In 1990, Matt Kramer coined the term “somewhere-ness” in his magnum opus, Making Sense of Burgundy.
For decades, other writers and scholars have explored the nuances and distinctions of wines that have senses of place, versus the high-scoring, high-alcohol, fruit bombs that mostly taste the same and could be from anywhere.
The late Kermit Lynch praised the concept of terroir in his Adventures on the Wine Route: “Real wine is more than an alcoholic beverage. When you taste one from a noble terroir that is well made, that is intact and alive, you think there is a gift of nature, the fruit of the vine eked out of our earth, ripened by our sun, fashioned by man.”
Kramer further reported:
Although derived from soil or land (terre) terroir is not just an investigation of soil and subsoil. It is everything that contributes to the distinction of a vineyard plot. As such, it also embraces “microclimate”: precipitation, air and water drainage, elevation, sunlight, and temperature. But terroir 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.
Allen D Meadows, publisher of Burghound and co-author with Doug Barzelay of Burgundy Vintages – a History from 1845, has a chapter in the new On Burgundy anthology on “Messages from the Earth.”
He says every vineyard in the world has an underlying terroir in the form of both a source (character) and strength of signal. The problem he notes is that for most vineyards, not only is the character indistinct (bland) but the strength of the signal is also weak. The produce of these vineyards is typically so undistinguished the wineries blend with other vineyards in the hopes of adding more character and distinction, usually at the expense of uniqueness. By contrast the greatest vineyards offer not only an unmatched originality but also a very strong signal; in Burgundy, he writes, the top vineyards have attracted admirers of their distinctive wines for hundreds of years.
Meadows says ongoing generations of Burgundy enthusiasts have come to understand the unique character of the great vineyards and to avidly seek them out; it is as though their taste memories have learned to tune into these specific radio frequencies in such a way that they become recognizable.
“As testament of this, these connoisseurs can often identify the same wines blind with impressive regularity. This alone is compelling evidence the terroir does indeed exist because of the consistency of vineyard character from one vintage to another.”
He says the anti-terroirists believe the reason the wines of a given commune taste the way they do is because vignerons forced these wines into a particular style.
“I visit some 350 domains each vintage and it is clear that the most serious are committed to the clear expressions of their terroirs. While vine age and other such factors undoubtedly play a role in the character of the resulting wine, a Gevrey is so obviously different from a Volnay or Chambolle, the technique alone cannot explain all of their distinguishing features.”
He notes that if wineries from less expensive areas and with less character would try to consistently imitate the best characters of the top producers they would fail. The key is going from the earth to the vine to the wine, he said. “Each vineyard has its own unique identity, with a set of individual characteristics that make a statement unlike any other, just as your face is unlike any other.”
Kramer, Lynch, Meadows, and all those who cherish wines with a sense of place now have scientific proof that terroir does exist and creates chemical signatures that can be measured and pinpointed to winery locations on regional maps.
As published in Nature and first covered in Decanter, scientists used gas chromatography, artificial intelligence, and machine learning to create a model that could pinpoint the precise origin of Bordeaux wines from seven estates over 12 vintages with 100% accuracy. The chemical signatures included several aspects of terroir, such as soil, rootstock, varietal, location, blend and winemaking practices.
Although Bordeaux is less complex geologically than Burgundy, Mosel, Tuscany, and other major wine-producing areas of the world, the scientific approach and model can be replicated elsewhere. Further studies will enhance our understanding and appreciation of what winemakers have been achieving for centuries on prized parcels and validate the existence of distinct characteristics previously defined by subjective analysis.
The abstract in Nature reported: “We explored whether Bordeaux wine chemical identities and vintages (harvest year) can be inferred from a common and affordable chemical analysis, namely, a combination of gas chromatography (GC) and electron ionization mass spectrometry. Using 12 vintages (within the 1990–2007 range) from 7 estates of the Bordeaux region, we report that, remarkably, nonlinear dimensionality reduction techniques applied to raw gas chromatograms recover the geography of the Bordeaux region. Using machine learning, we found that we can not only recover the estate perfectly from gas chromatograms, but also the vintage with up to 50% accuracy. Interestingly, we observed that the entire chromatogram is informative with respect to geographic location and age, thus suggesting that the chemical identity of a wine is not defined by just a few molecules but is distributed over a large chemical spectrum. This study demonstrates the remarkable potential of GC analysis to explore fundamental questions about the origin and age of wine.”
The wines were tested 50 times with 100% accuracy. Researchers believe the science can be used to combat counterfeiting and identify old bottles found without labels in old cellars. Graphs and charts generated by the data showed another nuance of Bordeaux: the model identified Left Bank and Right Bank wines. Imagine what science might find if the methodology was applied to wines from villages all along the Cote d’ Or.
Check the Nature publication for more insights. Embrace that proof terroir is real and here’s hoping scientists apply the model to studying other major wine areas of the world, wherever distinct character and senses of place are admired!