All you need to know about the Wineworld
In our discussions so far, our contextualist approach has raised a number of issues that we have had to postpone. These issues all stem from the fact that the dominant theoretical paradigms of aesthetics tend to focus on individual, isolated experiences, with respect to individual and isolated objects, or with separable aesthetic intentions.
Dealing with recent aesthetics on its own terms, however, has meant that certain features of contextualist aesthetics had to be put on hold. The approach we have been taking to the aesthetics of wine is contextualist in nature. Wine is encountered as part of the ‘wineworld,’ and competent tasting is an inter-subjective event. By wineworld we mean the broader wine context – production, distribution, criticism and consumption – insofar as aesthetic projects are recognized as important. We sometimes use wineworld and ‘aesthetic community’ interchangeably, although the latter tends to be used to indicate the critical and tasting community more narrowly. The two concepts overlap, especially since producers and distributors must also appreciate wines aesthetically in order to do their jobs properly. Through our discussion of the concept of the wineworld below we develop a more general theoretical paradigm for our contextualist aesthetics, We begin with the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer, and consider the implications of ‘hermeneutics’ for our conception of aesthetics.
We then move on to two studies of important problems that contextualist aesthetics has to confront, and test our new paradigm by trying to solve them. Moreover, throughout we will construct a kind of dialogue between a contextualist aesthetics of wine, and the implications of this for philosophical aesthetics more generally.
Hermeneutics of the Wineworld
Hans-Georg Gadamer coined the phrase “aesthetic differentiation” to describe the understanding of aesthetic phenomena that emerged in the late eighteenth century and has, he believes and we concur, dominated aesthetics since. 1 The core idea is that aesthetics has tended to consider as fundamentally separable entities activities that are, he argues, essentially linked. Specifically, (1) the viewing or judging subject in relation to its object; (2) the historically specific practices that included the production of the object, and the aesthetic appreciation of the object; and (3) the interests or purposes of the contemporary world, and the aesthetic appreciation of the object. Gadamer’s examples tend to be of works from previous historical periods. Because of their ‘distance’ from me, such works present methodological difficulties concerning interpretation and judgment. Aesthetic differentiation is a way of solving those difficulties, but one that Gadamer believes to be profoundly misdirected. Clearly, however, similar difficulties would be found with respect to contemporary works from different cultures. It is less obvious that every work – even one that is historically and culturally ‘local’ – presents me with the same kind of interpretative hurdle to overcome. Cultural groups are rarely so homogeneous and self-enclosed, and the ‘language’ of art rarely so unambiguous, that it is just obvious how one is to ‘take’ a new work of art. Thus, if Gadamer’s analysis is valid, it holds across the board.
However, we are investigating wine appreciation as an aesthetic practice, and wine is not art.
Nevertheless, unless we hold with Todd ( 2010 ) that the intent of the vintner is central to appreciation – and we do not,it is not immediately evident what the specifically hermeneutic problem would be with respect to wine. To put it bluntly, the hermeneutic problem is that wine does not seem to be the kind of thing that one understands .
So, wine is understood and interpreted after all. To be sure, it is not the artist’s (or vintner’s) intention that we discover, nor that of an ‘implied’ artist or vintner, but rather the wine as aesthetically successful or not. The ‘distance’ that must be overcome in an aesthetic encounter with wine is not the distance from me to the real or implied artist. Instead, it is first of all the distance presented by the particular types of challenges to perception presented by wine and objects of the proximal senses. Second, and more importantly, it is the distance within my aesthetic community – for example, the differences of evaluation that inevitably arise whenever an innovation occurs in the wineworld – among alternative projects, and perhaps even between communities. Within an aesthetic community, we share practices and values; however, this does not mean that we always agree, that all values and standards are uncontested, or that we always communicate effectively. I might embody such differences even within myself, in the form of doubts or the fact that I find that my tastes are changing. Here, with this glass in my hand, I am a representative of my aesthetic community. Moreover, I also uphold what I take to be its central aesthetic values. Finally, I employ an aesthetic project in isolation from projects that my aesthetic community (and perhaps the wider culture beyond that) consider irrelevant, and in actual or virtual conjunction with projects that are considered relevant. The ‘distance’ to be overcome is the distance, by way of the wine, to the actual or imagined activities of others.
Significantly, Gadamer is speaking of philosophical aesthetics primarily, and not the disciplines that study specific arts (such as literary criticism or the history of music). These academic disciplines are generally much more historically aware and, at least since the middle of the last century, much less prone to conceive of their work in terms of the traditional categories of philosophical aesthetics. Academic literary criticism, for example, tends to understand its task as one of a contextual understanding rather than judgment. Indeed, this absence of judgment is often so marked that any distinctive sense of art or the aesthetic is entirely lost. In this respect, the academic study of literature or art (in contrast to philosophical aesthetics) might be accused, with some justification, of being over-zealous in its elimination of aesthetic values. Interestingly, wine appreciation has not gone down this path. To be sure, few people talk as though they explicitly consider wine akin to art. Yet in other respects, the way the practices of wine tasting tend to be understood remain an image of traditional philosophical aesthetics. For example, wine critics tend to be considered not as those who understand or know about wine, but rather as those who are capable of judging its quality or value, producing tasting notes and giving scores. Also, the attempt to attain objectivity, decontextualizing a wine or even tasting it blind, has clear links to Enlightenment aesthetic ideals, which in turn of course owe much to the then nascent understanding of scientific method.
As a way forward, let us take each of the ‘aesthetic differentiations’ mentioned above in turn. Because of the first of these (separation of subject and object), traditional aesthetics tends to understand aesthetic phenomena as having only an ideal effect upon the viewer. If I find the work (say, a novel) emotionally powerful, this is not part of the aesthetic judgment, but just one of the pieces of evidence upon which the judgment is founded. More importantly, if the novel changes me to a greater or lesser extent – for example, if it alters my view of the world, or even just my view of the possibilities of novels – then that change is also merely evidence for the novel’s aesthetic power, rather than part of the judgment. The one who judges (the ideal reader) is not the one who is affected (the real reader). We suggest that this ‘distance’ of the work and its effect from the judging subject is one of the primary reasons why aesthetics privileges the senses of sight and hearing. The metaphorical distance or differentiation that is supposed to characterize aesthetic judgment is seen as related to the physical distance from the body of the objects of the senses – there is even a saying in English that nicely expresses this dispassionate objectivity: “to hold at a distance.” Moreover, there is likewise supposed to be no effect of the viewer upon the work, because the work is likewise ideal, existing independently of its historical or cultural conditions. The past judgments made by others with respect to this work may be useful to me, here and now, but are entirely independent of the work itself. I am to consider the work afresh, as if it had just come from the artist’s studio. Gadamer argues 2 that both the effect of the work upon the viewer, and the effect of the viewer upon the work (its ‘reception,’ which makes up the history of its effects) must be understood as integral to the phenomenon of art. We will discuss below to what extent connection between judge and object should be considered essential to the aesthetics of wine, and what evidence can be offered for our verdict.
The second of these differentiations is an interpretation of the presumptive universality of aesthetic judgments. According to Gadamer the aesthetic tradition tends to assume that aesthetic judgments have always happened in the same way, and should always do so. To be sure, there are many other ways of encountering things. A painting in a medieval church can be encountered as sacred, as a piece of historical evidence, a symbol of the Church’s sociopolitical power, a scriptural interpretation, as a valuable artifact to be preserved, bought or sold, and so forth. Aesthetic judgment keeps itself apart from these. There is thus nothing wrong with thinking that a work of art could also be sacred; but we are prohibited from thinking that it should be understood as a work of art only through – or perhaps even partly through – its sacred function. Gadamer, again, argues that this is little more than a prejudice of recent aesthetic thought, that universalizes its specific understanding of aesthetic experience. In fact, much of what we presume to call ‘art’ today was produced long before the modern conceptions of ‘art’ or ‘artist’ were developed. Thus, the judgment appropriate to a work may have been of a historically distinct nature (e.g. as sacred object). This other type of judgment, though it may be impossible to reproduce, should not therefore simply be ignored in favor of the dehistoricized aesthetic judgment. Again, we will return below to whether this notion applies in the case of wine.
The last of these differentiations arose as an interpretation of the Kantian stricture concerning disinterestedness. The Kantian challenge is to remove oneself both from individual interests in the work (for example, hedonic liking or moral approval), and those of one’s community or historical period in general (for example, cultural likings or dislikings), in order to judge properly. If not, the aesthetic judgment will be imperilled by other types of judgment, and/or imperilled by prejudice that arrives from outside the proper, individual and free situation of judgment. This notion of disinterestedness is typically enlarged to a characterization of universality, thus reinforcing the second differentiation above. Through being disinterested, my judgment attains to the properly a- or trans-historical character of aesthetic judgment. Gadamer, in reply, argues that the ‘prejudices’ of my community or historical period, far from being opposed to the aesthetic, are rather its condition. 3 These ‘prejudices’ make it possible for an individual to judge, and indeed make it possible for the ‘freedom’ or ‘objectivity’ of the individual judgment to have any meaning. The ‘pure’ aesthetic judgments as prescribed by the aesthetic tradition inaugurated by Kant, even were they possible, would be impoverished and meaningless.
In contrast to the simplifications and misunderstandings of aesthetic differentiations, he argues for a conception of experience (or, rather, interpretation) based upon the idea of a “fusion of horizons.” 4 The project and context that give meaning to the interpretative act in the present are to be merged with the projects and contexts of a work’s production and of its history of reception. Interpretation should then emerge from these fused contexts as if they represented the standards, values and internal debates of a single world (e.g. an ‘artworld’), and such that the task of interpretation could be carried out as a coherent project. Only in this way is history – or, alternatively, the productions of other cultures in the present – rendered both meaningful and ‘other’ to us. ‘Meaningful,’ meaning not an object of mere antiquarian or exotic fascination. ‘Other,’ meaning that we do not simply conflate histories and cultures, and end up with nothing but variations on ‘Shakespeare, our Contemporary.’ Gadamer’s work, half a century old, is no stranger to mainstream aesthetics. However, it remains the case that much of contemporary aesthetics has successfully resisted some of its most far-reaching conclusions. Here, we are putting Gadamer’s hermeneutics forward as part of a general theory of contextualist aesthetics.
Wine and Its Effect on the Subject
Wine changes me, especially insofar as I am competent to judge it. This may in fact be more obvious in the case of wine appreciation than in the visual arts, music or literature. We are not talking here about physiological changes, for example as a result of ingesting alcohol. Instead, we refer to the fact that my sensory capacities, and the cognitive capacities to form adequate judgments, need to be trained, and they are trained primarily through guided perception while tasting. We are used to thinking of the visual field as simply there , for anyone to see; likewise, the auditory field seems to be there for anyone to hear. With respect to smell and taste – although many smells and tastes are there in the sense that the chemical correlates are physically real – it is more immediately evident that developed abilities are required to perceive them consciously. We have also seen that sniffing – a deliberate act to increase the airflow to odor receptors – is necessary in order to attend optimally to the wine. 5 I must then learn to separate out odor components, to sense them in relationships, and bring them into comparisons with other wines. My practical competency is a result of nurture and not nature, as we have already discovered. Moreover, it continues to be developed as I taste familiar wines that have aged, or new wines with subtly different combinations, intensities and qualities of tastes and smells, as I add to my ‘stock’ of comparisons and exemplars.
These changes to me are clearly not just evidence for an evaluation, but are rather part of the full process of evaluation. Wine is not an isolated object encountered aesthetically by an isolated individual, who then enters or does not enter into discussion about it with others. As we have repeatedly argued, the individual, through his or her competencies and through the practices of aesthetic appreciation, is present as a representative of the aesthetic community. What we shall see emerging through the discussion in this article is a ‘feedback loop’ between appreciation and production. Vintners have to pay attention to prominent critics, and they are themselves critics; but it is also the case that critical language and competencies are subtly changed by each new vintage. By way of the wine, wine production has an effect upon wine appreciation.
We already know that, though wine tasting involves the proximal senses and is thus not held at a distance, this does not disable aesthetic judgment. 6 If the fact that wine is an object of the proximal senses creates particular issues these are by no means insurmountable, as is often believed. The proximal senses offer no real barrier either to judgment or to the formation and use of an inter-subjectively valid descriptive or evaluative language. More importantly, though, this ideal of holding at a distance is to some extent a false ideal. It tends to lead to all manner of oversimplifications of aesthetic experiences (such as formalism), counter-productive practices (over-dependence upon blind tasting, for example), and largely irrelevant accounts of objectivity.
Moreover, although we have only had the opportunity to gesture towards this argument, in the background to all our work is the conviction that paying attention to, training and showing the communicability of experiences involving the proximal senses expands the possibilities of human experience and culture. If we recognize the aesthetic possibilities of objects of the proximal senses, we may expand our capacities and enrich our lives. While discussing wine specifically as perhaps the most widely known area for appreciation of objects for the proximal senses, and certainly with the longest history, we hope that what we have developed in this section may have interest beyond wine appreciation specifically. Ignoring objects for the proximal senses in general means that a whole domain of aesthetic experiences is removed, along with the pleasure, enlightenment and perhaps even wisdom that might thereby arise.
Experience and Its Effect upon Wine
There are several aesthetically relevant ways in which the subject might alter the wine considered as ‘a rich object.’ Our analysis of the aesthetic values of rarity, privilege and transience in the context of wine appreciation has shown that aesthetic experience has an event-character. In a manner much more obvious than most of Gadamer’s examples, even considered physically wine is clearly less a simple object than a protracted event of which tasters become a part. For example, in our 2030 thought experiment we were able to conclude that wine must be considered a ‘rich object,’ irreducible (although of course not unrelated) to its physical presence or chemistry.We have stressed the event character of wine appreciation. This point does not initially appear to be generalizable to other domains of aesthetics, at least insofar as the material conditions for an aesthetic experience (the painting, the novel) generally remain unconsumed. I may not change the painting materially, but that is only of the highest importance if I accept the aesthetic differentiation that places the object in an ideal separation from any encounter with it. Changing the ‘atmosphere’ of cultural expectations and norms that envelop the painting is sufficient, and this happens every time the painting is experienced in a novel way or in novel circumstances. We suggest that even for paintings and novels, then, aesthetic experience retains something of its event character. (If we are talking about musical or dramatic performances, the point is much more akin to wine tasting.) That is, it involves a singular judgment, located in and spanning time, invoking certain procedures, and emerges out of competencies, the employment of critical rhetoric and guided perception, and generally my being within an aesthetic community. The aesthetic experience happens, and in a non-trivial sense cannot happen again in quite the same way. The event alters the possibilities for further encounters with this and other works.
Beyond my physical consumption of the wine, the most obvious way in which the event character matters is criticism. Wine criticism changes the critical landscape: perhaps welcoming a new vintage and what it has to say about the possibilities inherent in the grape, in the soil, or that may come from the vintner and so forth; perhaps confirming tendencies; raising alternative ways of evaluating; suggesting different comparisons; or introducing new styles either of wine, or in the language or even technology of communication. In other words, each act of tasting may alter the cultural and practical competencies of the aesthetic community. Obviously, widely disseminated tasting notes will have a correspondingly greater impact. Websites such as Cellartracker.com have started giving greater voice to critics outside the professional wine community. Since the aesthetic experience of wine involves these competencies, changes in them change the experience. For example, rather disappointed evaluations of wines from a well-known producer may alter other experiences of wines by this producer (and of their closest competitors). This happens not because other tasters will be prejudiced, unless we automatically assume that knowledge is prejudice. Moreover, other tasters can and do, after all, disagree – it is possible for tasters to disagree without the aesthetic community tearing itself apart. So, while there may be social pressure towards agreement, this is not the primary way in which shared critical evaluation functions. Criticism alters others’ possibilities of experience not primarily because of either prejudice or because of the pressures of agreement, but simply because the contextual facts have changed.
As a third way in which the event of tasting changes the object, consider the other side of the ‘feedback loop’: Criticism changes wine production. Neither production nor consumption is a self-contained activity. Beyond the obvious fact that neither could exist without the other lies the less obvious fact that these activities belong to the same aesthetic community. Critics and producers talk to each other, and there is a feedback loop that serves both. More specifically, the feedback loop between viticulture and the critical practices of tasting is vital. Criticism takes many forms in the wine industry, and some of the most important critics are the producers themselves. At different stages of a vintage a host of decisions have to be made, and the judgment of the vintner about what to do often depends on taste. For instance, how did the wines turn out the last time this particular option was chosen? Did they lose any of their desirable characteristics? Did the village level Meursault lose any of its terroir characteristics when the decision was made to use less bdtonnage (stirring of the lees)? It has been said, with some justification, that the two most dangerous occupational hazards vintners are prone two are alcoholism and only tasting their own wines. The aesthetic appreciation and the delicacy of taste of the vintner may be as important to the finished product as any equipment in the vineyard or the winery.
But vintners are not alone in their worlds either. Their regional affiliations, the recommendations and purchases of buyers and distributors, merchants or restaurants, regional or international prize committees, reviewers in newspapers, magazines and ever increasingly on the internet, all play their part in the feedback loop of the wineworld. Certainly, these realms of criticism will have different projects in mind. Though it may not be acknowledged by all, an aesthetic project will very often be one of them and at the core of many others. This feedback is what allows the various aspects and activities of the aesthetic community to sustain themselves, to train new members, and to adjust responsibly in the light of new events. So, for example, it allows the aesthetic consumers to understand and appropriately interpret new viticultural techniques or developments. This part of the feedback loop constitutes an effect of the object upon the judging subject. Likewise, however, the loop permits producers to understand and make appropriate allowances for developments in taste, and changes in competition, distribution or marketing, as well as to generally correct or refine their wine-making strategies. Aesthetic evaluations will play a role in this, and play the central role when fine wines are in question. Even if the critical event and its appraisal is not initially inter-subjective, its effects certainly are. That is to say, producers have to take notice when their sales change, and likewise when their competitors change strategies. Some producers may adopt a stubborn, high-minded approach and try to ride out temporary changes of fashion; others may be chasing the market and still others leading it in new directions.
Thus, at different levels of the wineworld, and with different primary projects in mind, this feedback loop has different functions. With respect to the aesthetic appreciation of fine wines, the aesthetic community is understandably more cautious, unwilling readily to sacrifice established values or move with changing consumer tastes. Even fine wines from different parts of the world will experience critical reception differently – for example, producers from certain parts of Bordeaux will have an international reception, while Californian producers may be more focused on the domestic response. The producer will already be a highly competent taster, though probably one with a narrower range of experience than other wine professionals, and with a strong emphasis on predictive tasting. By way of the producer’s own competencies, the aesthetic community has already – by proxy – judged the wine by the time it is released to buyers and critics. The tasting notes of a wine critic half-way across the world concerning his or her wine simply confirms to the vintner this fact, and perhaps allows him or her to calibrate processes (and taste) more finely, and perhaps to pursue excellence in slightly different ways. If there is disagreement, then that is a sign either of an anomaly or mistake on someone’s part, one of those internal debates that keeps the wineworld vital, or perhaps a judgment from a different aesthetic community. In this feedback loop, the producer (especially if famous and important) is treated with considerable respect, as representing a body of expertise, and a tradition and geographical region of value (the latter point will be pursued further in the discussion of terroir below).
Moving away from fine wine, the feedback loop works differently. The important information that passes from the critical community and back to producers is less about the evaluation of individual wines than it is about broad changes in market tastes. To be sure, individual wines may get a mention in the paper’s wine column, or in an annual wine guide, but in terms of shifting volumes of wine to consumers, that is much less important than marketing visibility, availability through distribution channels, and of course price. Although probably highly competent tasters, small producers will have much less influence and will be guided (probably rather forcefully) by their distributors, or the various buyers with whom they deal. In general, the producer’s role in this is quite small: perhaps an innovation in terms of style (but this is just as likely to come from the marketing end), efficiency in production, and hawking one’s product around trade fairs, trying to be discovered as the ‘next big thing’ or just getting enough custom to carry on to the next vintage. Generally, the ‘next big thing’ is a function of marketing departments, together with wine journalists, who also have to market and sell their expertise, and pursuing the new or championing the as-yet-unfashionable is a good way to do this. Sometimes, however, the wineworld is thereby introduced to a style, region or variety that is both novel and enticing.
For all these reasons, the wine as an object is encountered as a moment within the history and practices of wine making and wine tasting. Accordingly, wine is not an ideal, ahistorical object. It is often treated as such, of course, and it can even be analyzed as to its chemical composition. But these are different projects to the aesthetic, although not necessarily irrelevant to it. There seem to us to be at least two aspects of the discussion above that are of general philosophical interest. First, the feedback loop is one of the mechanisms that an aesthetic community has of regulating itself, analogous to critical self-reflection. It is also a mechanism for gradual change, a change which may sometimes bring the aesthetic community with it, open up a new category of wine with a distinctive set of values, and perhaps at other times force a split. That is to say, the hermeneutics of the interactions of projects and judgments gives us a model for the dynamics of the wineworld over time. Second, the feedback loop also means that a body of evidence is created and preserved concerning the production of wine and its reception. It is thus essential to building up the canon of fine wine, tracking the development of wines across many years, and also building up the dense fabric of descriptive, evaluative and comparative language which is important for our cultural and practical competencies. In other words, it builds and sustains a set of epistemic instruments and, more broadly, a culture. This means that critical appreciation is a kind of production in its own right: productive of a body of evidence, as just mentioned, and ultimately productive of an aesthetic community.
This aesthetic community, the wineworld, is not necessarily a peaceful or entirely settled realm. Two of many issues where our conception of the wineworld may not only contribute to clarifying issues, but also where implications for philosophical aesthetics more broadly may arise, are ‘wine and food’ and terroir .
Wine, Food and the Wineworld(s)
Speaking in terms of tendencies, rather than rules, we can say that ‘old world’ wines are produced to be consumed with food – that is to say, they are produced within the fold of an aesthetic practice that appreciates wine in its connection with food. ‘New world’ wines are produced to be consumed on their own, or at least to go with a quite different style of cuisine. The sweetness and oak 7 that may be taken as markers of ‘new world’ wines tend both to be attractive separately, and also to go very well with sweeter cuisine, including barbecue. This means that the ‘old world’ styles will tend to have higher acidity and with it a firmer structure, while the ‘new world’ styles will tend to be made in a ‘big’ style, and have sweeter fruit and more oak. Not only does this make head-to-head comparisons difficult, but it also raises the more important question of the extent to which the wineworld is homogeneous, or even multiple. Neophytes – those unused to drinking wine – may find it easier to like the more fruity style of wine, and this also makes making wines in this style a better financial strategy for new producers and those wanting to attract new consumers. Getting used to high acidity and tannic wines requires exposure to wines of this kind, and if acceptance of this style of wine – or the drinking of wine primarily with food – is not part of your culture, your tolerance of these wines may remain low. What has been regarded as ‘the new world style’ of wine has been an effect both of making wine in warmer climates than ‘classical Europe,’ thus easily achieving high maturity, and of a conscious attempt to build a market attracting non-wine-drinkers with a more approachable style.
However, this tendency may also suggest that there is something artificial or idealized about tasting certain wines in isolation from meals. The protocols of serious tasting may permit nibbles of bread, but little else, and strong odors are to be avoided; tasters often watch what they eat or drink hours before the event. How much of this is due care, and how much falsifies the tasting situation so much as to render the judgments irrelevant? The first point that needs to be made here is that enjoying wine together with a meal is not an entirely different project from conventional tasting. It is not like playing frisbee with a Rembrandt. Indeed, the aims might be very close: an aesthetic appreciation, but in the former case of an ensemble of wine and foods. Of course, not all such social settings have a narrowly conceived aesthetic appreciation as their project, but it is most likely one of the projects at work, among other forms of enjoyment and sociability.
Drinking wine with a meal though, is rarely simply about the aesthetic appreciation of an ensemble of tastes and smells. Other things are essential components of the situation, like being with friends, loved ones, and enjoying good conversation. Although the aesthetic project narrowly conceived is a distinguishable project, this does not mean the other projects are irrelevant. It is not just that there can be other projects simultaneously active, but that there very often are. In contextualist aesthetics, projects that for cultural reasons tend to be associated should not be thought of as unrelated. Arguably, some of these other projects are to be understood as contra-aesthetic, simply because they are self-interested or embodying quite other values, such as the financial. Even supposing we agree with such an argument, there remains a whole host of other projects that can only be understood as enriching the aesthetic. Only an idealized view of aesthetics would try to understand the event of aesthetic appreciation exclusively in abstraction from such concurrent projects. While often a useful mode of analysis, thinking of aesthetics in purely autotelic or formal terms, is not only artificial but risks trivializing many regions of experience. Belonging to an aesthetic community is not only part of aesthetic experience (rather than just its condition) but also part of ‘living well’ (to borrow an Aristotelian concept). However affluent or peaceful human lives may otherwise be, if aesthetic experience is a distinct domain of experience and of sociability, then cutting oneself off from it is an impoverishment of human lives, akin to a lobotomy. This is not an issue for wine appreciation alone, of course, but part of the ethical content that philosophical aesthetics has had since at least Aristotle. Our point is rather that wine appreciation fulfills this need, and moreover does so in a way that expands the possibilities of the human in other ways too.
In general, we need to make a distinction between two ways in which projects can be multiple. Multiple projects can fuse or coalesce, perhaps with one as dominant, so that they become distinguishable only in the abstract, or they may remain separate although concurrent. So, my projects of aesthetic tasting and having an enjoyable meal might occur in two ways. We might conceive of the whole ensemble of experiences as the object of a single project. When we say “That was a wonderful night,” we mean that the evening’s experiences were the object of one project, either of simple enjoyment or of aesthetic appreciation. Or, they might be separable, and afterwards I might say “Shame about Jane’s husband – what a bore! But did you happen to notice that first wine, it was extraordinary!” These two ways of having multiple projects can involve many other concurrent projects: add in a stimulating conversation, an attractive companion, some music, and a view over the city. The coalescence of two or more projects can be rapidly disengaged. For example, a wine might force a change of project, making the project of aesthetic appreciation stand on its own, attempting even to filter out for as long as necessary the surrounding sensations.
Something similar happens when wine is tasted for the purposes of judging its suitability for certain foods. When restaurateurs builds up their wine lists, they don’t have to do so with a long series of meals, but they can taste the wines ‘as if’ with food. The hermeneutic ‘as if,’ which we discussed above, is all important here. Part of the competency of a taster is to taste ‘as if’ – an imaginative ability not dissimilar to the comparative element necessary in all tasting, which we have repeatedly stressed. There is an imaginative element here that is less evident in the coalescence or separation of multiple projects, but the situations are otherwise similar. A simpler project (wine tasting) functions ‘as if’ it were coalescent projects (appreciation of wine and a meal as an ensemble). Proper attention to the wine is necessary to form judgments about its suitability for certain foods. Part of the issue with blind tasting a wine that might come from a wine-with-food tradition is that this ‘as if’ ability is truncated.
Cultural protocols may demand that wine appreciation is considered as part of a wider project, or as recognizing the significance of other projects.
Are wine tasting and aesthetic practices artificial constructs insofar as they are isolated from such activities as eating or parties – almost like looking at a religious painting in a thoroughly secular environment? No, they are not, for the reasons outlined above. First, separate tasting is both possible and indeed for practical reasons often necessary to judge the suitability of a wine for food. Many become highly competent at imaginatively pairing wine with food. The rest of us can probably only appreciate the validity of these pairings by actually eating and drinking. Second, as it is conceived by contextualist aesthetics, the aesthetic project with respect to wine is not ‘jealous’, so to speak, and recognizes the significance of other projects: projects such as the descriptive, obviously, but also projects that involve or enhance sociability. Indeed, tasting practices are already social practices, and serve social practices by helping them to be richer and more successful. While having a dinner party or eating at a restaurant are explicitly social events, so is a tasting event. Contextualist aesthetics is able to analyze the interaction of projects.
Above, we raised the question about whether and to what extent it would be meaningful to speak of more than one ‘wineworld.’ For example, should we speak of ‘new world’ and ‘old world’ as distinctive communities of wine appreciation? If the generalization is correct that ‘old world’ wines tend to be made as part of an aesthetic practice that understands wine appreciation as primarily linked to the consumption of food, then do these different aesthetic practices amount to a wholly different aesthetic community? 8 In order to answer such a question, we first need to ask: What kind of unity, if any, does a ‘wineworld’ have? Such a world consists of an overlapping set of practices, traditions, values, required competencies and so forth. Moreover, it will stretch across various different spheres of activity: production (wine making, from the small producer to the global corporation, plus the many scientists and engineers dedicated to understanding and improving production), distribution (purchasing, sales, marketing), consumption (criticism, journalism, restaurateurs, ordinary consumers). Calling this a ‘community’ may appear to be absurd; it seems more like a diverse industry. And yet, when it comes to the possibility of an aesthetic appreciation of the products of this industry, we are forced to recognize the importance of inter-subjectively shared competencies, values, practices and traditions. Our first observation, then, is that talk of a ‘wineworld’ concerns only a degree of commonality in the conditions of aesthetic judgments, and asserts nothing more about the unity across this vast industry. Thus, if there are two or more wineworlds, there need be no correlation of this to divisions in the industry. It would be entirely possible, for example, for a French producer to identify himself with the ‘new world’ aesthetic community. For historical reasons, ‘new’ and ‘old’ world continue to have a geographical meaning, but in a global industry this division is likely slowly to unravel, and may already be well on the way.
Similarly, there may be disagreements among those who belong to the same aesthetic community. Indeed, the latter fact may make the fraughtness of any disagreement worse, as the possibility of aesthetic achievement is perceived to be at stake.
So, confining ourselves to the wineworld in the sense of an aesthetic community, its unity consists of those practices and competencies which yield aesthetic evaluations broadly in agreement – at least with regard to its core values. These evaluations will include the maintenance of a conception of the canonical wines, the praising and ranking of producers, regions and vintages, and the preservation of the distinctive character of these. As we discussed above, the practices will include implicit or explicit reference to the context of appreciation. Within these evaluations there will of course be disagreements. However, inter-subjective validity does not consist simply in agreement, but in communication, and thus debate is a key feature. Thus, the measure of the ‘strength’ of the aesthetic community is its openness to disagreement and alternative approaches, provided of course there is evidence that key judgments and values are not lost sight of. The creation of a new ‘category’ of wine, with distinctive but overlapping virtues, may provide a solution to a disagreement concerning the ability of the previous categories to stretch that far. In other words, the disagreement can be seen as within the community if central aesthetic values are still shared, and there is a sufficiently common evaluative language such that a resolution remains attainable. We must think of the whole aesthetic community of wine appreciation as containing many nested communities which have distinctive practices, languages, ranges of experience and perhaps even slightly different values. The wineworld will then contain many disagreements; the issue is the extent to which these are productive, or destructive. It follows that there will be more than one aesthetic community – more than one wineworld – if there is so wide a discrepancy between the range of laudable aesthetic attributes and the modes of critical discourse, concerning not just this or that wine but a considerable part of the canon, that communication concerning aesthetic evaluations becomes impossible.
Arguably, at least, the famous spat between Jancis Robinson and Robert Parker about the quality of Château Pavie 2003, which was made in style more similar to Californian Zinfandel than to classical Bordaux, analyzed convincingly by Todd, 9 indicates just such a schism. This, though, would assume first of all that a majority of those on Robinson’s ‘side’ agree with her taste – in terms of which aesthetic attributes are desirable, and likewise for Parker – otherwise it might just be a high-profile example of a mistake. Obviously, a majority of competent tasters cannot have spent time with the same wine that Robinson and Parker disagreed about, so instead their agreement or disagreement must be based upon wines in a similar style, from a closely related region, and likewise upon the aesthetic values employed by Robinson or Parker in their other judgments. In this debate, the connection between aesthetic attributes and categories or types of wine is at a premium, since Robinson did not rule out that a wine with the taste profile of Château Pavie 2003 could be good. Were it a Port, for instance, it would be fine. The issue, then, is not about the aesthetic values employed in the wineworld, but about their correlation to type, and ultimately the relevance of certain wine traditions.
The above analysis suggests that there is another, more worrying, way in which wineworlds could diverge: not agreeing on there being different standards by which to appreciate different categories of wine. Were a community – sufficiently numerous and wide (by including several functions, such as producers, distributors and critics) – to judge all wines according to one set of criteria, such as the perceived strength of the sensory impact, regardless of the wine’s type or origin, this would in and of itself make this a different wineworld altogether. At stake would be the fundamental competencies – and not only the aesthetic competency. Knowledge about styles, kinds and regions would be irrelevant and possibly considered to be just ‘conceptual noise’ in this other wineworld. While ‘aesthetic community’ and ‘wineworld’ are functional and flexible concepts, they are not so flexible as to accommodate such a development. As we shall soon see in our discussion of it, the concept of terroir embodies one crucial aesthetic value on which the whole wineworld rests: diversity. Any challenge to this, be it insidiously through measuring all wine with the same rod – so to speak – or in some other as yet undiscovered manner, is a challenge to the very being of the wineworld we know and love. In fact, we do not think that there are now two wineworlds, according to the criteria discussed in this section – but it is not inconceivable that the day may come.
The analysis above concerning the possible divergence of wineworlds if the essential concept of a diversity of types is suppressed suggests that to understand the wineworld today it is important to understand the contested concept of terroir . After all, especially for European producers, it is not primarily bottles as such that are awarded the high status in wine; it is the sites. Rather like Hume’s tactic in appealing to the standing of authors rather than individual works when he wanted to show that a standard of taste was in operation, the standing of wines is not based on cuvées, vintages or producers. When the perceived quality of the sites is converted into a legal framework, such as in the French system of Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), the picture becomes muddied by greed and its close relation politics, but in its idealized form the AOC and similar systems in other countries are supposed to take the enduring qualities and identities of designated sites into account. Producers or whole vintages may underperform, but this very notion of underperformance indicates that there is an underlying potential which is not realized in this vintage or by this producer. Thus, the site is considered to hold the key to quality.
Accordingly, Goode and Harrop note that terroir is “the unifying theory of fine wine.” 10 By this they mean that the notion is basic to both the quality distinctions between classes of wines, as well as the crucial idea of the sensory identity of particular wines such as cuvées which may or may not be sourced from identifiable vineyards. Terroir is unifying as a theory, we want to add, through preserving the distinctions that identify diversity. The aesthetic character of this theory is noted through the fact that different aesthetic attributes are desired and expected from different kinds of wine. Even within the general conception of red burgundy, for instance, the two Grand Cru vineyards in the village of Chambolle-Musigny, Les Musigny and Les Bonnes Mares, are expected to provide wines of elegance, 11 and of power and depth respectively. If these roles were one day reversed, confusion would result, but were wines from Les Bonnes Mares consistently to turn out like those from Les Musigny the result would not be confusion but rather a fundamental loss to the wineworld as an aesthetic community.
The loss sustained would be the loss of the unique sensory character and identity of Les Bonnes Mares. By ‘sensory identity’ we mean either the intentional object of a descriptive project; or, more likely (since terroir is employed mainly where there is a presumption of aesthetic success), the intentional object of a project that is both descriptive and aesthetic. Moreover, it must be an intentional object where the constancy of this object across vintages is not only discovered, but valued. Terroir is only an interesting concept if, by way of the wine bearing witness to terroir in its sensory identity, the wine achieves aesthetic success.We spoke of the project of terroir – that is, it is a particular task that a taster can set him or herself, which has as its intentional aim the wine understood as being ‘transparent’ to its provenance in such a way that this transparency is aesthetically relevant. 12 Already in this idea one can see the significance of terroir as a unifying theory, for the project of terroir must fuse together descriptive and aesthetic projects, and moreover do so in such a way that the provenance of the wine is perceptible in both. 13
From our perspective, terroir is crucial to combining and integrating the different competencies. It is through the idea that wines have sensory identities that the connections between the way this wine that I have in the glass tastes, the memories of how earlier bottles and vintages have tasted, and how they are supposed to taste, can be made. Aesthetic competency matters as well, and it is important to remember that a descriptive and aesthetic project are not the same. As we saw above, a Grand Cru Les Musigny is supposed to be elegant and harmonious in its own inimitable way, while the other Grand Cru of Chambolle Musigny, Bonnes Mares, is a different kind of beast where the qualities of depth and power are to the fore. It may not be all that ‘burgundian’ at all, if we compare it to a set of generalized character traits of wines from this area, but being a Grand Cru it extends the concept of burgundian wines even though it’s not very typical. In other words, semantic knowledge, memories of specific wines as well as what we have called aesthetic attributes, appear to be unified through terroir – at least if we understand this concept in its more extended sense. One has to extend the concept since some wines are not from a particular place at all even though they have, or are supposed to have, a particular character. Penfolds Grange (previously Penfolds Grange Hermitage) is a case in point here. It is from no place more specific than Australia, but it is made to represent the best of Australian wine, being a kind of first growth for the whole country. This shows how difficult it might be to operate with too restricted a notion of terroir , as well as how difficult it might be to restrict it in a meaningful way, but let us first try to understand what might be meant by Goode and Harrop’s phrase “unifying theory of fine wine.” Is a widely respected wine like Penfolds Grange a terroir wine, or is it not a fine wine at all because it is not a terroir wine? Compared with Grange, the Bordeaux focus on properties rather than sites is less of a problem for a conception of terroir . Even though properties very often have expanded their vineyards, they are still – as a rule – in one commune. Of course, the perfect correlation of vineyard and producer makes it more difficult to determine the effects of the vineyard and the producer respectively. Diversity, then, is the soul of terroir . However, of course, terroir is only useful as a classificatory instrument if (and probably would never even have been noticed unless ) it is consistent. It is not at all obvious, though, how such consistency happens.
‘ Terroir wine’ was first used about coarse or rustic wines – wines that apparently tasted of the earth. Only gradually did it become a term of praise, one that expresses a widely noted characteristic of most wines, or at least wines that are not over-cropped or over-produced: They taste differently according to where they come from. This is very obviously the case with wines from warm versus cold climates, but even plots next to each other on the same hillside grown with the same varietal of the same age by the same vintner taste differently in the same vintage. Terroir , then, has come to represent those differences that transcend vintage, vine age and whatever the vintner does, though all these (and others) are important factors in their own right with regard to how the wines turn out – and sometimes they even dominate the character of the site or region. However, the persistent differences that cannot be attributed to human intervention or weather variables have been summed up by the concept of terroir . Here, then, Penfolds Grange is again the test to the limit of the concept. It’s Australian, but the character of the wine is the result of the blend – the attempt to reach a stylistic ideal through the blend of several wines.
There are several factors that are known to impact on the quality of a vineyard. The macroclimate is where in the world the vineyard is, and on either side of the Equator there are ranges of latitudes between which most of the vineyards are found – warm enough to ripen the grapes, but not so warm as to lose all freshness. While the ranges of latitudes may change a little given global warming, many of the better vineyards in the warmer parts of these ranges are at high altitudes where the nights are cooler. The macroclimate also includes matters such as precipitation and prevailing winds – as well as susceptibility to spring frosts. The mesoclimate, which is of higher relevance to the concept of terroir , takes in the more localized weather, wind and sun factors impacting the site where the grapes are grown. 14 In northern regions the gradient of the site may be decisive for the chances of ripening the grapes, with the vineyards in Germany’s Mosel and Ahr regions particularly steep. The aspect is important in determining how much and at which time of the day the sun shines on the vines. The drainage may be among the most important natural factors for the quality of the wine from a single site, and the gravel of Bordeaux as well as the calcareous limestone prevalent in parts of Burgundy have both heat-retentive properties as well as the ability to provide just the right amount of water at the right times. This correct amount – for producing high-quality wines, that is – appears to be ‘just too little.’ 16 This inhibits the vine’s tendency to vegetal growth and also limits the size of the berries to that ratio between fruit, skin and pips best suited to making quality wine. The vine’s resources are thus, as it were, harnessed for quality rather than quantity.
All these are natural factors, only some of which may be augmented by human intervention, such as is the case with most ‘Clos’ vineyards in France for instance, which have a protective wall retaining heat and preventing the inflow of cold air. One should think, then, that it was a matter of reproducing as closely as possible the really great sites, keeping yields low, and getting a wonderful result. But this appears not to be the case. Sites next to each other, sharing the same mesoclimate and aspect, tend to produce wines that taste rather different from one another, and great terroirs are few and far between.
Before we go on to argue the importance of the human factor, there is the task of explaining the differences between sites that cannot be attributed to the human factor. However, even the soil can be down to human intervention. On steep slopes some of the topsoil will make its way further down the slope during heavy rains, and it is common practice to bring it back. More radical intervention, like bringing in soil from elsewhere, has also been carried out. “A thousand cartloads of earth were spread each year at Latour in the early nineteenth century, and roughly the same amount at Lafite,” 17 so we see that the human factor is a force to be reckoned with even at such a supposedly natural level as the soil where the vines have their home. Not even drainage, however, is all down to the subsoil, with old drainage systems – some dating back to the seventeenth century – being found beneath some of the best vineyards in Bordeaux when they are replanted.
Vineyard differences can and do affect the flavor of wine, and differences are no doubt due to a range of factors – like the ones mentioned above. Some of these are likely to be the composition of the soil and the subsoil, but just how this affects the taste profile of the finished product is not so easy to determine. Sites and their characteristics are the backbone of appellation systems like the AOC system in France and similar arrangements in many other (chiefly European) countries. The tempting idea, given that there are persistent sensory differences between wines that are not attributable to climatic or human factors, is that the soil of the place where the vines grow is somehow reflected in the grape, and thus that the taste of the wine is the taste – in some way or other – of the soil. Many wine regions have characteristics that invite positing this kind of causality, and Chablis is a case in point. It is old sea-bed of calcareous limestone resplendent with fossils of small crustaceans, and would you believe it: One characteristic Chablis aroma is of the sea at low tide. In this case, and in many others, the temptation to make the connection between the soil and the sensory profile of the wines is understandable.
However, this temptation should be resisted. The vines do not suck up soil components and deposit them in the grapes, where they make it through the alcoholic and malolactic fermentations to be tasted in the finished product as a kind of calling card from the vineyard. This is a crude model, and impossible physiologically. “Almost all the flavour compounds in wine are made by the vine, or are made from precursors present in the must by yeast metabolism, or come from an extrinsic source such as oak barrels.” 21 So why is it that the site where the grapes are grown gives the wine a character of its own? It is a standard feature of most accounts of the fine wines of a region, particularly those from long-established and ‘classical’ regions, to relate the quality and characteristics of different wines to particulars of their sites. Let us take an example from Burgundy, probably the world’s most extensively charted wine region. In Jasper Morris’s magisterial Inside Burgundy the adjacent sites of ‘Les St-Georges’ and ‘Les Vaucrains’ in Nuits-Saint-Georges are described thus: “[Les St-Georges] is certainly the fullest and richest of the Nuits premier cru wines, the deepish-brown clay soil providing the weight and the proliferation of small stones allowing good drainage and some minerality. The notable tannins tend to be well covered in flesh,” 22 while “[Les Vaucrains] is a favourite source of intense, deep-coloured, long-lived Nuits-St-Georges … . It lies just above Les St-Georges and has much in common with the latter, but the slope is noticeably steeper … If the wines are not quite as succulent, they have instead a more prominent minerality.” 23 Do the aspect, mesoclimate and water-retentive properties of the soil and subsoil explain all the differences – or all the natural ones?
Perhaps not. In their excellent account of terroir , Goode and Harrop focus the contribution of soil to the taste of a wine on minerals and the fact that what we call ‘mineral’ in the taste profile of a wine is unlikely to be attributable to minerals in the soil. 24 It is hard to determine from Morris’s account how he thinks the soil influences the wine, but drainage is clearly important, and so are the minerals in the ground apparently. In this Morris is representative, we think, of many of the people who matter in the wineworld, and the geographical differentiation is also reproduced scientifically: Martin and Watling have found, using chemical ‘fingerprinting,’ that “the main factor influencing the chemical fingerprint is a vineyard’s location.”
However, the factors with an impact on the sensory profile of the wine are legion. Some have found that the producer and the vintage are the main factors for the sensory profile, 26 while a project at the Forschungsanstalt Geisenheim (FAG) in Germany points to the soil. In their ‘ Terroir Hesse’ 27 project they selected six different sites based on data provided by Hessian Environmental and Geologic Survey stating types of soil – such as “sandy loess” or “tertiary clay.” The vines were of similar age (15–25 years old), Riesling, and harvest as well as wine making were standardized in the interest of research. The soil and other physical properties were analyzed in their laboratories, while the sensory properties of the wines were analyzed by the staff at FAG. With regard to minerals, it was interesting to note that there was no correlation between the nutrition contents of the soil and the content of the wine, except for calcium. Wines from vineyards with high levels of calcium in the subsoil also had low potassium, and they all had the sensory characteristic of “well buffered acids,” leading to the idea that these minerals, at least, find their way from the soil via the grapes and into the wine where they make a sensory impact. Similar studies were made by Professor Yves Glories at Bordeaux University in the early 1990s, and the conclusion was that soil types corresponded very clearly with the styles of the wines made on those soils, and that the quality factor had a strong link with the drainage of the soil.
This may well be the case, but it does not exhaust the possible contributions of the vineyard to the taste profile of the wine. Given that about half of the 800 or so volatile flavor compounds found in wine are produced by yeasts, 30 the kinds of yeast present in the fermentation is one major factor in the explanation of diversity of taste profiles between wines. For vintners these days one choice is whether to go for inoculated fermentations, or to let nature take its course through what is known as a ‘spontaneous ferment.’ The latter carries more risk in terms of bacterial spoilage and delays, but is considered to be more authentic, as well as more diverse in terms of microbial activity. 31 Most of the yeast strains in a spontaneous ferment, up to about 20 or 30 kinds, make a contribution to the fermentation at an early stage. This is because there is really only one yeast strain left (since the alcohol and heat generated kills the others) when the fermentation reaches an alcoholic content of 4–6%: Saccharomyces cerevisiae . Choices by the vintner make a major difference, too, since a cooler fermentation favors wild yeast strains, while adding sulphur when crushing the grapes kills off not only the undesirable spoilage bacteria, but also less robust wild yeasts.
Saccharomyces , however, is very robust. There are between three and five major global lineages of this yeast, but many more ‘mosaic strains’ with ancestry in more than one of these. 32 While it has been thought to be rare in nature, it is this kind of yeast that completes the ferment. Attempts to culture it from the skins of grapes have been unsuccessful, 33 and it has been thought that this yeast survives the time between vintages and their ferments at some spots in the wineries. This would then suggest that to the extent that yeasts contribute to the flavor profile of wines, they do so as part of the producer’s profile. Not only do the practices of the cellar and the husbandry of the wines make their mark on how the wines from a single producer taste – a difference which would be noticed across cuvées – but so potentially would the yeasts were the producer to choose spontaneous rather than inoculated ferments. All provided, of course, that the yeasts present were different from those in other wineries in the area, that the same yeasts took part in the ferment of all cuvées, and moreover that they made a difference for the wines at the level of sensory detection. This picture does not support the idea that spontaneous ferments are more true to terroir . Rather, the choice to let nature take its course would not be the choice to let the vineyard express itself in the wine, but the choice to let whichever yeasts happened to be present at that time in the winery do what they were inclined to do: feed on the grape juice and multiply.
But it is not obvious that all these single-cell fungi that take part in spontaneous ferments come from the winery. Recent research in New Zealand has shown that Saccharomyces strains indigenous to New Zealand are present in the outdoor environment, and that bees may be a force for dispersal of yeasts from the wild to the winery. This research strengthens the case for the terroir character of yeasts – but only if the bees find their way to the right winery and the right ferments. One other result from this research in their research does not support the connection between yeasts and terroir : Wine barrels from Chagny in Burgundy, used by the vintner in New Zealand, carried with them strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae that were present in the ferment. 35 The plot thickens, in other words, and from yeasts being a possible component in terroir diversity through spontaneous fermentation, we are now in a position to say that it cannot be as simple as that. Since yeasts are flighty and temperamental (quite literally) and few – if any – of those in a particular ferment arrive there with the grapes, choosing to go for a spontaneous fermentation is not the same as choosing to let terroir express itself. Rather, it is a choice which may well increase authenticity and complexity since it gives a wide range of local yeasts a better chance, particularly in the early stage of fermentation, but fundamentally it is a choice to let chance play a major part in the formation of the wine’s character. We are therefore in the rather unexpected position where we may want to suggest that the vintner should culture yeasts that are present in the different vineyards, and then inoculate the different cuvées from these vineyards with strains cultured from those present in these vineyards. 36 If yeasts are to play a part in the terroir character of the wines rather than their winery character, nature requires a fair bit of nurture. The vintner will have to make the choice of whether or not to let chance rule the process of fermentation and thus leave it up the flight of the bees, the global dispersal of wine making equipment or the cleanliness of the winery, or to inoculate the fermentation by yeasts cultured from the vineyard.
So if the specific vineyard is the desirable cause of taste specificity, then the soil is a more promising candidate than yeasts – at least where the debate stands at the moment since the cultured yeasts sold commercially are generic rather than specific. We saw from the research in Geisenheim that the soil could make a difference to the sensory profile of the wines, but in “Soil searching” Lydia and Claude Bourguignon also outline how the soil composition can affect the taste of the wine, thus giving a rationale to the detailed and cumbersome pattern of named vineyards of Burgundy where they are based. They are unashamed terroiristes , stating baldly that “it is soil and not vinification that prevents wine makers from improving the quality of their wines.” But how can this be the case given that the vines only extract water from the ground, and we know that the unfermented wine juice does not taste of anything but grapes – high or low calcium notwithstanding?
They cite, of course, the role of drainage, heat retention and other factors. These properties of the site where vines grow can also change within inches, and give neighboring sites that are similar in other respects widely differing properties relevant to keeping the vines with just the right amount of water and nutrients at the crucial junctures in the growth cycle. In the southern end of Burgundy’s Nuits-Saint-Georges, the vineyard of Clos Saint Marc lies like an enclave within Les Argillières with the same aspect and gradient, but its wines have more depth and richness, as well as “an explosive succulence,” compared to Les Argillières. The vintner has made extensive studies of the soil in these two vineyards, and the Clos has much more soil (up to 3 meters, compared to 70–80 centimeters) on top of the underlying rock. This retains more water in the dry years, but it does not explain the persistent character of the sensory differences, and neither can the minor differences in vine age, and Morris implicitly suggests that the soil, which is rich in calcium and silica, is the key.
The scientific evidence is uncertain, but the nuances between sites appear, somehow, to have more to them than just the availability of water. From the point of view of the sensory profiles of wines, something more specific than heat retention and drainage would be required as explanations of these differences. A sensory profile, after all, does not appear to be computable as a heat-retention and water-providing algorithm. Is there something else that can act as an explanation for this? The Bourguignons acknowledge that aromatic molecules are carbonated and do not contain such trace mineral components (oligo-elements) as manganese, barium and zinc. However, these are involved all the same, given that aromatic molecules are synthesized by enzymes, and enzymes are proteins with a metal co-factor. All according to the Bourguignons. That minerals are present in grape juice is a documented fact, with potassium, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulphur, magnesium, calcium, boron, manganese and iron present in concentrations from around 2,000 to 20 milligrams per liter. 42 Their relative prevalence varies substantially between vineyards – so much so that wines can be ‘fingerprinted’ in chemical analysis to determine which vineyard they come from. This means, then, that while the mineral composition of the soil cannot be tasted in the wine – for a start, the concentrations are too low to be detected – the soil composition which is specific to a single site may strongly influence the kind and prevalence of aromatic molecules in the wine. We do not know if this account of how soil components are involved in the creation of the wine’s taste profile is enough to explain the perceptible differences between wines from adjacent sites, or even whether it makes sense scientifically, but others are also prepared to state that “the organoleptic characteristics of the wine depended on the kind of soil.”
This is a controversial subject, and we are not experts in plant physiology, but this material may be relevant to the discussions of how the concept of terroir should be understood. Whatever the causes involved and their relative importance, it is safe to say that wines potentially gain a significant part of their sensory profiles from natural factors; not only the importance of the site in all its manifestations, but also the weather. However, the key word here is “potentially.”
The scope of human intervention is large and growing, but quite apart from any such scenario as our 2030 thought experiment, human intervention and choice cannot make sublime wine from an inferior site, or completely obliterate the effects of a good or a bad year on the wine produced. Were this the case, the world of wine as we know it would be turned on its head.
There are, however, many practices and traditions that pose challenges to the notion of terroir as a natural kind, as it were. Among established wine areas with long traditions, Champagne fails to fit the mold of terroir wines as this picture has been drawn above. It is no accident that the examples of neighboring sites with different taste profiles have been from Burgundy. Here the delimitations, gradations and the hierarchy of vineyards are extensively charted and made law – not without major input from pressure groups and other non-natural forces, as we shall see below – but still the contrast with Champagne as traditionally conceived is both stark and instructive.
Champagne is also changing, but the traditional way of making wines here is influenced by the fact that the area is at the northern limit of pre-globalwarming commercial viticulture. Champagne is a blended wine, for the most part. The blending takes in vintages – since historically it had proven difficult to ripen grapes every year – grape varieties (both red and white) and different sites from within the greater Champagne area. There are a number of great ‘houses,’ such as Moët & Chandon, Taittinger, Pol Roger and others, who try all the time to reproduce the house style 46 in their signature non-vintage blend bearing the name of the house. This usually contains most of the latest available vintage, 47 but others are also used. This short account of the governing ideas of non-vintage champagnes should suffice to show the problems for a general account of terroir based on the natural factors to account for champagnes and, given the importance and indubitable quality of champagnes, would thus struggle to make sense as a truly unifying theory of fine wine. This counter-example, if that is what it is, is from one of the quintessential areas of quality wine production in the world, and cannot be dismissed as an arriviste . Australia’s Penfolds Grange, could, were one excessively Eurocentric, be dismissed as an arriviste . Grange is a bit like non-vintage champagnes in being from a large area – although much larger than Champagne – and blended according to an ideal of style. Grange and champagnes are undoubtedly fine wines, 48 and only an unduly restricted conception of ‘fine wine’ would exclude these. So, this means that terroir will have to be somewhat amended in order to work as a unifying theory of fine wine, or else the whole undertaking will have to be abandoned.
However, such is the power of terroir that in Champagne there has been a move to single-site wines since the 1990s. Vintage champagnes, made only in the best years, are a well-established practice, and from 1979 one of the most revered houses of Champagne, Krug, released the single-vineyard Clos du Mesnils, thus apparently contradicting the blending ideology of Champagne. Since the 1990s more and more small producers have appeared, sourcing their grapes only from their own vineyards in one village – so-called ‘grower champagnes.’ Enthusiasts have taken to these developments just because they do conform more easily to terroir as a unifying theory of fine wine – or more precisely: with how this conception has been manifested in other regions. Because, after all, why should not the sense of place get its sensory expression in wines from Champagne just as well as in wines from Chablis or other regions with clearly demarcated vineyards?
The view in Champagne is that it does: Champagnes taste of Champagne and not of a single plot within its broad borders. The brinkmanship that is making wine so far north, the calcareous subsoil, finds its expression in the freshness and finesse of this effervescent liquid. The blending that is the soul of most champagnes gives the wine complexity and a durable character, but it is also, historically, a virtue of necessity. With grower champagnes on the rise, and established houses releasing more single-site wines, there are at present at least two competing conceptions of champagne as wine. Terroir does not mean that only one conception, an edict of nature, determines the delimitations and sensory identities of sites or wider regions. They are, of course, based on human judgments. Quality classifications, site identification, and the formation of site identities are and have to be determined by human judgment. Not only does this mean ample opportunity for the effects of vested interests 50 and all the other human frailties one can think of, but it also makes clear that aesthetic judgments have a role to play in terroir .
It takes time to determine which sites taste like what, and to make this appear as if it was a fact of nature. This is one reason why Burgundy, where vineyards were named and walled centuries ago, is well ahead of most other areas when it comes to divisions, further sub-divisions and hierarchies. While the identification of non-European wine-growing areas as ‘the new world’ is problematic and probably patronizing, it may be instructive at least in the literal sense of being ‘new’ and thus not yet having established the traditions and widespread recognition necessary for terroir . From outside of Europe the constant harping on terroir may grate on the nerves, and one California vintner says that terroir is just a “bankable proposition because their property can then be sold, transferred and inherited with the full value of the wine produced from its grapes attributable to the property itself.” 51 The relative weighting that is assigned to soil, on the one hand, and wine-making prowess on the other, may be yet another deep-seated difference between the two aspects of the wineworld.
However, we see that many wine growers in Australia, California and other non-European parts of the world are eagerly investigating the specific sensory and other characteristics of their sites. Some areas are just too warm, perhaps, to allow more nuanced aspects of the taste profile to become apparent, but the main difficulty is the time scale involved in developing a fairly stable and widely recognized identity for sites. The American AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) are perhaps too large and diverse to work as terroirs – after all Champagne, albeit big, has a production method and a distinct style of wine that sets it apart. More promising as terroirs are more narrowly conceived combinations of area and wine style – such as Australia’s Hunter Valley Semillon. An important aspect of the establishment of terroir is the expectation of a sensory profile: that Musigny tastes like this, or that Grange tastes like that. It is when people appear to think that these wines could be no other way that we have a terroir , no matter how the taste is explained – by natural conditions or the human factor. There are recurrent variables, such as the vintage factor, and then there is the stable element in the taste profile, and this is terroir – whatever may cause this stability, be it natural conditions or the skills of the blender at the champagne house or at Penfolds.
We have shown, we think, that the link back to the site or property, in the year the grapes grew and matured there, is a powerful part of the attraction of wine as we know it. A wine is not just a representation; it is a link back to the site and the year when the grapes grew there. To open up the concept of terroir to wines that are sourced from such wide areas as Champagne and Australia – particularly the latter – may seem like going too far. However, this is not the only result of our investigations so far. We have found that there is a profoundly human element in the evaluation of wines, and that proper attention to wines requires knowledge of their types and kinds. The traditions and accumulated expertise involved in wine making are no less factors that a wine can link back to through its sensory profile, and no less part of the attraction. Non-vintage champagne from the big houses and Grange – to pick the two examples of wines with weak links to sites that we have used so far – qualify as stable enough entities to warrant those with prior knowledge and experience (cultural and practical competency) to appreciate the wines. The reason they may fit uneasily into a conception of terroir as a unifying theory of fine wine is that the human intervention in the sensory profile of the finished product may be too great – and this conflicts with the attraction of the site connection. However, if terroir is to work as a unifying theory of fine wine (as fine wine is currently understood), and not just as a way of excluding some well-established wines and practices and thus work as a divisive theory of fine wine, some such allowances will have to be made.
No matter which of the two directions we want to go with the notion of terroir – thinking exclusively in terms of soil and mesoclimate, or opening up for the role of traditions and expertise – an account of human intervention and interpretation has to be given. It is clear that even the most extensively charted wine-producing area in the world, Burgundy, is a product of human judgment and political intervention. Wolikow and Jacquet, in their investigations of the formation of the Burgundy classification, come to the conclusion that “ terroir was never a ‘natural’ notion, always a social construction historically determined by such factors as the intervention of the State and professional bodies.” 52 They show that pressure groups were active in framing the laws – and neither the laws nor the divisions are always beyond reproach – but so successful are the vineyard and quality distinctions of Burgundy that they have been put forward to be listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. “ Climates are precisely defined parcels of land, benefiting from specific geological and climatic conditions which, combined with the work of men have created a unique mosaic of world famous wines.” 53 This is clearly the case, but it is not the whole story. Wolikow and Jacquet come closer to the point we want to add to this discussion when they say that “[ terroir ] is also the fruit of the unavoidable construction of norms.” 54
That one wine is better than another is clearly a judgment of taste and not a matter for scientific enquiry. For this judgment to be widely recognized there will have to be a degree of unanimity in the matter, across vintages and across the sampling of these vintages at different stages in their maturation. This clearly applies to levels of quality, but perhaps also to the taste profile of a terroir . That the Burgundy Grand Cru of Les Musigny gives wines of grace and power, the liquid definition of “the iron fist in the velvet glove,” 55 is something well known not only by those lucky few who drink these wines, but also by the 10 producers who own parts of the vineyard. The terroir , be it as local as a site or more general as a village or even a whole area like Champagne, becomes a tradition with its own norms for what the sensory identity of its terroir is, and takes on something of the character of canons in the arts. By this we mean that it is a recognized norm that makes itself felt even – or perhaps particularly – when it is broken. It cannot be broken except consciously and deliberately. Of course, the sensory character may be less evident in a bad year or become submerged in the vintage characteristics of a particularly wonderful vintage. 56 But to set out on a different path, like Anselme Selosse in Champagne – who has adopted distinctly burgundian wine-making practices giving his wines a character that set them apart from ‘normal’ champagnes – requires the wide recognition of what wines from the area are supposed to be like. This takes time, and to establish a tradition requires widespread agreement which may well amount to “the unavoidable construction of norms.”
Whether this – the formation of terroir – is the destiny of ‘new world’ wine-producing areas is too early to say. Some may think that the higher temperatures in many – but not all – ‘new world’ wine-producing areas is an impediment to terroir , but a far more important one is the time scale needed for agreement and recognition. Traditions and taste profiles that appear to be ‘natural,’ like what a typical Meursault tastes like, need to be the result of the operation of a feedback loop between natural factors, like soil, aspect, climate, and the human forces that interpret and seek to enhance the characteristics deemed desirable and typical for a kind of wine. Of course, once settled the terroir in the sense of an expectation of a sensory profile may also change. New technologies, even those changes aiming to interfere as little as possible, may make new directions possible. Nuits-Saint-Georges in Burgundy has been known for deeply colored and rather chunky wines which may be a function of the Nuits soil which is rich in clay, but there is apparently a change on the way, where vintners press the grapes more softly and ensure a better leaf cover during the maturation in order to produce wines of elegance. 57 This latter is closer to the generalized idea of what red burgundy wines are like, but this process, if it catches on with most leading wine makers in NuitsSaint-Georges, would not change the soil or climate of Nuits-Saint-Georges – only the character of the wines. So would the former sensory profile, or the one to come, be more genuine? Which would be authentic, which would be a true expression of the Nuits-Saint-Georges terroir ?
There is, a cherished quality of wines that they are authentic. But what is authenticity – beyond being a clearly romantic artistic ideal? Every wine made by grapes in the normal way is authentic in the sense that it comes from somewhere in a given year. Authenticity is a deeply embedded cultural value, having to do with a desire to connect with the origins of something great or ancient. Civil war (English or American) artifacts are called ‘authentic’ for this reason, likewise arrowheads or coins long buried; a new pair of jeans might be called authentic in advertising in an extended sense, since the type of fabric, or the pattern, are produced now as they once were. In their discussion of authenticity and terroir Goode and Harrop focus on the making of wines, the attempts to interfere as little as possible with the direction the wine wants to take, so to speak. This is the authenticity cherished by the natural wine movement. It is manifested as non-intervention in the vineyard as well as the winery, with the thought that less intervention gives the natural forces room to express themselves in the sensory profile of the wine. For a wine business where the drive to bring down prices and the globalization of tastes have been noticeable forces lately, the drive for purity and non-intervention is a laudable counter-force. But as Goode and Harrop acknowledge, authenticity – like naturalness – is a shifting paradigm, and even wine-making faults can become so entrenched that they become part of terroir . 59 Authenticity in this sense is fine, but terroir makes sense as a unified theory of fine wine chiefly through being a set of norms and standards which are significantly similar to Walton’s “categories of art.” 60 Categories or types in wine direct attention and give us norms that make sense of what we taste.
Let us further explore the relationship between terroir and authenticity. Perhaps, like terroir itself, we need to expand the concept of ‘authenticity.’ Terroir is supposed to provide the explanation of sensory identity, such that the latter is a unique and authentic witness to the former. In authenticity, terroir shows itself in the wine, descriptively or aesthetically. Now, terroir may be taken to refer, to a greater or lesser extent, to the soil and mesoclimate of a particular plot of land – that is, something ‘natural’ which subsists prior to human actions. However, as we have seen above, this naturalness may itself be an effect of previous human intervention (e.g. economic and political decisions, importing soils, or building walls to change mesoclimate). Moreover, there is every reason to suspect that certain viticultural practices, such as the way the vines are tended, grapes picked and crushed, yeasts permitted or introduced and so on, have as much of a role to play in the valued constancy of the sensory identity. The expertise and good judgment of the vintner is thus an essential ingredient, and this expertise arises through tradition and experience. What is the wine an authentic witness to? Not, to be sure, just the natural features of the landscape (whether a few acres, or thousands), but perhaps these in combination with time-honored expertise, procedures, techniques and ultimately traditions in wine making. Some purely descriptive sensory identities might be achieved in a number of ways, that is through different viticultural strategies yielding similar results. Terroir is thus neither exclusively ‘natural’ nor ‘artificial.’ Once we have established this result, however, there is no reason in principle why we cannot talk of terroir with regard to Penfolds Grange, where it would refer almost exclusively to the established expertise in choosing and using grapes from a variety of sources in order to create the distinctive and highly successful style. However, once the concept is stretched this far, it arguably seems to have lost any real value. It basically just means consistent style or typicity, and authenticity means little more than ‘consistently well made.’ Have we expanded the concept too far?
There is nothing wrong with style in the above sense, but also nothing intrinsically valuable about any single style as such – though the sum total of styles, or sensory identities, of wines captured through the notion of terroir can be considered as preserving the aesthetic value of diversity . However, in defining sensory identity, we did not just speak of style as a constant intentional object of a descriptive and aesthetic project, but as one that has itself acquired value. That is, it is a style, to be sure, but one that has a definite relationship to the object specific to an aesthetic project. Consider by analogy three portraits that might be attributed to Rembrandt: A, B and C. The first two have the qualities we associate with Rembrandt, including the highly expressive brushstrokes, the pose and expression, and the stark but also curiously flat lighting. The third, C, is atypical of the painter – it may be a great painting, but its greatness arises through a whole different set of features. It could as well be by a different painter. Let us say that A and C are actually painted by Rembrandt, while B is a forgery. In this circumstance, A and C are obviously ‘authentic’ Rembrandts in one sense of the word. However, calling C ‘authentic’ in this sense is an empty gesture, since there is little or nothing perceptible in the painting that allows us to connect with the Rembrandt we know and love. So, let us narrow the concept just to A. This latter sense of authentic is the one we are interested in: A wine is connected to or witness of its provenance in a way that has come to be an integral part of the aesthtic judgement of wines from that provenance. The phrase “has come to be” is all-important. It suggests that only after some considerable time, many vintages, and many repeated tastings and associated discussions, a set of descriptive or aesthetic features acquires both a canonical status in discourse about just that wine, and a canonical role within the aesthetic evaluation of that wine. It is not, of course a sufficient condition, for the wine might be characteristic but not aesthetically successful (because of a poor vintage or for other reasons). Many wines from northern parts of Europe in the very warm 2003 vintage have been spurned because they were atypical, but they are more authentic and typical of the vintage the ‘warmer’ 61 the sensory characteristics of the wine turn out to be. This aspect of authenticity has not been valued by the wineworld.
Similarly, there are ‘minor’ Rembrandts, as well as plenty of technically accomplished forgeries that are aesthetically uninteresting. Nor is having authenticity, as that which has come to be associated with a particular provenance of greatness, a necessary condition of any wine being successful, just as painting C could be a great painting by way of another style. However, it would be absurd to claim that Rembrandt’s style is not an integral part of the aesthetic success of his work. Moreover, this style has become integral in such a way as to have had an impact on the history of painting (that is, it has had an impact on how other painters are judged), entering that history as a benchmark or a possible painting strategy. This authentic style is, in short, canonical. Something is authentic in this aesthetic sense if all three of the following conditions hold: First, the object exhibits a sensory identity which, second, seems throughout to bear witness to its origin, and third, that both facts are relevant to the aesthetic success of the object.
If the concept of terroir is taken to be the ‘expression’ of natural factors in a wine, this requires the assumption that the artifice is ‘neutral’ in itself, and only aids natural factors. But, as we have seen, deciding which artifice could meaningfully be said to be neutral is far from straightforward. Instead, we suggest that terroir arises when the artifice has acquired over time the kind of constancy and unique identity that we would otherwise associate with natural phenomena. Terroir may be more about time than it is about space. Decades and centuries ago, there were many things that could be said about a particular property in Burgundy, for example, which might have been deemed relevant to aesthetic evaluation. However, many of these things ‘come out in the wash’ of history. That is, the maintenance and development of the aesthetic community serves to separate the wheat of those things that impact upon aesthetic judgment from the chaff of those that do not. Some factors have come to be ignored (perhaps because they are not unique to or typical of Burgundy), others have been eliminated by changes in viticulture following repeated cycles of the feedback loop that we discussed above. Similarly, above, we discussed the hyperbolic statements that often emerge when a new technique or style hits the market – ‘the next big thing!’ Only time will tell whether this new feature will become part of the accepted order of wine-making strategies, or not. Likewise, when we say that it is “too early to tell” whether areas of newer wine-producing regions will come to function as terroir , this is not to be understood as if they already were, or were not, terroir , but we just don’t happen to know this yet. Rather, we mean it in the sense that terroir arises through the generally, and in some cases essentially , slow mechanisms of the generation of culture.
As we have redefined them, the concepts of terroir and authenticity overcome the aesthetic differentiation found in a conception of wine appreciation that simply ignores site and tradition. At the same time, we hope to have avoided falling into the ‘romantic’ trap that, arguably, the ‘natural wine’ movement and the more radical, Eurocentric defenders of terroir represent. By raising the way in which the wineworld builds up, over time, traditions and history, we are responding to the idealization of both the judging subject and the isolated object that Gadamer identified. The significance of a particular context of a wine – which might include both the way the aesthetic community has judged it in the past. This convergence of contextual factors, together with the convergence of competencies that I carry with me as a representative of my aesthetic community, help account also for the emotional qualities found in the wine-tasting experience: the sense of privilege and responsibility when faced with a great wine.