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On Tasting
Wine Quality: Does Terroir Matter?
Friday, 14th October, 2005  - Richard Farmer

Olivier Gergaud from the University of Reims and Victor Ginsburgh (pictured) of the Université Libre de Bruxelles deserved better than the couple of smart headlines they attracted when they presented a paper at the UK Royal Economic Society annual conference in Nottingham in March this year. The Sunday Observer declared "French bitter over wine study" and Decanter magazine on its website summarised that "Terroir plays no role".

But apart from a reference or two on wine web sites that was the extent of the references that I found on Google for the paper 'Natural endowments, production technologies and the quality of wines in Bordeaux. Does terroir matter?'. Yet the Gergaud and Ginsburgh paper is one of the more significant contributions yet made to the debate about the comparative impact of terroir and wine making skills on the wine we drink. A look at the Observer's and Decanter's coverage of the story perhaps provides a clue to the overall paucity of the coverage.

The Observer declaration that "not since Agincourt has there been such a threat to French culture from across La Manche" was written by Jamie Doward, the paper's social affairs editor. Doward, without the inhibitions caused by regularly covering the wine trade, appeared to delight in writing that: "In a move that is likely to send tremors from Burgundy to Bordeaux, two economists conclude that environmental conditions - or what France's oenophiles lovingly refer to as 'terroir' - is not important when it comes to producing memorable wine."

In Decanter the slant to the research given by Oliver Styles, a man who makes his living writing about wine, was quite different. He recorded the Gergaud and Ginsburgh conclusion that "the French terroir legend obviously does not hold; at least in the Médoc region" but then did his best to discount it. "Influential members of the wine business,"said Styles, "do agree that wines can be well made anywhere in the world but they are unshaken in their belief that terroir adds complexity and depth." As evidence he engaged in a blatant piece of partial quotation.

Gergaud and Ginsburgh had written that "an important question is whether good climatic conditions and specific choices of vines are sufficient to produce quality wines or whether, as the French have often claimed and still do, there is no good substitute for terroir." As an example of that French claim they quoted Madame Denise Capbern Gasqueton, owner of Château Calon-Ségur, a third growth Saint-Estèphe, as being typical:

"I drink [foreign] wines. Very good wines are produced in Chile, for example, but they lack terroir, and terroir is what makes everything. A wine that is well-produced is a good wine, but lacks complexity and other elements to which we are used."

Gergaud and Ginsburgh then commented that, at best, Madame's views looked highly exaggerated. At worst, terroir had no influence at all, and the right combination of weather, vines, technology and chemistry were sufficient.

Decanter's Mr Styles used the Capbern Gasqueton quote without the concluding comments and for good measure called on wine consultant Bill Baker to suggest that anybody could make the argument either way and that the two academics were just being contentious for the sake of it. "'Many new world wines are very good but don't have the depth and structure [of great Bordeaux] and never will have," Mr Baker was quoted by Styles as saying.

At least Decanter mentioned the research while most publications just ignored it. The very idea that production technologies are far more important than natural endowments is anathema to wine writers. It would take much of the magic away from the product and with it the need for most of the words they write.

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