I apologize for my absence—after leaving Spain I've spent the last few days in the wilds of the Loire Valley, roaming in Chinon and Bourgueil with my friend Patricio. While there are many fine things to eat and drink in the Loire, there is little opportunity to connect to the internet, alas.
I was sitting on a TGV a couple days ago reading Michael Schuster’s article on terroir in issue 18 of The World of Fine Wine. One of the ideas that he discusses is the method by which one gains an understanding of terroir, concluding that it is impossible to achieve unless one is able to taste and compare terroir-expressive wines in the company of someone who already knows and can articulate their qualities. “In this sense,” he says, “terroir is an oral tradition, one that needs to be passed on by people who have understood it, to be handed down from one generation to another.”
This made me think, a little obliquely, about an issue that Michel Bettane brought up last weekend at the WineCreator conference in Ronda, where much of the discussion revolved around ideas of authenticity, distinction and expression of character. At one point in the debate, Bettane drew a contrast between distinction of quality and distinction of character—that is, wines that are of high quality due to perfection in technical attributes (and in fact, “technical quality” might be a better descriptor) as opposed to wines that are of high quality due to an expression of an individuality and character of place. Naturally, the two are not mutually exclusive—a wine can be both expressive of character while being technically outstanding. However, one often tastes wines that, though smoothly harmonious, immaculately proportioned and luscious in their fruit flavors, lack any real distinction of character or sense of place. Some of these wines score very highly in the press, and some sell for a great deal of money, both of which naturally encourage and perpetuate their existence.
The problem is that not enough tasters, whether professional or amateur, are equipped to recognize distinction of character. One of the difficulties is that it’s far easier to identify technical quality than quality of character, and often I feel that many people are too easily satisfied with the former. Even the way that we taste is oriented largely towards the identification of technical quality: blind comparisons, sterile conditions, numerical scoring. On the other hand, we have not yet developed a system for identifying character, which is far more difficult. One could even say that the idea of character, while ultimately identifiable, defies the whole concept of systemization.
In another portion of Schuster’s article he talks about man as a key component in the expression of terroir: the winemaker, first of all, as the conduit, but also the consumer, who in order to receive the message must have the experience and capability to understand it. Unfortunately, unless we as tasters have properly cultivated ourselves, our tasting is blind in more ways than we imagine.