— By Serge Wolikow & Olivier Jacquet, France — Reprinted from Tong N°2, courtesy Tong Magazine
Experts in a bewildering range of disciplines have long examined terroir from many angles – geology, pedology, climate, biology, agronomy and ampelography, the field in botany concerned with grapevine identification. But the human aspect has tended to be overlooked, and is certainly far too seldom applied to the vitally important notions of time and space.
Yet if the role of man in determining terroir is essential, it is nevertheless too often reduced to his influence on geography rather than his role in its construction and definition. It is only 20-30 years since a series of studies of vineyard construction was published that stressed the importance of geography and local factors.
We have looked at the history of terroir in Burgundy. It struck us as the ideal area for study because its wine-growing zones both divide geographically and by hierarchies of quality.
Our study immediately brought us face to face with problems of method. Nowadays we tend to emphasise the factors that make a terroir typical, rather than trying to understand how and why that terroir was originally defined. The contemporary idea of terroir – that a wine (or food) acquires a particular quality and character because of where it was produced – is a relatively recent phenomenon. The first works describing the particularities of Burgundy vineyards were written in the 18th century at around the time of the French Revolution. Later, between 1820 and 1830, several regional studies looked at the relationship between soil, varieties and climatic influences. These were in effect literary portraits of provincial landscapes, influenced by the popular studies and administrative inventories of the time. They were the basis for a number of subsequent works describing regions and their vineyards. La Topographie de tous les vignobles connus by André Jullien was published in 1812 and Statistique de la vigne dans le département de la Côte-d’Or by Doctor Morelot in 1825. The word terroir, however, was just one word among many used to define vineyard parcels.
Back in the early 19th century, when experts were beginning to speak of “fine wines”, terroir had pejorative connotations. To speak of a terroir was to speak of a peasant wine – harsh and earthy – a definition that was to stick until the 20th century. A distinction was developing between vinification techniques and viticulture based on ancestral peasant knowledge.
Reference to a terroir taste meant, at best, a simple wine of no great distinction. It was only in the last third of the 20th century that terroir came to evoke quality, health benefits and the authenticity and history of a particular place. The relationship between viticulture and wine-making occured simultaneously both at economic and cultural levels.
Using the example of Burgundy, and in particular vintage wines of the Côte d’Or, we plan to show in this article how terroir evolved from a literary concept into legal and commercial forms, before adopting its current meaning as a symbol of intrinsic quality connected to an area’s soil. This crucial moment took place between the two World Wars, instigated by a handful of fine wine-makers in Burgundy who joined professional unions that were fighting to break away from the powerful merchants who at that time dominated the trade.
These wine-makers felt themselves to be far too dependent on the traders, and wanted to promote their own norms for the production and commercialisation of wine. In Burgundy, they drew up rules based on the notion of “Origin” and organised judicial hierarchies of production areas, confirmed in a 1935 government decree. From then on, any wine for sale had to be legally connected to a terroir that had been constructed economically, culturally and socially, sometimes at great human cost.
The wine-makers’ professional associations wanted to fight fraud (essentially fake denominations) and they wanted to use the law on Appellation d’Origine to establish clear geographical delimitations. The process of defining and protecting “good terroir” led to many angry confrontations between Burgundy’s wine-makers, each estate owner wanting to impose his view of usage and to legitimise his particular definition of what constituted Burgundian terroir. They were fighting for different ideas of terroir – some legitimised by history, others by economic practice or based on each vineyard’s internal professional reports.
A little more about the Côte d’Or vineyards
Before the 1919 law establishing Appellation d’Origine, the certification granted to products from certain areas, Burgundy wine barrels were identified by the name of a village or area and by the trader’s name. The business relied equally on the reputation of a handful of communes known to the buyers that were used as quality standards as on the trader’s initials. Both the vinification process and commercialisation were in the hands of the trader, who staked his name and reputation on the wine he was selling. Yet some of these traders, taking advantage of the market deregulation prevalent at the time, would cut their wines or buy cheaper grapes from similar climates. Viticulture was in crisis and winemakers were getting angry, engaging a number of lawsuits against merchants.
The controversial 1860 plan
To help the courts reach their decisions, the unions used some of the old literary, scientific and statistical definitions of vineyards, including an 1860 plan put together by Beaune’s Agriculture and Viticulture Committee based on a study of the various communes. It classified production into first, second and third vintages, and gave each parcel a commercial value. In the conflict over the delimitation of Corton that opposed the wine-makers of Ladoix and Pernand to the owners of Aloxe, only the latter evoked the plan. The head of the Ladoix-Corton union stated that the plan “has informative value, no more. It is often a useful reference, but not proof in itself.” The small wine-makers of Ladoix referred to more recent commercial proof that traders had bought their wine under the name Corton. For the first time, terroir was acquiring commercial significance and was also expanding over larger areas.
The 1860 classification had been put together by doctors and educated men, and their view of the Côte was both cultural and geographic. The reference to this plan in the lawcourts and the fact that it was challenged showed that wine professionals were moving from a cultural representation of terroir to defining it as an object legitimising commercial practices. The Beaune Committee’s approach contradicted the more homogenous view held by some of the fine wine Côte de Nuits estate owners. The owners of the vineyards of Richebourg, la Tâche, la Romanée Saint-Vivant and Clos Vougeot did not want their “clos” to be divided into qualitative categories. The Beaune Committee, on the other hand, felt that wines
should be assessed for their quality, regardless of the estate owners’ views. This particular conflict was won by the influential estate owners, and the ruling allowed the fine wines they produced to maintain their qualitative homogeneity.
It is very complicated to define terroir, a notion based on a specific place, as well as cadastral elements, a particular fine wine’s reputation and the idea that an estate defines the cohesion of a top vintage.
Two radically different points of view
The 1919 law establishing Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC) created a number of problems. For reasons of economy and to increase the flavour of their wines, traders imported grapes from southern France and Algeria. The wine-growers saw this as unfair competition.
The conflict between trader Charles Bouchard of Maison Bouchard Ainé et Fils and the Marquis d’Angerville, owner of the fine wines at Volnay and president of the union for the Defence of Bourguignon Viticulture, is a perfect illustration of what divided those who defended a trade name from those who defended an appellation. Among many important social positions, Bouchard was president of Beaune’s Chamber of Commerce.
D’Angerville was defending the idea of strict geographical delimitations, while Bouchard was fighting for trade names. During the 1932 trial, d’Angerville taxed Maison Bouchard of fraud over their Appellation d’Origine. The trial encapsulated the battle between two antagonistic reactions to the crisis in the wine trade, two ways of interpreting and demonstrating old usages, two views of the past. D’Angerville and the union for the defence of viticulture were to win. They had the better lawyers.
But there was no unity in this battle for the elaboration of norms, in this march towards appellations. Even the wine-makers unions were in conflict. Each and every person had a view of terroir that was more or less restricted in the area it covered, and had different quality standards. The idea of creating delimitations for every climate was causing further division.
Disadvantaged villages fight back
The 1860 plan could be read both vertically and horizontally. Vertically, viticultural zones could be organised into hierarchies according to climates strictly confined to villages. Read horizontally, the colours on a map indicating the quality of fine wines covered several communes and established large inter-communal areas of equivalent wine quality. A white wine from Monthélie, for instance, obtained from second vintage parcels, could be named after the more prestigious Meursault because the borders between villages were less important than the colour in the classification. This was called the practice of equivalencies.
Some wine-growing communes represented by their mayors and unions didn’t want to loose that system’s commercial added value. If their vineyards were little known, they wanted their wines to be named after the Côte “flag-carrier” communes. Union alliance developed between these so-called “disadvantaged” villages and other villages disappointed by the delimitation system.
The unions and the men running them were to grow increasingly aware of a network of national influences that would allow them to weigh on parliamentary and ministerial decisions and become major economic players. Today, we are faced with an interesting paradox: how does one appropriate national judicial norms via local stakes? How does one define one’s own collective delimitation rules, one’s own conception of terroirs, when the practice of wine-making in France is so fragmented?
The power of collective action
As an example of effective union action, let us focus on the Syndicat de Défense des Producteurs de Grands Vins Fins de la Côte d’Or founded in 1928 by the Marquis d’Angerville. This union made up of almost every single union and fine wine cooperative in the Côte d’Or played a decisive role in the elaboration of the Burgundy AOC.
Despite its relatively light economic weight at national level, the union represented vineyards that had the same prestige outside France as the châteaux of Bordeaux.
D’Angerville represented the vineyards, backed by a large network of unions, politicians, wine-growing associations and administrations. He also knew a lot of local politicians, corresponding with them across political divides. Opposite him stood the Confédération des Associations Viticoles de Bourgogne (CGAVB) who wanted a special status for Burgundy and counted among their members the “disadvantaged” villages of the Côte Dijonnaise and the Hautes Côtes. They too used political influence, and counted on the sheer number of their members across Burgundy. This complex network of commitments and power struggles was really the quest for cultural legitimacy that was then considered indispensable for the construction and normalisation of wine-growing areas.
The public face
The Marquis d’Angerville was well aware that the 20th century was the era of communication and he used this in his battle for the AOC in Burgundy. He made sure that the fraud trials instigated by his union made their way into the local and national papers. He and his friends wrote for the Revue du Vin de France, a magazine launched in 1925. But he also undertook to educate foreign buyers. For the business to pick up again in France and beyond, the consumer needed to be reassured about the quality of the wine on the market. As of 1934, d’Angerville concentrated his efforts on the United States where prohibition had just been abolished. The writings of US writers Tom Marvel and Julian Street explaining what the French winegrowers were doing to fight fraud were the result of an abundant correspondence with d’Angerville.
D’Angerville’s trump card in his defence of AOC was his invention, with some 13 other wine-lovers, of the famous Académie des Vins de France. The undertaking was both cultural and commercial. They held their first meeting in 1934, bringing together winegrowers, doctors, journalists and gastronomists. The Academy talked about wines and culture, health benefits and the idea that the subject was worthy of articles and criticism.
In 1935, the State took over the norm, introducing new administrative and political legitimacies into the mixed system of AOC. During World War Two and for 30 years after, new ways of identifying the best zones for producing wine were introduced. These included rules about production methods from the culture of the vine to vinification. The connection tightened between the place of production and the nature of the product.
At the same time, the developing status of terroir reflected a general feeling of anxiety about food safety born in the days of an industrialised food industry. This “rediscovery” of terroir products, associated in people’s minds with a control of production methods, also corresponded with a time when many people no longer wanted to drink table wine. The concept of terroir as guarantor of quality was a way of finding new consumers.
The last century has seen major technical changes, new modes of consumption and evolutions in the market. Terroir was never a “natural” notion, always a social construction historically determined by such factors as the intervention of the state and professional bodies. Terroir is more closely connected to the history of laws than to nature.
The modern construction of terroir – judicial, economic, political and social – is particularly interesting when looked at from the viewpoint of union action. The wine-makers’ unions have clearly been central in building production and commercialisation norms for wine, and in the establishment of Appellations d’Origine. These unions were at their most active in times of economic crisis, stimulated by their confrontations with the other main actors in the trade – the wine-sellers.
A number of perceptions of terroir emerged – terroir associated with a brand, a broad terroir of equivalences, micro-elimitated terroir. The latter has become law, and is defended by wine-makers involved in increasingly dense and efficient networks. In the Côte d’Or, the problem of delimitations involves the confrontation between the complexity of terroirs and the many views held by the professional organisations set up to defend winegrowing regions.
Among its many definitions, terroir is also about authenticity. If terroir wines are good, as wine-growing marketing tells us, it’s because of the belief in a quasi-divine production area. When people approach it this way, they ignore such historical factors as the union activity of the inter-war years. Of course, folklore and national identity also affect our current views of terroir. But the legal and commercial notion of “origin” is fundamental to a definition of terroir because it is the way usages connected to the soil have been fixed.
Terroir is not a natural phenomenon that has been improved by unceasing human activity. Terroir is a historic construct, an object forever redefined by a tumultuous history. It is also the fruit of the unavoidable construction of norms without which no market can function.
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In Bordeaux, studies by HINNEWINCKEL, J.-C. and ROUDIE, P. within CERVIN.
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