Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A New Book on Terroir

In this past Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, Jim Holt writes about the new book Liquid Memory: Why Wine Matters, by Jonathan Nossiter. Several years ago, Nossiter gained a bit of fame (for better or worse, depending on how you look at it) for his film Mondovino, a tour of the world of wine and its globalization and supposed homogenization.

His new book, which I’ll be reading next week, explores the concept of terroir, which, he writes, “has never been fixed, in taste or in perception. It has always been an evolving expression of culture. What distinguishes our era is the instantaneousness and universality of change. Before, the sense of a terroir would evolve over generations, hundreds of years, allowing for the slow accretion of knowledge and experience to build into sedimentary layers, like the geological underpinning of a given terroir itself. Today layers are stripped away overnight, and a new layer is added nearly each vintage. ‘Why is this dangerous?’…Because it risks wiping out historical memory…”

Thought-provoking stuff, to be sure. And while this “polemic,” as Holt calls it in his review, is likely to antagonize as many people as it seduces, the conversations and considerations it starts are sure to be instructive. After all, no matter what your tastes—whether you prefer the richer, fruitier, higher-alcohol wines of the more modern, international style, or the often more austere, earthier, higher-acid wines (indeed, terroir-driven ones) that Nossiter so adores, one thing is certain: Thinking about the issues surrounding the juice in your glass is always a good thing. Anything, after all, that makes you delve deeper into the world of wine is likely to be hugely beneficial in the long run.

Wine, after all, “is among the most singular repositories of memory known to man…” Nossiter writes. It is, he continues, “The only animate vessel of both personal memory — that of the drinker (or maker) and the subjectivity of his experience and the memory of that subjectivity — and communal memory. That is, it is communal to the extent that a wine is also the memory of the terroir, which the wine expresses as an evolving, active taste. As communal memory, it is above all an expression of place as a communal identity, the history of the civilization of that place and the history of the relationship to its nature (especially soil, subsoil, and microclimate).”

Heady stuff to ponder, but well worth the effort. With, of course, a nice glass of wine by your side.


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