finds it difficult to perceive why. Ultimately, the invention of wine somewhere-ness was part and parcel of the fundamental repression of nowhere-ness at the basis of French and European civilization. We’ve been taught not to look there.
Elsewhere in “The Notion of Terroir” Kramer departs from his enthusiasm for wine terroir’s nonobjectivity and draws his reader’s attention to “the [modern psychological] transition from the literal to the subjective in how we perceive what is ‘real.’”11 “In an age where the subjective has become accepted as being more ‘real’ than the representational,” Kramer writes,
the idea of an immutable terroir becomes troublesome. It complicates ego-driven individualism, the need to express a personal vision. In an era of relativism and right of self-expression, Chambertin as terroir has given way to Chambertin as emblem. The notion of terroir as an absolute is rejected. All Chambertins therefore become equally legitimate. We have come to accept that a grower’s Chambertin is really only his or her idea of Chambertin. The vineyard name on the label is merely as a general indication of intent.12
Kramer’s point is that overly subjective modern winemakers distort the voice of the vineyard out of a compulsion to express the ego—that bane of selfish times. If a wine’s somewhere-ness is to be preserved, Kramer argues, modern winemakers must resist the opportunity for self-expression that technological innovation (temperature-controlled fermentation tanks, micro-oxygenators, fancy yeast, custom barrels) offers them. In opposition to such technical, egotistical winemaking, Kramer commends the approach of his humble Cistercians, basic, noninterventionist, unconcerned with distinguishing “between what they discovered and called Chambertin and the idea of a representation of Chambertin.”13
Although my Cistercians don’t seem exactly humble, personally, I too prefer what one might call an “honest” Burg, whether from an unknown producer or famed Kramer demigoddess Lalou Bize-Leroy. So too do many other wine fans, and not only in their Burgundy. In fact, in the thirty years since “The Notion of Terroir” first appeared the resistance to winemakers putting a personal twist on their wines—not just in the interest of self-expression but also to distinguish their products from the competition—has blossomed into a complete winemaking style. Kramer’s praise for the “deferential view of the natural world” of the “self-effacing” Cistercian vigneron14 aligns him with the neo-Luddistic natural wine movement, not as its instigator, I should note, but in a general way as a highly visible partisan. In a separate essay, Kramer appeals directly to natural winemakers for their support in “the fight for the soul of wine,” a phrase with a ring at once medieval and Motown.15
To develop his view of the winemaker’s ideal relationship to the vineyard—the one that will make somewhere-ness resonate—Kramer adopts a counterexample: expressionist painting, the nonnaturalistic early 20th-century artistic movement associated with Kirchner, Kandinsky, and Marc. The expressionists, Kramer writes, “maintained that the reality of a vase of flowers could be better expressed by breaking down its form and color into more symbolic representations of its reality than by straightforward depiction.”16 It is this outlook, Kramer finds, that led to the for him problematic belief that “the subjective can be more ‘real’ than the representational”17 and, once transferred to the wine world, wine that no longer conveys somewhere-ness. To avoid this result, Kramer recommends winemakers approach their task in the spirit of a floral still life by, say, the elder Jan Brueghel or Fantin-Latour, seeking to minimize subjective distortion so as to better capture and preserve natural vineyard character.
Kramer’s view is reminiscent of Marxist and New Objectivist critiques of expressionism in favor of concreteness. But I don’t agree with it. For the expressionists, artistic subjectivity was an attempt to reclaim their full humanity in the face of the arch-rational, objectifying culture that had come to predominate in Europe at the end of the 19th century. It’s also important to recall that the expressionists found considerable inspiration in medieval art, precisely in its freedom from the perceptual rationalism that eventually emerged in the Renaissance. In truth, I think one might be able to argue that Kramer’s “raw, preternaturally sensitive” Cistercians were sometimes more like emotionally involved expressionists than aloofly observing, self-restrained realists.
At the same time, although the Côte d’Or is a striking relic of what Max Weber called the great still-enchanted garden of a premodern society,18 one can also view the Cistercians as an early source of modern rationalism. To control their violently disordered world they had to objectify it, an impulse Kramer supports in his praise of wine realism, as do expressionism’s other opponents (New Objectivity).
I think what Kramer actually wants to say is that the Cistercians did not conceive of themselves purely in the instrumentalist relationship to reality that is the fundamental attitude of both contemporary terroir materialism and subjective winemaking and more or less the perceptual default setting of our time. As Kramer writes, to a Cistercian, the difference between a Chambertin and its neighboring Latricière was “no more subject to doubt than was [distinguishing] a nightingale’s song from the screech of an owl. They knew what they tasted, just as they knew what they heard. These were natural forces, no more subject to alteration or challenge than a river.”19 In other words, the Cistercians were heedful observers of nature. But when they acted on it, their action was less stringently purposive, less exclusively means-ends, more respectful and modest than, for example, the modern Columbia Basin Project (begun in the 1930s), an extensive system of dams and canals constructed to irrigate a million acres of central Washington State (why chant when you’ve got dynamite). That is, strong as it was, the Cistercian control impulse still took into account nonobjective, mysterious aspects of the vineyard and thus remained at least partially symbolic and interpretative.
As engaging as Kramer’s ideas are, it is inconsistent of him to insist on the value of subjectivity in defending terroir from its empiricist skeptics only to reject that value when it comes to the modern winemaker’s relation to the vineyard. By advocating literalism with respect to representing wine terroir, Kramer dilutes his view that terroir has an ambiguous, unprovable, unmeasurable dimension. Rejecting expressionism as too subjective, he essentially shakes hands with the terroir empiricists on their commitment to the materialist setup.
Unsurprisingly, Kramer’s call for a realistic representation of somewhere-ness in wine is also a plea for authenticity. “Many bottles from many illustrious vineyards are little more than mere ventriloquism, impersonations of the authentic voice of the land,” Kramer writes.20 Kramer’s championing of authenticity stems from a chivalrous urge to protect fine Burgundy and other somewhere wines, be it from ultra-objective moneymakers or self-enamored warpers of vineyard personality. Yet as Theodor Adorno sets out with characteristic remorselessness, the value of authenticity originates as a necessary deception in consumer culture: “Only when countless standardized commodities project, for the sake of profit, the illusion of being unique, does the idea take shape, as their antithesis yet in keeping with the same criteria, that the non-reproducible is the truly genuine.”21
I can hear Kramer responding that this is his position. That is, that when too many self-expressing winemakers produce too many unique takes on Chambertin, genuine, authentic Chambertin goes lost. But Adorno’s argument is that noble as they may be, appeals for authenticity are part of the problem: “Indeed, not only inauthenticity that poses as veridical ought to be convicted of lying: authenticity itself becomes a lie in the moment it becomes authentic, that is, in reflecting on itself, in postulating itself as genuine, in which it already oversteps the identity that it lays claim to in the same breath.”22 What Adorno is saying in his convoluted way is that authenticity is unavoidably inauthentic because like the value of gold, it is not absolute but subject to social relations and thus only expresses “the fungibility, the comparability of things.”23 Similar arguments are familiar from Benjamin and Baudrillard.
Kramer carefully notes “winemaking in Burgundy really is translation.”24 He means that zero intervention between vineyard and palate is unfeasible. “Terroir should be transmitted as free as possible of extraneous elements of style or taste,” he writes.25 But Kramer nevertheless adopts the vocabulary of authenticity to evoke the ideal revelation of somewhere-ness, one that the best Burgundies should aspire to and be judged against. Examples include such words and phrases as “immutable terroir,” “terroir as an absolute,” “straight wire” (i.e., unmediated), “straightforward mechanical or linear linkages such as the groove in a phonograph record”, “lifelike”, and “Zenlike.”26 One could also include here Kramer’s entire mythologizing projection of the far-off, untainted Cistercians as being sublimely in touch with their environment and us fallen moderns still being capable of reviving that wholesome relation if we work at it.
As Adorno argues,27 such thinking has a checkered history, having been deployed from Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to the Blood and Soil ideologues (including Black Forest glade hunter Heidegger) to the postwar advocates of everything from existentialism to granola to oppose idealism and abstraction in favor of the sincere, the real. It persists because despite the fraudulence of appeals to the genuine, authenticity has its uses, to conceal, for example, the painful fact that in late-capitalist society the human self has volatilized, become phantom.28
Adorno is intransigent on this count. For him the basis of all authenticity jargon remains a mistaken belief in the human self as some inviolable kernel of being. “What presents itself as an original entity, a monad, is only the result of a social division of the social process. Precisely as an absolute, the individual is a mere reflection of property relations” and has no existence outside them.29 In an unintended confirmation of Adorno’s view, Kramer devotes a large number of pages of his Burgundy book to detailed lists of vineyard ownership among the Côte d’Or communes. The quest for terroir and wines with somewhere-ness may reflect a fear Adorno was right.
What to do? For Adorno we have no choice but to embrace the problem: “Anything that does not wish to wither should rather take on itself the stigma of the inauthentic.”30 That is, with respect to wine terroir, we should hold to Kramer’s original point: Terroir is “terroir,” an “as if,” nothing concrete, nothing measurable but rather a pleasurable mix of difference and ambiguity.
“None were left now to unname, and yet how close I felt to them…” So writes Ursula K. Le Guin in her brief tale “She Unnames Them.”31 The tale reverses the story from Genesis in which Adam gives names to God’s creatures. Le Guin’s rebellious (and unnamed) Eve finds the time has come to remove these labels—which the animals never countenanced anyway—and return the bearers to their original anonymity. Eve’s point is that naming is a delimiting behavior that diminishes the real while at the same time becoming a lesser substitute for it. Taxonomy leads to ranking. Ranking leads to domination. Eve wants to nullify all that, to live in a pre-denominated paradise. Her unnamed world is richer and her experience of it both more intimate and more threatening. “They [the creatures] seemed far closer than when their names had stood between myself and them like a clear barrier: so close that my fear of them and their fear of me became one same fear.”32 I sense a little authenticity-seeking here. But perhaps one could also say that nameless Eve’s nameless Eden is a world that has recovered its nowhere-ness. It is Earth as earth, primal pre-imagined matter.
My point in this coda is to remind my reader and myself that to make sense is to imagine, that to imagine is to create. It is to mark a caesura between subject and object, between feeling and knowing, between the abstract and the material, between the spiritual and the temporal, between fiction and fact. All such naming, whether in the cause of Christianity, science, authenticity, or vineyard identity, remains ideology, morality.
Still, for the attentive taster, a fine Burg can subvert such domination. If you put your innermost ear to the glass, you might yet hear the maenad’s cry from beyond the limits of reason, of language, of invention. Ironically, the test of a somewhere wine is whether it transmits the indecipherable, ineradicable, obscene taste of nowhere.