All this controversy about terroir has got me thinking about the influences of that “je ne sais quoi” that ends up in the bottle. Most wine is incredibly manipulated. It stands to reason that minimal manipulations should reflect the terrain the best, that any inputs would dull the impact of the place expressing through the final product. It’s an argument for natural wine, but just because a wine is natural doesn’t make it a good wine. This is borne out so often in the tasting, alas.
So I’ve preferred those definitions of terroir that alude to a partnership between the vigneron and land, but still find that concept pretty grandiose in practice. While I do see myself in partnership with my land, I also see that the contract isn’t on my terms, and the fine print keeps showing up. Partnership implies a certain give and take. But even the most enlightened farmers I know are giving through human prescribed lenses and taking what they are able. There’s little sense of mystery - the partner isn't actually acknowledged nor credited.
I don’t know how enlightened I am. I’m dogged though, learning from knowledgable old timers, and books, and from my comparatively limited in duration, direct experience of the land. Theoretically it’s coherent. But I suspect that the land is just incredibly generous and tolerant of or amused by my arrogant attempts to “work with it".
Yet some aspects of my relationship to the land are undeniably reflected in the wine. Does my vibration as a grower enter into it? Do my moods, preoccupations, and energies really affect the outcomes? Or are my results merely a question of the physical inputs the vines receive on this particular piece of earth?
Today I was planting Peppermint trees (Agonis flexuosa) along the Caves Road verge. The rain was hammering down, as it has been for months, no let up in sight, resulting in unprecedented surface water in the vineyard (unprecedented in my experience). All that water has to go somewhere. The result is that I crossed two deep flowing creeks, where previously at most I’ve experienced a trickle.
The freshly shoveled dirt smelled the way it looked, red and luscious and deep. I sniffed it greedily, rain splashing everywhere. I was camouflaged in my green raingear, and crouching on my knees, patting a seedling home, when I was startled by a pair of ducks gliding to a touchdown right in front of me plopping into the creek and swimming upstream.
They actually didn’t see me as they swam in tandem against the current, ducking and feeding and quacking to each other. Partners. Could terroir be the partnership between the land and what we do on it? What an arrogant thought. Terroir is the grace of this place, the generosity of all the forces and powers operating here, mostly beyond my ken. Like this creek that appears in the rainy season to house a universe of animals and plants, only to disappear in perfectly adapted dormancy in the dry, it is the only appropriate response to forces and cycles no farmer can hope to manipulate, or understand.