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The ancient roots of terroir

The ancient roots of terroir

Aaron Pott

We have invented nothing! It is true that the word terroir has become very popular in recent years, but the ideas that form the basis behind the ideas of terroir have always existed. It is only fitting that one of the first mentions of terroir in literature is a mythic one. It occurs in The Epic of Gilgamesh, said to have been written during the time of Hammurabi, in about the 18th century B.C. However, the poem is an historical account and refers to a much earlier epoch. Our hero, the warrior and lover Gilgamesh, himself the son of gods, is allowed after much debate to enter into the domain of the sun, and after 24 hours of travel he comes upon an incredible vineyard:

“Amethyst it bore as fruit,

Grapevine was trellised, good to behold,

Lapis lazuli it bore as grape clusters,

Fruit it bore magnificent to look upon.”

The vineyard belonged to the divine tavern keeper and goddess Siduri. The vines represented the tree of life and the “noble and precious” wine that Siduri made from the vineyard imparted eternal life. However, Siduri’s disdain for mortals prevented Gilgamesh from partaking in the powerful elixir.

This is the essence of the idea of terroir: a vineyard unique, like no other; a wine produced showing its great and noble pedigree and an exclusivity that makes it rare. What more could savvy wine marketing or public relations directors ask for–a wine so rare that a great warrior and the son of gods could not even obtain it.

Of course terroirs exist in and of themselves, but it takes humans to quantify and qualify them. Terroir must be recognized. What makes a great terroir? Why do we find wines from one area superior to others? I think the answer to this lies equally in reality as in myth. History plays an important role in both the myth and the reality. Great terroirs must prove their pedigree over time, but how long can we expect them to last?

Ancient Origins

Where does the idea of terroir originate? Obviously, the idea is pre-historic, as humans were bound to realize the differences between different growing areas and doubtless established hierarchies from the beginning. But when did it become the well-established and precious idea that exists today?

By the 4th millennium B.C., wines from lowland Greater Mesopotamia were being exchanged extensively along trade routes with established outposts leading out of the Mesopotamian alluvium via the Diyala basin. At this time, wine was already being thought of as a luxury product in this newly emerging, complex bureaucratic society. However, although it must have surely existed, there is no evidence that survives suggesting that qualitative differences were established based on provenance. This historical recognition of terroir would only come later.

Wines in ancient Egypt were contained in clay jars that were sealed with a mud stopper at bottling to protect them from oxidation. The final step in this process was to roll a cylindrical seal over the stopper, leaving an imprint on the enclosure. An essential component of the inscriptions was the name of the king reigning at the time.

During the second dynasty in ancient Egypt, circa 2650 B.C., the idea of terroir was to reach its ultimate stage. It became a custom at this time to include, in addition to the royal vintage year on the jars, place names that were often enclosed in ovals on the seals. These appellation names represented walled precincts or estates where the wines were produced.

During the reign of Cheops, builder of the Great Pyramid at Giza and the second king of the 4th dynasty (about 2530 B.C.), it was customary for the dead to be buried with adequate food and wine for the long trip through the afterlife. In order to save space in a tomb, this idea was often abbreviated in the form of an inscription or stela that would describe the deceased’s food and drink needs for the long journey. The stela of Wepemnofret, found in the tomb of one of the king’s great officials, reads like a modern wine list. The list identifies three distinct sites of production: Sunu-wine coming from the border town of Sile, Hamu-wine from the vineyards around Lake Mareotis in the western Delta and Imet from Nebesha in the eastern Delta. It is interesting to note that for several hundred years these small regions produced wine that became the standard by which all other wines in the Egyptian kingdom were measured. This idea shows a remarkable similarity and perhaps equal unreliability to the Medoc classification of 1855.

According to Athenaeus, a Greek writer of the 2nd century A.D., these same areas survived the test of history by producing the greatest wines in his day, but their color had changed from red to white. He described them in his extensive tasting notes as “excellent, white, pleasant, fragrant, easily assimilated, thin, not likely to go to the head and diuretic.”

The most impressive examples of the evolution of terroir are the 26 wine jars found in the tomb of Tutankhamon. Still sealed and intact, their inscriptions contain better information than on some of today’s best bottles. The vintage was indicated by the regnal year of the king, the name of the winemaker and even the location and owner of the vineyard, going so far as to indicate particular parcels in the vineyard. Two of these wine jars are on display in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England. The labels read as follows: from jar No. 394: “Year 4. Of very good quality of the House of Aton of the Western River. Chief vintner Khay.” And from jar No. 571: “Year 5. Sweet wine of the House of Aton from Karet. Chief vintner Ramose.” These wine jars are remarkable only due to their intact state. Tutankhamon’s reign was extremely short, only nine years. It is believed that other pharonic tombs held as many as 300 wine jars, and it can be assumed that even more detail embellished these labels.

The wine jars in the storehouses of Ramesseum, the mortuary temple of Ramses III, show the evolution of the values of terroir into the 19th Dynasty. Thirty different estates are named that include regional designations from all the branches of the Nile, together with temple and royal estate sub-appellations. An average temple estate produced only about 50 jars per year, so it can be assumed that their surface area was quite limited. One of the very famous vineyards of this epoch was known as Kaenkeme, the wines of which were described by a scribe named Pbes as “mellow wine surpassing honey.”

The Greeks as well had their great wine producing areas. Boeotia, according to Homer, was famous for its vineyards as early as the 8th century B.C. According to Alcman, Spartan wine of the Seven Hills was remarkable for the delicacy of its bouquet. Anthenaeus praises the wines of Tanagra and Anthedon, which may have come from vineyards that by his time were centuries old. Virgil wrote of the greatness of the wines from Phanaean and Methymnaean from the isle of Lesbos, and Appollodorus preferred the 6-year-old wine of the isle of Peparethe.

By Roman times, Greece had become to the Mediterranean world what France represents to the world today: the land of wine. The Italians of the 2nd Century B.C. drank domestic wines, but imported Greek wines as a luxury. By the 1st century B.C., Italian wines were leading the market, as Greek wines became unfashionable.

In 121 B.C. began the golden century of Roman wines known as the Opimian, wines named after the consul Opimius. Vineyards that rose to fame during this period include those in Sicily–Mammertine and Messinan–and lesser wines such as Potulan and Taurominium that according to Pliny were often passed off by unscrupulous wine merchants as Mammertime, a more valued wine. The region had three distinct crus: Consentia, Tempsa and Rhegian. According to Martial, the vineyards of the city of Rome yielded horrible wines and only the vappa vaticani on the Vatican hill produced drinkable fare.

The greatest crus of Roman Italy were those of Falernian, or the “immortale Falernum,” of Martial or “ardens Falernum” of Horace, a Campanian wine that had three separate grand crus–Gaurian at the top of the hill, Faustian on the slope, considered the best quality and Falernian proper at the bottom of the slope.

It is amazing to see that ideas of terroir are simple and timeless. During this period, after a visit to Spain and France, Pliny the Elder wrote that “the two provinces are unsuitable for wine but are excellent areas for producing beer.” By this time, with the help of pioneering viticulturalists like Columella, techniques were being used to increase grape quality and therefore wine quality.

The law of Domitian in 92 A.D. showed how terroir could support American-style protectionism. According to Suetonius, Domitian believed that the over-production of wine was due to the fact that grapes were being planted on unsuitable soils. The Emperor therefore issued a decree, which prohibited any new planting of vines in Italy and ordered the destruction of half the vineyards in the provinces of the Empire. At this time the great vineyards of Burgundy were just beginning to flourish in Beaune and Nuit St. George.

In Burgundy in 1395, Philippe le Hardi Duc de Bourgogne, a man of great sensibilities, was so repulsed by the coarseness and rusticity of wines made from the Gamay grape that he instructed his subjects to uproot the variety. Philippe declared, “The very nasty and very disloyal plant named Gaamez (sic),” was “most harmful to every human creature; to such a point that many who have used it in the past have suffered from serious illnesses.”

Later, in 1441, those vineyards planted to Gamay, generally the lowlands, were destroyed. This nearly ends the plantation of Gamay in the region of the Cote d’Or, establishes Pinot noir as the noble variety of the region and, as well, limits its plantation primarily to the Cotes. Pinot noir therefore becomes part of Burgundy. The taste of Pinot noir is and will be for a long time influenced by this fact. A great terroir is born.

Modern Application

Today, whether Pinot noir is planted in the Russian River in California, Geelong in Australia, Bio Bio in Chile or in Central Otago in New Zealand, it must respect the medieval paradigm partially established by Philippe le Hardi in 1395. It must be typical of the variety. However, what is typical of the variety is to a great deal affected by the terroir of Burgundy. This is to say, for Pinot noir to be Pinot noir, it must have a vaguely similar profile to the wines of Burgundy. This is the imprint of a great terroir–that it dominates the style of all of the regions of the world by its uniqueness of character.

We must respect those terroirs that have preceded us, but will this always be the case? We have seen how quickly the wines of antiquity are lost to history, but do we today have a linear historical connection to these wines? Are the wines of Burgundy now, and therefore the Pinot noir and Chardonnay of the New World, influenced by the wines of Rome, Greece and even Egypt?

As we have seen in an historical sense, great terroir is short lived. Many areas that produced great wine have been forgotten in the span of 100 years. Many areas that we consider valuable today have only been that way for 50 years.

By producing great wines on new terroirs, the New World wines are changing people’s idea of what wines should taste like, and therefore what terroir is. Whether we compare Cabernet Sauvignon from the Medoc with the same variety from the Napa Valley, or Syrah from the Rhone with a Shiraz from Barossa Valley, the answer is the same–there are new terroirs that produce great wines!

With the advent of these new wines, we are gaining a more complete understanding of how terroir works. Because the New World has great terroirs, the idea of terroir is reinforced, not diminished. We can no longer say and expect to be taken seriously that the New World does not have great terroir.

In today’s world, we cannot always count on history to maintain the greatness of our terroirs. So what can we do to preserve their greatness and assure that our terroirs are long lived and not forgotten?

I think that the most important course of action that we can take is in the realm of education. We as consumers are less aware of the subtle effects of terroir. The world over, there are people who don’t think the idea terroir exists (they are obviously people who have never been to Burgundy) and need to be trained in order to understand its impact on wines. Contemporary consumers are more impressed by the smoke and mirrors that cover up the expressions of terroir than by the complexities that produce great wine. A great terroir does not need make-up that covers up its qualities. Although in some cases, when used responsibly, technique may produce a better wine by enhancing aspects of terroir, wines made from great terroir can also stand alone. We must teach consumers about the delicacies, subtleties and complexities that separate a wine from a great terroir from artificially or technologically enhanced wines. We must invest in our great terroirs to assure that we are doing all that we can to express their characteristics to the maximum.

Invest in reducing yields, in using intelligent canopy management and limiting vineyard treatments in favor of more natural methods when they can be applied. The wines should be made with the sole idea of expressing the terroir and not to further the career of the winemaker or attract a better critique from Robert Parker. We must encourage the scientific investigation of these great terroirs by our great universities. It is by this path that we will find out what makes great terroir and in the end, I am certain, what makes great wine.

Lastly, we must all work together to encourage that wines exhibit their terroir. In my experience making wines in California, Italy, South America and in the Grand Cru Classe vineyards of Bordeaux, there are great terroirs in all corners of the world, and an insult to any region is an insult to all wines. We must band together to promote great wines made from great terroirs worldwide, and not just in our own backyard, in order to keep our wines from being buried by the sands of time.

RELATED ARTICLE: Why Not Once A Week?

Wine is being incorporated in the daily lives of a majority of Americans, according to a recent Harris Interactive[R] online survey for Vinexpo Americas, the wine and spirits trade event. Some 69% of adult Americans reported that they’d had a glass of wine within the past month. The same percentage feel that “wine is a good way to end a great day.” Six out of 10 (59%) said they “usually bring a bottle of wine to dinner with friends.”

Men are more likely to prefer red wine than women (57% vs. 31%); and 69% base their choice of which wines to serve on their personal taste. About half of the 1,143 respondents reported that they are “not very” or “not at all” confident about choosing a quality bottle of wine. To increase their wine knowledge, 46% would attend a wine tasting, while 45% said they would ask questions at a store that sells wine. Liquor stores were the most popular places to buy wine (43%), followed by grocery stores (30%) and wine specialty stores (18%). Only 1% said they would buy wine over the Internet.

(Aaron Pott, currently winemaker at St. Clement Vineyards, Napa Valley, wrote this scholarly piece in 2000, and we reprint it here with his permission. To comment, please e-mail edit@winesandvines.com.)

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