The Malfeasance of Terroir and Biodynamics

Updated: Nov 18, 2019

The quest for balance is the guiding principle for fine wine as it is for life. Yet balance when achieved, is temporary, a funambulism associated with a circus act more than business practice. Two popular concepts of the wine world, terroir and biodynamics, have made their way onto our plate for balance, but I'm hard pressed to find their mise en place.

Terroir is an enchanting concept. It offers a holistic view of the natural environment, where "sense of place" is granted mythical proportions. Each vineyard has a unique terroir which is reflected in its wines to some degree regardless of viticulture and winemaking. Old world vineyard classifications are based on the concept while new world producers are deemed to be learning.

Fred Swan has an intriguing take on terroir, where wine is a photograph, capturing a vineyard at a moment in time from a specific perspective. He accords human factors a prism on terroir, a way to experience a variety of expressions from different people over multiple vintages. While this view that humans are fundamental to the concept of terroir is not new, it is not consistent with the concept of terroir as a natural phenomenon.

Yet I wonder if terroir isn't more akin to the classical elements of earth, water, air, and fire. Modern science considers these as solid, liquid, gas, and plasma states of matter rather than as fundamental elements but lends credence to the view that soil/topography, hydrology, climate, and sunlight play a role in viniculture. If water and mineral supply to the vine and fruit and leaf exposure to sunlight can be guided by man as well as by nature then isn't terroir a diluted concept?

Biodynamics, a form of sustainable viticulture on a cosmic level, has had impressive results but little scientific basis. Demeter sets standards for biodynamic agriculture while Biodyvin sets standards for biodynamic wine. Katia Nussbaum has argued that we should frame it as a "(What's so Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding" world view. Many winemakers have turned to biodynamic viticulture but I think their painstaking care of vines rather than buried concoctions and celestrial harvest dates is responsible for their excellent wine.

Terroir and biodynamics have played an important role in winemaking. More importantly these concepts have led to valuable research that informs us that neither are deserving unchallenged veneration. The malfeasance of terroir and biodynamics is of proponents giving more credence to their concepts than they deserve.



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