Terroir, Soldera, Barthes, Derrida, and St. Augustine

October 30, 2012

deconstruction derrida barthes eco

Above: In the late 1970s, Gianfranco Soldera created a “terroir” by building a series of botanical gardens in Montalcino, including this mini swamp.

My entry today for the Houston Press is an intro to the concept of terroir.

As I was writing it, it occurred to me that many wine writers omit bacteria as one of the defining elements of terroir. In the light of the dialectic over native yeast in recent years, I was surprised not to find bacteria or yeast mentioned in the online edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine.

I wasn’t surprised to discover that few wine authorities discuss the human contribution to terroir through culture, history, and tradition. Would we have a notion of terroir, I asked myself, if the friars of Burgundy hadn’t manicured and monitored their cloistered vineyards with maniacal care?

terroir montalcino brunello

Above: Soldera’s white garden is his biggest source of pride.

My thoughts led me to a memory of walking through Gianfranco Soldera’s botanical garden for the first time in 2008. Anyone who’s ever visited the estate knows that his biggest point of pride is the garden and in particular the white-flower garden and the mini swamp (above). In the 1970s, he created his own terroir on barren land, including the yeast colony that rose from his earthly handiwork.

If humankind can create terroir by reinterpreting landscape, I wondered, does humankind’s perception of terroir influence terroir itself?

At first, Barthes, Derrida, and deconstruction came to mind. Could Eco’s notion of the “open work” be applied to wine connoisseurship? Is the winemaker dead (to quote Barthes)? Every bottle of wine is an expression of a moment and a fabric — a text — of elements that converge between harvest and vinification. And each bottle of wine tells a different story depending on how and when it is handled and opened and by whom.

Yes! I thought: a bottle of wine is an “open text” whose meaning is interpreted and ultimately defined by the reader/drinker.

But can terroir — the quasi-mythical concept of site and vintage specificity — be influenced by the reader/drinker?

Surely it can. To apply Kantian absolutism to terroir would be to negate the very ethos of terroir.

Ultimately, my thoughts led my back to my beloved St. Augustine and his reflections on the nature of memory.

Our concept and conception of terroir could not exist unless we remembered our previous perception of terroir.

In other words, if you only tasted Bonnes Mares or Monprivato once in your lifetime and tasted no other expressions of Pinot Noir or Nebbiolo, you’d have no sense of their uniqueness.

I arrived at the conclusion that terroir could not exist if we were not there to perceive it (in many ways St. Augustine was a precursor of the proverbial tree that falls in the forest but doesn’t make a sound).

If terroir cannot exist without humankind, then humankind does, indeed, wield influence over it. And if perception of terroir cannot exist without humankind’s memory of terroir, then it follows that even the end user of a bottle of wine play a role in terroir.

Whether you taste a bottle of Soldera on his estate (where he built a terroir ex novo), whether you taste it on the hilltop where he regularly dines, or whether you taste it in New York City or Houston, Texas, you play a role in the terroir by perceiving it.

Wine for thought…


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