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Wine, Music, and the Terroiriste Threat

11/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Being a little behind in my reading, I have only recently started getting through the books I received for my birthday last year. One of these, Bordeaux/Burgundy: A Vintage Rivalry, was an excellent short book by a geographer and former president of the Sorbonne, Jean-Robert Pitte. Of the many interesting and well-researched things Pitte has to say, perhaps the most surprising is that terroir, that principle sacred to French winemakers, isn't everything.

Terroir, in case you avoid wine columns in newspapers, is the idea that each vineyard or region has special qualities in its soil and environment that shape the wine's characteristics. The French for some time have argued the superiority of their wines on terroiriste grounds: only French soil can produce wines of character and authenticity; hence, no upstart winery in America or New Zealand is worthy of consideration.

Even an American, such as Jonathan Nossiter in his entertaining documentary Mondovino, can be seduced by the romance of the land. Nossiter pits the earthy eccentrics of Burgundy and the Languedoc against the modern, monolithic, all-Merlot-all-the-time school of certain Bordeaux and New World producers. The film Sideways incorporates some of the same thinking.

Thus, one might not expect the French wine historian Roger Dion to say, as Pitte quotes approvingly, "The role of the land ... scarcely goes beyond that of the material used in making a work of art." Pitte is not out to do a terroir take-down, but rather to restore some balance to the conversation. He emphasizes the human role in wine's evolution and shows how, in even the most hallowed terroirs, producers' decisions and consumers' choices have done as much as the land itself to produce these regions' distinctive wines. As Dion puts it: "There is more history than geography in a bottle of wine."

This skirmish between what one might simplistically call the purists and the moderates brings to mind similar debates in other contexts, for example, in the performance of classical music. Most of us would accept that a performer brings something of her own to a piece of music, but there are those who would insist that a musician's job is simply to perform the music as it is written. One finds this argument being made in some of the most rarefied quarters, such as in the journals of Sviatoslav Richter, the great pianist, who admired his colleague Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli's performance of a Schubert sonata because it "reproduced the score exactly."

The irony in Richter's case is that he was one of the most distinctive pianists of his time, whose style was imitated by a generation of Moscow Conservatory students. Michelangeli too was a great individualist. Indeed, most good musicians are, and the idea that we can prefer one musician to another confirms this view. The notion of a pure interpretation, then, is as illusory as that of a pure wine, since the score, like the land, allows for numerous valid choices to be made between the lines, or the vines as may be the case.

The question, then, becomes one of quality and preference: whose intervention do I like most? Whose style is best-suited to the material (grapes, notes) in question? If I like Richter's playing, which I do, it is not because he disappears and presents me with Bach, pure and simple; it is because he makes such appropriate decisions and shows such evident love towards the music.

In the same way, we often find that the greatest landscape paintings are not those that reproduce a scene precisely, but rather those in which the artist's distinctive feeling for the subject is most palpable. This lack of distinctiveness is what Nossiter, in Mondovino, seems to finds most abhorrent in the work of Michel Rolland, the wine consultant who is forever shuttling from estate to estate in his chauffeured Mercedes. The problem is not that Rolland is interventionist, which he is, but that he is always interventionist in the same way, dispensing the same advice to plant more Merlot and "Micro-oxygenate! Micro-oxygenate!" whether the client is in Saint-Emilion or Bangalore.

I would suspect that arguments for purity and authenticity have grown more frequent as the world has grown more, for lack of a better word, impure. For every Michel Rolland there must be some charmingly crusty holdout in the Burgundy countryside; for every showman like Lang Lang there must be an early-music festival somewhere. It is a kind of opposite and equal reaction that would, I think, make the ancient Greeks, those lovers of both good music and good wine, glad to have lived in simpler times.

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