PASCAL WAGNER looked me in the eyes and assured me: “Don’t be afraid. Just put it in your mouth.”
I paused. My companions on this weeklong expedition to the lush vineyards of Burgundy nodded with encouragement. “Go ahead,” one said. “Lick it.”
“You can actually taste the terroir,” said Pascal, a sommelier, cellarman and local wine expert who was tutoring us on the ins and outs of the local product.
I glanced down at my hand again. It held a small, dirty stone that I’d just scavenged from the soil beneath a vine laden with tight bunches of green grapes nearly ready for harvest.
“The terroir is the character of wine,” Pascal continued, pointing to the acres of perfectly trimmed rows of vines that spread across the gentle slope above the winemaking village of Puligny-Montrachet. “It’s how the place where the grapes are grown – its climate, its water, its geology, the aroma of the air – how it all influences the taste of the wine…
“This place is magical,” he said. “Go ahead, taste the rock, and you taste the terroir of Montrachet.”
Oh, what the hell. I’ve put worse things in my mouth. I gave the stone a good, sound lick.
And so it went last week for a beer guy in Burgundy, where the French are in love with the intangible qualities of their beloved juice, and Joe Sixpack winds up with a mouthful of dirt.
I mean terroir.
In fairness, the wine was spectacular. Montrachet is an elegant, almost sensuous white Chardonnay that novelist Jay McInerney once described as “the Grace Kelly of wines.” (You might remember, it was a bottle of Montrachet that Philadelphia’s princess brought to wheelchair-bound James Stewart during her first visit to his apartment in Hitchcock’s “Rear Window.”)
It is quite rare, and bottles of the grand cru, if you could even find them in Pennsylvania’s miserable state stores, are basically unaffordable.
So, I drank a lot of Montrachet while I could. In the name of investigative journalism, of course.
But the terroir thing is something I could never get a handle on. Yes, it’s clear that, because wine is an agricultural product, its flavor is dependent on the soil, the climate, the sunshine and so on. But what makes the grapes on that field (or appellation d’origine contrôlée, as the French define it) so much better – and, thus, more expensive – than the grapes on the other side of the road?
Are they really “better,” or just “different”?
It’s a valid question, because the traditional boundaries of AOCs go back to the protective rules established by monks nearly 1,000 years ago. As my traveling companion Warner noted, “It’s like 10 centuries of scientific progress don’t even matter to these people.”
I’m not sure about that. Pasteur – whose groundbreaking 19th-century studies focused on the microbiology of wine – was French, wasn’t he?
Yet for many wine drinkers, the indefinable notion of terroir is the essence of their favorite bottle.
Which is confounding to a beer guy. Outside of a few styles (notably the spontaneously fermented lambics of Belgium, whose flavor and aroma are influenced by ambient microorganisms), the character of beer isn’t really dependent on terroir. Its ingredients are frequently shipped from around the world, so that a beer made in Philadelphia could contain malt from England, hops from New Zealand, German yeast cultured in a Colorado laboratory and water drawn from the Schuylkill and treated with gypsum mined in China.
Moreover, many of the beers we love today are the result of brewers ignoring the confines of tradition that are religion to French winemakers.
Consider Belgian-style India pale ale, one of the newer darlings of craft beer. It’s neither Belgian nor Indian; it’s an aggressive take on an old English-style ale, spiked with ample West Coast hops and fermented with volatile Belgian yeast.
That’s not terroir, that’s mad science. If the French winemakers are capable of matching its inventive flavor, I never encountered it.
Still, after a week of buttery croissants, stinky cheese and savory cassoulet, this beer guy is more than willing to give the French the benefit of the doubt when it comes to cuisine.
Just pass me another bottle of Montrachet to wash the dirt out of my mouth.