Are terroir norms normative?

Tasting at Domaine Lafarge, a masterclass in Volnay’s terroirs

What do we mean when we talk about a particular terroir’s character, personality or signature? It’s a superficially simple question. After all, it seems straightforward enough, in principle, to extrapolate which characteristics routinely differentiate the wines produced from a particular site from those produced on other sites. In practice, however, things rapidly become more complicated.

This is above all—and certainly for the purposes of this brief discussion—a Burgundian predicament.

For sake of argument, consider the case of a producer who bottles, say, a Vosne Beaux Monts very different in style from his or her neighbours’ renditions of that climat. Perhaps it’s more concentrated; perhaps it’s more ethereal. Yet the wine is well-made, and within the producer’s cellar all the wines are clearly differentiated by site: their Beaux Monts is properly dissimilar from, say, their Petit Monts; dissimilar in the way that Beaux Monts is usually dissimilar to Petit Monts.

That hypothetical begs a question: is terroir character simply a signature—a particular aroma or texture that wines from a site reveal, year after year—or a disposition; a site’s tendency to produce a given kind of wine, within the context of a producer’s style and philosophy.

The latter definition, of course, incorporates the first. But it’s also one which can accommodate our hypothetical producer of seemingly-atypical but nonetheless site-differentiated Beaux Monts, and that’s an important distinction. In short, when thinking about terroir, how normative are norms?


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