Wine, Terroir, Utopia: Making New Worlds

Posted By Chris Kaplonski on Jan 11, 2018

It’s a forthcoming book, edited by Jacqueline Dutton and Peter Howland, and will be published by Routledge, hopefully in 2019.

I’m pleased and excited to announce that I’ll have a chapter in the book. My chapter is currently entitled ‘Utopia regained: nature and the taste of terroir.

The proposed abstract for my chapter follows.  As in all things academic, who knows what the final chapter will look like?

Chapter Abstract

A key way of understanding terroir is as an attempt to regulate the relationship between taste and place. Rather than a creator, terroir is an arbiter of taste. Wines that do not conform to expectations of how terroir should be manifested (as determined by a tasting committee) will not qualify for certain geographical indicators, usually taken to be indications of quality. Concepts of terroir do not exist in a vacuum, however. Terroir is a debated and contested concept: does it exist, and if so, what does it taste like? In this chapter, I examine one particular aspect of the debate around terroir, though the lenses of ‘natural’ wine and utopia.

Natural wines – those produced with organic or biodynamical grown grapes, and made with as little intervention as possible in the winery – divide opinion. They are a small, but growing, part of the wine world, but often dismissed by critics as simply an excuse to make poor wine. Unfiltered and unfined, they can be cloudy, rather than the clear, bright wine expected by wine judges. Based on native yeasts, rather than standard cultured ones, and often with little sulphur added, they can taste as different as they look.

At the heart of the natural wine movement lies an intriguing, yet seemingly unacknowledged paradox. Such wines are based on a desire to make a ‘real’ wine, one that challenges the official conceptions of terroir. The producers of natural wine aim to reposition wine away from its perceived role as commercial, chemical product that is increasingly identical to others, to something that truly reflects terroir. They also speak of a need to respect and consider the land, beyond its role as a provider of terroir. In other words, in the case of natural wine, it can be argued that the pursuit of terroir leads to the exclusion from the very categories (geographical indicators) intended to safeguard terroir.

Based on fieldwork among natural winemakers in Austria, and among the wine industry in the UK, I draw on the concept of utopia to illuminate this debate. I do so in two ways. First, drawing upon a common-sense understanding of the term, I use ‘utopia’ to explore terroir as a desirable goal, one that people strive for even as they contest its meaning. It is the promised land of taste. Second, however, I return to the etymology of utopia – a no-place – to explore the implications of this striving, and the role natural wine can play in helping elucidate the relationships between land, people and wine.

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