Comments on Two Erudite Pieces on Terroir


A surprisingly well thought out New York Times article on terroir, was delivered in May by food writers Harold McGee and Daniel Patterson. While it starts off silly in posing and then debunking the idea that terroir means that soil is literally transported by vines into their grapes, the piece then lays out this complex subject well and concludes properly by defining terroir as a collaboration of natural flavors unique to a place stewarded to the glass through skilled artifice. Missing only is the connection I observe between organic practices and enhancement of wine quality: flavor, structure, longevity and minerality. This connection is impossible for someone to make who has not spent a lot of time in vineyards both conventional and green-oriented and working with the resulting wines.

For this reason, I admire even more John Williams’ articulate essay on the Science of Sustainable Viticulture and am pleased that his considerable experience reflects my own observations. Here we find testimony of this underappreciated connection between living soil and wine quality.

My beef (and it is the only flaw I see in an otherwise astute and compelling piece) is the (to me) arbitrary inclusion in his list of evils to be banned, of reverse osmosis and oxygenation alongside (to my mind) truly reprehensible practices such as “ridiculously overripe grapes, … Mega-purple, and 200% new oak.”

John argues, and I believe him, that organically grown grapes will deliver ripe constituents at lower sugars. But organic practices don’t automatically and always bring wines in at agreeable, healthy levels of alcohol. What is John’s problem with using a water purification filter to balance alcohol? To extend the notion of naturalness to the exclusion of fine-tuning alcohol (and also of the VA-lowering capabilities of reverse osmosis for winemakers courageous enough to eschew sulfites) seems extremist. I cannot even name a sulfite-free organic winemaker in California who does not occasionally use reverse osmosis to lower volatile acidity.

Overripe grapes, Mega-purple, and excessive oak place substances into wine which interfere with the perception of terroir aspects. RO and oxygenation do the contrary: they balance and integrate flavors so terroir is more fully expressed. I surmise that John has not seen proper examples of their use, in which case I would direct him to the Cabernets of Randy Dunn and the Merlots of Michael Havens, both great examples of terroir brought out by a skilled hand unafraid to be truthful about their techniques.

Assuming John is aware of these and other positive examples of the use of these techniques, I can only speculate that placed them on his list because they are non-traditional and sound pretty high tech. Should he give up his stainless steel, his electricity and his inert gas just because they are new ideas?

Even more illogical is oxygenation as bogeyman. We are talking about air, John, the most natural of substances, and about the skill to use it to transform tannins, integrate the aromas of complex natural microbiology, and balance the reductive energy which results from organic growing practices and proper ripeness.

The practices he advocates -- organic growing and ripe bit not overripe picking – result in strong mineral energy and phenolic strength, both of which increase, rather than decrease reduction. I presume Mr. Williams is dealing with these like his other Davis-trained enologists: through a combination of barrel oxygenation and copper addition. Skilled introduction of metered oxygen is (to me) a preferred technique to balance reduction, and I have taught it to many organic winemakers. Besides eliminating the need for copper, it creates a fine structure which integrates aromas, including microbial activity, thus opening the possibility for high quality sulfite-free winemaking(see Roman Syrah). 

If John is not aware of these capabilities, I think he should be open minded enough to allow his organic colleagues to continue to explore their use openly rather than shaming these good people into hiding their practices. I applaud John’s crusade for natural winemaking, but RO and oxygenation are legitimate tools which do not deserve to be painted with the same brush as his other devils.




Eric Maugendre:

Thank you Clark for this articulate piece. The Vins naturels are wines made by a community of French producers. They bear little or no sulfite. As a consequence too many reds have a VA problem. (And too many whites have an oxydation problem.)
I would be very much interested if you could point to wines that I could taste in France which would be organically grown but with reverse osmosis or oxygenation. Randy Dunn's are not available in France and Michael Havens' do not seem to be.