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Pride of place

Ted Nield

In a fit of Francophily Ted Nield ponders the bounty of provenance and becomes a terroiriste.

Geoscientist 18.5 May 2008

If only I had had the foresight to buy a few hectares in one of the 40 communes in the region of Rheims, France’s Champagne region, that have now been ruled “in” by INAO, the body that determines all aspects of France’s appellations d’origine controlées (AOCs). As M. Gilles Flutet, INAO chief of land designation, explained to reporters in February: “If your vines fall on the wrong side of the divide, they will be worth €5000 a hectare. On the other side they will be worth €1m”.

Expect lawsuits from disgruntled landowners on the wrong side of the new fence. Although there’s more to AOC status than terroir, they will claim the same flinty soil, the correct rocks, on slopes of similar aspect enjoying identical microclimat. Lawyers whose clients have been denied the right to contribute their pinot noir to the precious must, will soon be among those helping to push up its price.

The British sneer at the Gallic mysteries of terroir, and the controlled areas that are the philosophy’s practical outcome. More fool them, I say. Under enlightened EU laws, the fightback has begun in such places as Melton Mowbray; but the British long ago carelessly squandered their right to produce, for example, cheddar only in Cheddar. (If you doubt what a disaster this was, consider Mr Kipling’s Cherry Bakewells and think how much better the world would be if the eponymous Derbyshire town had properly protected its pudding.)

Geologists, for their part, are apt to laugh at the pseudoscientific pretensions of terroiristes. More than just geology, terroir lays claim to the sum total of a wine’s environment: substrate, sky and everything in between. It is rooted in a sentimental, primitive belief in the unique genius of every place on Earth. Science it’s not. But so what? Think of the benefits.

Pride of place, enforced by fierce laws, protects local producers from industrial piracy of their cultural heritage, thereby also shielding the public from the blanding of branding. It keeps food and drink prices high, which is only right and proper, and counters a disastrous obsession with cheap eats that has afflicted Britain since before the Corn Laws - and which more than anything else has given us (and our cultural outpost, the United States) the richly deserved reputation for being the guzzling, gob-stuffing gastro-morons of the developed world.

Worst of all, it has damaged the British psyche by implicitly denigrating provenance. It has turned the countryside into a low-grade commodity by divorcing the stuff of life from our natural surroundings. It has diminished respect for place – and for all that lies beneath. One may chortle at the idea of tasting flint in Champagne. But forget the science for a moment; it is possible to be right for the wrong reasons. What are geologists if not connoisseurs of place and substrate? Belief in terroir may owe more to Mystic Meg than mineralogy, but at least it means that everyone in an area feels that their lives and livelihoods derive from, and are tied to, their land and its bones. It makes rocks meaningful to everyone.

In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, certain people feel themselves drawn by a force they don’t understand, to a certain very special place on Earth (a large volcanic plug in Wyoming). In defending their right not to be gassed, lied to and shipped out, Professor Lacombe (played by François Truffaut) has the following exchange with a brasshat:

Walsh: “But - it’s not scientific!”
Lacombe: “Major Walsh - it is an event sociological”.