“Terroir & the Winegrower”- Insight From Stéphane Derenoncourt on Montesquieu Winery’s Favorite Subject
January 26, 2011, by: Lisa Duff Khajavi
Montesquieu Winery has been working with Stéphane for years, and deeply respects his far-reaching talents. It was his understanding of terroir, and sensitive application of this understanding, that was a big part of what inspired our CEO Fonda Hopkins to work closely with Stéphane.
As one of the world’s foremost experts on terroir, Stéphane was asked several years ago to contribute his thoughts on the subject for the book “Terroir & the Winegrower” by Jacky Rigaux.
His insight is timeless and provocative, and worthy of extended reflection. So we’ve shared it with you here. The following is an excerpt from the chapter titled “Terroir” by Stéphane Derenoncourt.
“Terroir is a unique word which cannot be translated into any other language. There are no technical or rational definitions to account for it. As far as terroir is concerned, we are in the realm of life. From the outset, the many interacting parameters conjure up the notion of complexity.
Terroir starts out as a place, a sub-soil, a soil and an exposure generating a micro-climate. Like all living elements, it is destined to age and to become eroded, at which point man and his empirical and scientific knowledge intervene to perpetuate it. The choice of plant material having been patiently introduced by generations of winegrowers, the type of cultivation must promote taking root all the way down to the parent rock, so as to enrich the grapes with subtle flavours, draw out the identity of the locality and imprint it on the fruit.
There is a continuous process of reflection and observation, and the vintage imprint is a perpetual invitation to reappraise. Correct water supply and good organic management are essential parameters directly linked to human and animal intervention.
Faced with the complexities of a definition, the “terroir” term is shrouded in a veil of mystery and adapted to any purpose. It is readily used as a conclusion to certain likely questions when trying to identify an aroma or a taste, coming like a bolt from the blue: “It’s terroir”. However, it can also sound like a marketing argument and ring like a cash register.
Lastly, the concept is mentioned when discussing the inability to subscribe to the values of the modern agricultural society, dedicated to specialism. Today, one reads scientific reports emanating from well-known researchers proclaiming that no link can be shown between a wine and its origin. A modicum of observation suffices to realize that these publication are the result of laboratory work. We are far from the knowledge accumulated over generations by a peasant population inspired by their observations and experiences in the field. Similarly, there are a few famous and megalomaniac winegrowers who publicly express their annoyance when the word “minerality” is pronounced, as they have difficulty in accepting the idea that they were not involved in what is yielded by terroir!
The terroir term is starting to take on an almost mystical connotation: should one become a believer? Unquestionably, this spiritual dimension has always been the driving force of my work as a winegrower and a consultant. Observing and classifying plots, looking after the soil in an adapted way, isolating patches of land to allow a simultaneous winemaking process (as the same features are carried through by the grapes), or creating “cuvées” from plots which seem to be complementary: that is the source of our quest for authenticity in wine. Beyond the satisfaction of improving one’s knowledge on a daily basis, this approach reminds us to stay humble before the complex work of nature. And even if we often make mistakes, our joy is that much greater when we are able to isolate an original character in an estate’s “cuvée” for the first time. It might be a light petroleum note on a Cabernet Sauvignon from a schistous soil in Tuscany, a floral character on a “tempranillo” from Ribera del Duero’s gravelly limestone, or a noble and beautiful black truffle on the “astéries” limestone of the Saint-Émilion region. The quest for terroir wine is a quest for an inimitable product.
Giving expression to a terroir would thus be a way of domesticating a locality: from a global viewpoint, a means of attempting to put a mass of elements escaping scientific rules in order. Faced with research which has long been dedicated to the laws of economics, we admit that the existing terroirs are not so much poor as misunderstood.”
“Terroir & the Winegrower” by Jacky Rigaux is a thought-provoking window into the psyche of French winegrowers. The great Henri Jayer of Vosne-Romanee contributed to the book as well as many others. The original text was published in 2006 in French and is also available in English. It is available only in Europe, but may be ordered by visiting http://www.athenaeumfr.com/catalog/product_info.php?products_id=12065.