Book Review: Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing, by Mark A. Matthews

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 12-05-2016

Book CoverMark A. Matthews’s controversial new book, Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing, will force you to reconsider everything you know (or thought you knew) about winemaking.

In it, Matthews, Professor of Viticulture at UC Davis, masterfully deconstructs the most popular and longest-held beliefs about how fine wine is made — including the ubiquitous terroir – and reveals them to be built on little more than intuition and anecdote.

Terroir and Other Myths is compelling, expertly researched, and just may prove to be one of the most disruptive works of wine literature ever written.

Matthews’s basic contention is that much of the conclusions about wine in the collective mind and popular press today do not jive with scientific study. As a scientist, he demands empirical evidence, and the book is largely an examination of the data and history behind various wine “myths.” Don’t be confused by the clever title, this is academic work, with footnotes and back matter. That — the limited nature of the book’s target audience — in my view, is the one thing that might inhibit Terroir and Other Myths from turning the world of wine on its head. Which is sad to say, because it needs to be read widely.

Terroir is of course the chief “myth” Matthews attempts to expose. He traces the word’s etymology and reveals that “the widespread use of terroir in winegrowing today involves a 180-degree change in its connotation,” from its early usage as a descriptor for an undesirable flavor in wine to now a largely ineffable dynamic of environment. Terroir has a chameleon history, but seems to have realized its greatest value first as a tool of cultural control and later (and today) as a marketing buzzword.

As Matthews points out, in the nineteenth century, the term functioned as a safeguard for the elite, protecting their wine investments with a legally-recognized exclusivity that erected a barrier to entry insurmountable for anyone trying to compete in the wine market. (This barrier may still hold overseas, but it’s certainly eroding in America.) Today, terroir’s most recognizable usage is as a marketer’s sexy byword for quality. It’s a term that has even extended to cheese and coffee because of its success in wine.

The section dealing with terroir is extensive, and much more comprehensive than can be related in a brief review. Matthews concludes that “in the end, terroir is a shibboleth that establishes an in-group in a world unto itself. This isn’t wine appreciation, and it certainly doesn’t reflect interest in the grapevine; it is more like wine snobbery.” If nothing else, Matthews is right in line with the current push by many bloggers, authors, and somms toward the eradication of pretension in wine.

Apart from terroir, Matthews takes up several other myths including the Big Bad Berry (BBB), High Yield Low Quality (HYLQ), vine balance, and critical ripening. Big berries and high yields are thought of as banes to fine winemaking, but Matthews calls this into question. His most astute observation on the matter is that HYLQ presupposes something erroneous: “[HYLQ] implies that there is a fixed amount of flavor to be made by grapevines in a vineyard, and the variable is the number of bunches into which that flavor is distributed, but in general, as we [see] in strawberries and tomatoes, the concentrations of solutes in mature fruit are relatively stable among yields.”

You’ll be hit with well-elucidated comments like this throughout Terroir and Other Myths.

Vine balance and critical ripening are given extensive treatment in the book as well — most interesting is a discussion of the “myth” of the stressed vine.

At first, I thought Matthews was just being contrarian. I quickly became a believer in his basic argument. The beliefs we have about grape growing and wine making do often stem from “undocumented casual observation or imagination.” They are not the settled issues they pretend to be and we would do well to rethink our baseline assumptions.

Matthews is playing David to the monolithic Goliath of established wine knowledge. But he’s not just throwing stones, he’s backing it up with sound reason, supporting evidence, and an admirable impetus: “Getting away from these myths when they are not supported by evidence will bring much more craft and creativity to grape growing and winemaking, via improved understanding of the factors that control grape and wine flavor and aromas.”

My Recommendation
At just over 200 pages (excluding back matter), Matthews’s book is no tome. The language is not difficult and certainly manageable for the average reader. Astute, clever, and controversial, I strongly recommend Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing to anyone who wishes to go beyond the ideas and phrases that have become so hackneyed in the wine world.

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