If It’s Not Organic, It’s Not Really Bordeaux
- 2009 March-April
Wine lovers will certainly recognize terroir as the enigmatic French term for soil, topography, climate, and other natural (and supernatural) traits of a particular vineyard. In fact, many farmers and food lovers believe that you can gout du terroir, or taste the earth; that the place imbues wine and food with unique flavors. Regional cuisines derive from the recognition that certain crops prosper in local climates with specific soils and topography.
French winemakers began monetizing on the link between location and greatness in places like Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne in the nineteenth century. They convincingly made the case that the terroir of these carefully designated regions soared above their grape-growing competitors. Valorizing dirt became a kind of religion. Look no further than Vermont’s acclaimed syrup-producing maple trees, or Maine’s potatoes, or Michigan’s cherries, or the sweet onions of Vidalia, Georgia, to see the model at work here in the United States.
So, if soil is sacred, then the most reverent farmers are the biodynamic and organic crowd who realize that fertilizers, chemical-based insecticides, and — especially — herbicides serve to denature dirt of its uniqueness, resulting in generic ecosystems with hardly a trace of essential microorganisms. Keep in mind that plants draw nourishment through their root systems with the help of microorganisms. If the microorganisms are killed and the natural nutrients depleted, roots will seek out any nourishment they can find; typically, the artificial sustenance provided by fertilizers. One can see what amounts to a predatory business model: herbicides serve to make farmers dependent on fertilizers.
Maintaining terroir, on the other hand, is dependent on maintaining self-sustaining, stable humus, not simply providing temporary nutrients via the use of fertilizers. Ideally, this is accomplished using mulch, compost, and manure created locally and organically. Biodiversity or multi-cropping is also essential, as are crop rotations and the integration of animals for farm-wide symbiosis. Of course, these are all ancient farming practices that have been refined for thousands of years.
Not embracing these disciplines calls into question the persnickety appellation system championed by vineyard owners in prestigious wine regions such as Bordeaux, Champagne, and Napa. If the vast majority of these farmers are committing such egregious sins to their soil, how then can indigenous gout (taste) be allowed to develop?
Biodynamic and organic farmers understand that the taste/place equation relies heavily, if not completely, on the health of the soil. They are supported by like-minded restaurant chefs and local food advocates committed to authentic, wholly unique tastes from their life-supporting community.