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Rethinking terroir for the 21st Century

In the beginning was terroir, and terroir was with God and terroir was God. Or at least that’s what Burgundy’s Cistercian monks appeared to have in mind when they began to document the differences between wines from distinct vineyards in the 14th Century. Since our medieval ancestors lacked our modern understanding of fermentation as a process caused by microorganisms, the transformation of grape must into wine seemed deeply mysterious to them. For the Cistercian monks, whose lives were structured by an all-encompassing religious faith, the only possible explanation for this magical metamorphosis was that God must have willed it. In the most fundamental sense, God was therefore the winemaker, and the variations between wines from different vineyards expressed the variegated contours of His creation. The project of recording these differences was not merely a matter of scholarly interest or connoisseurship, but a spiritual quest to become better acquainted with His divine plan. In its very first iteration, the concept of terroir was hence essentially religious: Mapping vineyards and drawing fine-grained distinctions between different wines from different plots of land were intended to bring us closer to the mind of God. 

While this explicitly religious conception of terroir eventually lost its influence in the wake of the scientific revolution, the idea that the potential quality of a wine is determined by the place in which the grapes were grown retained its cultural dominance for hundreds of years thereafter. For centuries, the concept of terroir was inseparable from the belief that the greatest wines of all came from certain privileged sites, which were discussed with the hushed reverence reserved for hallowed ground. In the second half of the 20th Century, as Europeans increasingly began to encounter wines from the so-called ‘New World’, they slowly and grudgingly began to acknowledge that great wines could come from sites that weren’t listed in the established classifications, but the basic idea that superior wines are the products of prestigious locations still remained largely unquestioned, at least for a little while to come. 

Things only really began to change in the 1970’s and 80’s, when academics at the University of California, Davis and wine producers in the Napa Valley challenged this sacred cow of European viniculture. They rejected the view that the best wines necessarily came from Europe’s most famed vineyards, and went as far as to argue that the production methods used to make wine had a far greater impact on its quality than the land on which the vines were grown. From the Californian perspective, the pH of a wine and the oak treatment given to it mattered much more than the name of the village from which it came, or whether the grapes were grown on limestone or slate soils. Moreover, naturally-occurring deficiencies in the land or the grapes could be rectified through the development of our scientific understanding. Judicious use of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers would ensure healthier, more productive vines, and modern technology could be used to adjust a wine’s concentration, alcohol content or even colour. As this view of production gained influence in the wine industry, the language of wine became increasingly technical, with hot topics of discussion including the use of reverse osmosis machines and spinning cone columns, as well as additives such as Mega Purple (a grape concentrate that adds a fuller colour and a touch of sweetness to red wines). When it came to wine quality, the skill of the winemaker in applying and refining production methods took precedence over everything else, and the winemaker was therefore considered to deserve the credit that had previously been given to the estate or the terroir. Great wine was not primarily a manifestation of divine will or an expression of a particular place, but a product of human ingenuity and scientific rigour. 

This anthropocentric view of wine production reached its zenith in the 1990s and early 2000s; the era of the celebrity winemaker. The likes of Helen Turley in the Napa Valley and the garagistes on Bordeaux’s Right Bank upset the traditional terroir-based hierarchies and became bona fide superstars, receiving sky-high scores from wine critics, multi-page spreads in glossy lifestyle publications and a cult following of collectors and enthusiasts. It is probably no accident that their rise coincided with the advent of the internet and the increased opportunities for self-promotion that it offered. As news of these producers’ triumphs spread like wildfire through this brand new virtual world, the wine industry’s attention became increasingly focused on their production methods, which were often heavily influenced by the preferences of influential oenologists such as Émile Peynaud, Michel Rolland and Philippe Cambie. These oenologists not only acted as mentors to many successful winemakers, but became stars in their own right, and were paid eye-watering consultancy fees by lesser-known producers eager for their advice on how to implement the latest and greatest winemaking protocols. 

For a brief period in the late nineties and early noughties, everyone seemed to be talking about the percentage of new oak that wines had been in contact with (the more, the better, according to the logic of the time). Producers around the world appeared to be locked in an arms race to see who could produce the ripest, oakiest, most full-bodied and heavily extracted wines possible. While some of the wines made by the superstar producers were genuinely impressive, they left countless inferior imitations in their wake, many of which were entirely overblown and unbalanced. Moreover, the widespread stylistic emphasis on ripeness and concentration and the increased reliance on technology in the winery had something of a homogenising effect. As more and more producers around the world adopted the same styles and methods, wines from different regions began to taste increasingly similar. 

The natural wine movement was born as a reaction to this creeping homogenisation. It was a rebellion against the proliferation of indistinguishably over-oaked and overripe wines caused by our over-reliance on chemicals and technology. The concept of natural wine harks back to a simpler time before these excesses and distortions, when winemaking was about the quality of the grapes and care for the land, rather than celebrity winemakers, technical mastery and synthetic enhancements. In the vineyard, natural winemakers avoid the use of chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, and tend to prefer horses and hand-picking to tractors and mechanical harvesters. In the winery, they typically use wild yeasts and steer clear of new oak, artificial additives and industrial production methods. According to the naturalistas, wine should be unadulterated fermented grape juice, with nothing added and nothing taken away. 

I firmly believe that the emergence of natural wine was a necessary corrective to the proliferation of excessively manipulated wines in the 90’s and early 2000’s. In the wake of this movement, there has been a marked tendency for fine wines to become lighter, more elegant and more expressive of the places in which they are made. While the ‘blockbuster’ style of wine that previously reigned supreme remains dominant in some warmer-climate regions (Barossa and Châteauneuf-du-Pape spring to mind), much of the fine wine world has turned its attention to Burgundy as the clearest exemplar of elegance and purity, and the ultimate antithesis of the homogenous ‘international style’ of wine. Delicacy and finesse are increasingly taking over from ripeness and concentration as the most desired qualities in wine, and I am convinced that wine’s overall quality has consequently never been higher than it is today. 

More importantly, however, as the threats of climate breakdown and habitat destruction loom large, the need to protect the environment becomes ever more pressing. There can now be no doubt that the agrochemicals used in conventional viniculture significantly contribute to pollution and harm the health of the soil, or that intensive irrigation depletes water levels. In its avoidance of these environmentally damaging practices, the natural wine movement holds the promise of producing wine in harmony with the natural environment rather than ruthlessly exploiting it. As a direct result of the movement’s strong focus on sustainability, environmental issues now find themselves at the forefront of discussions about the future of wine production. 

The natural wine movement has had a far-reaching impact on many of the most important cider and perry producers of our generation. If all of my writing on Cider Review could be summed up in a single motto, it’s “where wine has gone, craft cider will follow”. Nowhere is this more evident than in the natural wine movement’s influence on the craft cider scene. In the UK, few people have done as much to advance the cause of aspirational cider and reshape perceptions of what cider can be as Little Pomona’s James and Susanna Forbes. Before they founded Little Pomona, James and Susanna were both respected members of the wine trade, where they developed their vinous sensibilities and encountered natural approaches to winemaking, which inspired them to make their unusually complex and wine-like ciders. In France, cider and perry producers such as Eric Bordelet and Jérôme Forget have led the natural charge, drawing inspiration from the country’s flourishing natural wine scene to produce drinks that receive critical acclaim. In Germany, artisanal operations such as Kertelreiter and 1785 have breathed new life into ancient cidermaking traditions, while preserving and propagating rare fruit varieties and displaying remarkable care for the natural environment. And in the USA, cideries such as Eve’s and Posterity are producing thrilling, terroir-based ciders with a real sense of place. Around the world, the movement seems to be going from strength to strength. 

It is unsurprising that quality-conscious producers who care deeply about cider as an artisanal product would be inspired by the ethos of natural wine.  After all, craft cider makers have a lot more to rally against than natural winemakers ever did. Even in the dark days of reverse osmosis, Mega Purple and 200% new oak, the majority of wines were never primarily made from concentrate or adulterated with artificial fruit flavours. While the turn of the 21st Century was a relatively technology-driven era for wine, it stopped short of transforming wine into an entirely industrial product. The cider market, by contrast, is dominated by the output of the industrial giants, which continues to shape popular perceptions of cider, despite the best efforts of artisanal producers. It’s no wonder that many of those who are passionate about authentic cider have been quick to embrace the natural approach.  

In my view, the impact of the natural wine and cider movements has, on balance, been overwhelmingly positive. While these movements have been widely criticised for being excessively dogmatic and overly accepting of faults and inconsistencies, they strike me as significantly less doctrinaire than their more strident opponents. Adam raised the issue of faults in natural cider in an article last year and I have little to add to the points that he made, other than to remark that I consider a lax attitude towards faults to be more of a teething problem than a cornerstone of the movement’s philosophy. As I see it, the fact that some producers and distributors seem unperturbed by volatility and mouse taint is an unwelcome but hopefully short-lasting side-effect of the movement’s youthful exuberance and iconoclastic attitude. Incidentally, I think that there’s an important sense in which the natural wine scene has now started to move beyond these rebellious, anti-establishment stances, which no longer play such an important role in how it conceives of and presents itself. Natural wine is the major movement in the 21st Century wine industry and effectively now is the establishment, at least at the enthusiast’s and collector’s end of the market. Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, which makes some of the world’s most celebrated and expensive wines, meets pretty much all of the criteria for a natural winery, and I think that it’s fair to say that ‘minimal intervention’ is currently the presiding philosophy amongst Burgundy’s most prestigious producers. Many of these producers may not explicitly market themselves as natural or go in for the technicolour labels and provocative wine names favoured by the movement’s younger and trendier exponents, but this doesn’t make them less natural in any meaningful sense. Given that natural wine is fast becoming the new orthodoxy among elite wine estates and a new generation of wine critics, it would seem a little disingenuous for it to present itself as a dissident underground movement. After all, you can’t simultaneously be one of the industry’s top dogs and an unruly underdog. 

The cider scene is, of course, quite some way behind the wine scene in this respect. Craft cider is but a drop in the cider industry’s ocean, and natural cider probably amounts to no more than a few molecules within that drop. But while the multinationals retain their market dominance and the informed cider-drinking public remains small, I think that there is an emerging consensus among those in the know that broadly natural approaches produce some of the best ciders and perries. In the craft cider scene, we’re already beginning to see a move from discussing cider in terms of makers and methods to more focus on regions, orchards, fruit varieties and ecosystems. In the UK, the leading lights of that scene (the aforementioned Little Pomona, alongside Oliver’s, Ross on Wye and a small handful of others) are mostly on the more natural side of the spectrum of intervention, and up-and-coming producers with natural proclivities seem to be generating more excitement than their peers. Artistraw, Blue Barrel, Charnwood and Welsh Mountain Cider (to name but a few), are all producing excellent ciders using the so-called ‘minimal intervention’ approach. It’s probably too early to be talking about a new orthodoxy in craft cider, but natural cider does seem to be having a moment, which has the potential to unfold into a bright future.  

As someone with a background in philosophy, I believe that every orthodoxy deserves to be questioned, including those that are still emerging and consolidating themselves. Having said that, I have hitherto been reluctant to weigh in on the debates surrounding the natural wine movement, because so much of this discourse is unnecessarily divisive and sheds more heat than light. The widely-touted claim that all natural wine is ‘funky’ and faulty is just as inaccurate as the claim that any wine that makes use of cultured yeasts or sulphites is soulless, industrial sludge. If the debate remains at this kind of level, it fails to progress beyond superficial caricatures. Unfortunately, a number of prominent commentators (including those who should definitely know better) seem to subscribe to the principle that he who shouts the loudest has the floor. As a consequence, what could and should be a mutually informative discussion has all too often played itself out as an absurdly acrimonious shouting match.  

As far as I’m concerned, productive scrutiny of the natural wine and cider movements must acknowledge their many successes, while maintaining enough critical detachment to recognise that even successful movements have their flaws. While I am committed to the view that the natural approach is a powerful force for good in the drinks industry, I also worry that the ways in which it conceives of and presents itself are often confused, and sometimes downright mystifying. To cut a long story short, I believe that the natural ethos consists in a set of largely beneficial practices that are frequently contextualised within a narrative that is no longer fit for purpose. 

There are a number of reasons for the natural wine and cider movement’s tendency towards obfuscation. Firstly, the terms ‘low’ or ‘minimal’ intervention are so uninformative as to be almost entirely unhelpful. This is because they are defined purely negatively, in terms of what the producer is not doing. In the natural wine scene, it is astonishing how many producers explain their production processes in purely negative terms. They tell us that they use no chemical fertilisers or pesticides, no artificial additives, no new oak and no sulphites, but they entirely omit to mention what the production process actually does involve. I see this as more or less equivalent to trying to explain what a cat is by affirming that it’s not a dog, a squirrel or a giraffe. In the end, we’re left none the wiser about the positive characteristics of the term that we’re trying to define. 

In the interest of fairness, I should probably point out that not every naturally-inclined drinks producer describes its production methods in these purely negative terms. By all accounts, the team at Ross on Wye do a sterling job of showing and explaining every stage of their production process, and Adam’s employers at Waterford Distillery are unusually painstaking in providing empirical evidence to support their claims that different sites and barley varieties influence the flavours of different whiskies. But while some producers offer exemplary explanations, many others provide few positive descriptions of their production methods, and content themselves with giving their customers a list of the additives and techniques that they spurn in the name of their natural ethos. In my view, the natural wine and cider scenes will have come of age when they focus more on telling us what they are doing than on what they aren’t. A set of prohibitions cannot amount to a serious philosophy or method. 

Secondly, the idea of minimal intervention is not only uninformative, but also inherently misleading. The commercial additives and industrial processes assiduously avoided by natural wine and cider producers were generally developed to make production easier, more efficient and more consistent. Chemical herbicides and fertilisers were invented to allow farmers to grow disease-free and higher-yielding crops. Commercial yeast strains have been selected to allow fermentation to complete faster than when wild yeasts are used, and to produce more consistent results. Sulphites protect wines and ciders against oxidation and bacterial spoilage. The use of concentrates bypasses the need to grow or source one’s own fruit, and allows cider to be produced year-round. At every stage of production, things are made simpler and more streamlined by the use of modern chemicals and technologies. 

If these chemicals and technologies make the production of wine and cider easier, then it follows that avoiding them makes it more difficult. Natural wines and ciders may be simple in conception, but they are certainly not simple in execution. If naturally-inclined producers take insufficient care in the vineyard and the winery, or the orchard and the cidery, the result will be faulty wine or cider. Moreover, the natural ethos prohibits producers from subsequently rectifying or masking those faults through the use of acid adjustments, artificial flavourings, microfiltration, etc. Producing clean and well-made natural wines and ciders therefore requires extremely careful monitoring and a strong scientific understanding of what can go wrong during the growth cycle of the crop, picking, pressing, fermentation and maturation. Naturally-inclined producers need a deep reservoir of knowledge to adapt to the countless contingencies that can arise in the production process. In this sense, so-called minimal intervention methods actually require significantly more human input than conventional approaches to wine and cider making, not less. 

Given these realities, why does the myth of minimal intervention stubbornly refuse to die? In my view, the remarkable persistence of this myth stems from the fact that we struggle to adequately conceptualise terroir due to its almost infinite complexity. Terroir describes one of the most enduring intersections between culture and nature, and consists of networks of relations that stretch out in every conceivable direction. To understand those networks exhaustively, one would have to be a chemist, a biologist, a geologist, a meteorologist, a sociologist and a historian. No producer or drinks writer is an expert in all of these fields. It therefore seems inevitable that our attempts to make sense of this complexity tend in the direction of crude oversimplification. Since the reality that we encounter is immeasurably more complicated than our finite and limited understanding can grasp, we produce a simplified, easily-comprehended picture of it; reality in the form of myth. As communities of producers, critics and consumers discuss these mental pictures, something of a consensus emerges, and certain myths begin to become widely-held beliefs. The story of terroir has therefore unfolded as a succession of mythologies, each modifying or overturning the last. 

In their eagerness to overturn the technology-driven approach of the previous generation of winemakers, the naturalistas created a myth that inadvertently reiterates the concept of terroir in its primordial, essentially religious form. The contemporary conception of natural wine in terms of minimal intervention takes us straight back to the 14th Century Cistercian belief that human beings are passive conduits for the ‘true’ winemaker, but substitutes Nature for God as the active force in the process. The world of natural wine is full of quasi-religious references to this mystical process through which wine, as a natural product, simply makes itself. In a 2018 interview with Grape Collective Magazine, Jean Foillard, one of the pioneers and leading lights of the natural wine movement, summarised his winemaking vision as follows:

“Keep chemicals away from viticulture, herbicides out of the soil, the chemicals for various plant disease. As for the vinification…using indigenous yeast. A vinification that we follow closely but that is made on its own. We’re not systematically adjusting the yeast levels, adding a bunch of products from modern oenology that I barely know, or applying practices like thermovinification” (my emphasis). 

Alongside the usual references to avoiding chemicals and industrial processes, this passage presents an image of the winemaker as a mere vessel for nature, who does the bare minimum to provide the conditions necessary for wine to produce itself. This is a straightforward inversion of the image of the superstar producer as a godlike creator who brings wine into existence with his unparalleled creative genius and superior scientific understanding. It defines natural wine as a kind of counterculture to the relentless anthropocentrism of late 20th Century agriculture. Marco de Grazia, owner of Etna’s Tenuta delle Terre Nere winery, argues that the natural ethos opposes the egoism associated with the image of the celebrity winemaker. From his perspective, working naturally is about “not letting your ego get in the way of the wine”. He adds that he wants “the vineyards to speak…A winemaker is like a midwife. You have to pull the baby out so it doesn’t get any damage, but the baby has to be the baby, it’s not me.”

There is something beautifully poetic about this depiction of the relationship between the producer and nature. However, I’m not especially convinced that it captures how wine comes into existence. I have no doubt that if you pressed most natural winemakers for a clearer explanation of what the natural method really amounts to, they would acknowledge that making their wines requires a rather higher degree of intervention than the term ‘minimal intervention’ might initially suggest. But while everyone knows that wine doesn’t literally make itself and that even the most ‘natural’ production methods require significant human input, many naturalistas and terroirists buy into de Grazia’s view that the producer is essentially a conduit rather than a creator. They understand that playing this role is inevitably a form of intervention, but believe that its ultimate purpose is to allow the natural elements of terroir to express themselves in the drink. This view is clearly summarised on the website for Domaine Georges Roumier, one of the longest-established and most distinguished wine estates in Burgundy. For the team at Roumier, “there is no Roumier style…Its vinification is there to reveal its terroir”. In other words, a production method is necessary in order to make wine, but it must efface itself, leaving the least possible trace of human input and simply revealing the essential character of the appellation in which the grapes were grown. For many wine producers and enthusiasts, this is what it means for a wine to be transparent to its terroir. 

Burgundy buffs might well raise an eyebrow at Roumier’s professed winemaking philosophy, since the domaine’s wines are known to be very stylistically distinctive, and those fortunate enough to be able to afford a bottle definitely want it to taste like a Roumier. However, while the claim that Roumier exemplifies the principle that the role of the producer is to function as a conduit for terroir is clearly contentious, that principle itself remains widely accepted. In some influential circles, the concept of a conduit seems just as axiomatic as the doctrine of minimal intervention. 

The idea of wine production as a conduit for nature takes on an explicitly theological character when nature is portrayed as a transcendent creative force with its own designs and purposes. Since I first took an interest in natural wine, I have come across many examples of this kind of thinking, but a particularly striking one can be found on the website for Raw Wine (one of the leading importers and event organisers  in the natural wine scene). Apparently, “Raw Wine celebrates wines with emotion… that have a humanlike, or living presence”. This is not the language of science, craftsmanship or even marketing, but rather of religious faith. The phrase “living presence” unmistakably invokes the Christian belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and the sentence describes wine in distinctively anthropomorphic terms, as expressive of nature’s creative personhood. 

This reversion to a slightly modified version of the 14th Century Cistercian conception of terroir strikes me as strangely atavistic. Moreover, the idea that wine and cider production are conduits for nature suffers from a basic conceptual problem, even when it is not presented in quite such mystical terms. This idea rests on a sharp distinction between the human actions involved in agriculture and production, and the purely natural reality that lies behind those actions, which includes climate, geology, soil and varietal characteristics. According to the natural ethos, the purpose of the production method is to express that natural reality as purely as possible. In my view, however, the distinction between the natural features of terroir and the human actions that function as a conduit for them is far from sharp or clear. I’m tempted to say that there is no such meaningful distinction to be drawn, because almost every supposedly ‘natural’ aspect of terroir is produced or shaped by human activity: Fruit varieties were selectively bred to have the varietal characteristics that we now prize. Vineyards and orchards were planted with those varieties in accordance with human purposes. And if Pinot Noir performs especially well in the Côte d’Or and many varieties of perry pear thrive within sight of May Hill, it is only because we chose to plant them in those places and subsequently discovered that they produced particularly good crops. 

The impact of human activities on terroir doesn’t stop there. Soil isn’t a purely natural feature of terroir either. Our use of fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides, whether synthetic or organic, has a significant effect on the microorganisms that inhabit the soil and its overall health. Continual cropping can leach vineyards and orchards of minerals, making the soil more acidic, while the use of natural fertilisers such as manure and biochar can improve carbon sequestration and prevent soil degradation. Human activities can also affect the soil’s capacity for water retention: Soil compaction from the use of heavy machinery such as tractors and mechanical harvesters can impede drainage and increase run-off, resulting in higher rates of erosion. Intensive irrigation can deplete aquifers and increase the need for further irrigation, in a vicious cycle that leads to drought. Deforestation results in less evapotranspiration, causing rainfall to decline and soils to dry out.

The more that we consider the matter, the more difficult it becomes to think of any element of terroir that remains untouched by human activity. The sun itself is admittedly not affected by agricultural practices, but the quantity of sunlight that vines or apple trees receive is certainly determined by how they are planted and pruned. Even large topographical features of the terrain are not entirely resistant to human intervention. Rivers and lakes can be dammed and have their courses diverted, and the aspect and elevation of a vineyard or orchard may be shaped by terracing and drainage. 

One might think that if there is any purely natural element of terroir that lies largely beyond the impact of human activities, then it must be the rocks beneath the soil. However, we would be mistaken to believe that geology is immune to human intervention. Recent research by geologists at Pitt University suggests that human activities are altering the “rock record” that defines geological time (i.e. the geological evidence preserved in sedimentary rocks that provides us with evidence of past environmental conditions). According to this research, human activities are producing more erosion than was seen in previous epochs, and acid rain caused by nitrogen and sulphur emissions is actually dissolving some rocks. Some scientists are consequently working to have our current geological period formally classified as the “Anthropocene” epoch, defined by the effects of human activity on the earth’s crust.  

In recent years, there has been increasing scholarly interest in the previously overlooked idea of microbial terroir, which refers to the influence that site-specific wild yeasts, bacteria and other microorganisms have on the flavour of wine and cider. This field of research is particularly relevant to the naturally-inclined producers who avoid cultured yeasts in their fermentations. Such producers have long argued that wines and ciders fermented with wild yeasts reflect their terroir more clearly than those fermented with cultured yeasts, and there is now a growing body of scientific evidence to support this view. However, wild yeasts can only survive and reproduce within their optimal temperature range. When global warming causes temperatures in a particular microclimate to regularly exceed that range, the result is the loss of the wild yeast populations that constitute the site’s microbial terroir. 

While human activity has been shaping fruit varieties, vineyards and orchards for as long as wine and cider have existed, anthropogenic climate change is therefore currently causing unprecedented, radical and global changes to terroir. In every wine-producing region on the planet, global warming has significantly affected macro- and micro-climates, altering temperature and rainfall levels and causing more extreme weather events. Regions with climates that were once unsuited to wine production now attract investment from multinational companies and compete with much longer-established regions (the rise of English sparkling wine is one good example of a vinous success story powered by climate change). By contrast, the climate emergency has become an existential threat to warm-climate regions, where producers face such hostile conditions that they have been obliged to consider replacing the grape varieties traditionally associated with their appellations with other varieties that are more resistant to heat and drought. In numerous regions, winemakers are planting vineyards at higher altitudes and altering their irrigation practices to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis. Moreover, climate scientists confidently predict that the pace of climate change and the severity of its impact on agricultural production will rapidly increase in the coming decades. In other words, terroir is in a state of constantly accelerating and possibly irreversible flux. 

In the face of the climate crisis, the notion that terroir describes a relatively fixed and immutable reality that lies beyond the reach of human intervention is now utterly untenable. There is no eternal, unchanging essence of a vineyard or an orchard, for which producers can act as conduits. The wines of Burgundy surely have a sense of place, but that place would now be largely unrecognisable to the Cistercian monks who documented its vineyards over five centuries ago. Within our lifetimes, Burgundy’s climate could become too hot for Pinot Noir (a notoriously finicky grape variety), which would require us to almost entirely overhaul the Burgundian system of vineyard classification. Any even halfway adequate conception of terroir and its complex relationship with our vinicultural and winemaking practices must account for this discontinuity, which is becoming ever more radical year on year.  

You may well ask why any of this really matters, so long as wine and cider producers avoid harming the environment. If they are employing sustainable practices, why should we care if they mistakenly want to think of themselves as conduits for a purely natural reality that transcends human purposes and actions? Shouldn’t we be tolerant of others’ religious beliefs, even if we don’t share them? Most crucially of all, shouldn’t we be focusing our efforts on combating the climate crisis, rather than wasting our time thinking about how to correctly conceptualise terroir? 

How we conceive of terroir is not merely an academic question. It matters because it directly influences how we treat ecosystems such as vineyards and orchards. In my view, there is a strong ecological argument against the conception of wine and cider production as a conduit for nature. When we overemphasise continuity by conceiving of terroir as a relatively fixed and unchanging natural reality that is channelled by a production method, we tend to downplay the extent to which almost every facet of terroir is affected by human activity. Moreover, it is arguably our estrangement from nature; the sense that it is fundamentally separate from our purposes and preoccupations, that allows us to stand by and disavow responsibility for the harm that human activities do to it. In the anthropocentric view of viniculture that presided in the 90’s, human beings stand above and apart from nature and manipulate it with their superior scientific understanding. I think that it is safe to say that over the course of the past century or so, the consequences of this conception of agricultural production have been nothing short of catastrophic for the environment. After all, if nature only exists for us to exert mastery over it, then there is nothing preventing us from ruthlessly exploiting it to suit our purposes. But the natural wine movement’s inversion of this view, in which our productive activity is a relatively passive conduit for nature, retains the basic conceptual division between human beings and the natural world. According to the natural ethos, we are no longer the omnipotent masters of nature but rather its humble servants, yet our production methods nonetheless stand apart from the supposedly constant natural features that constitute terroir. Nature is still conceptualised as something “over there”, decoupled from our productive activities in the vineyard and the winery. And the myth of minimal intervention holds that as long as we largely leave nature to its own devices by avoiding the use of agrochemicals, mechanised agriculture and artificial additives, then everything will be just fine. 

Everything isn’t fine. It should by now be blindingly obvious that standing back and letting nature take its course is a wholly inadequate response to the critical threats posed by climate change and habitat loss. The myth of minimal intervention and the concept of a conduit are unfit for purpose because they prescribe relative passivity on the part of producers, when action is urgently required to counteract the effects of the climate crisis. To loosen the hold that these ideas currently have on the natural wine and cider scenes, we need to demythologise the concept of terroir by reconceptualising it as an inextricable intertwinement between culture and nature, in which neither party is the primarily active one, and in which nature does not stand behind culture as a timeless and immutable essence. Rather, we should conceive of terroir as constantly shaped by human activity, just as that activity is inevitably determined by the natural environment in which it takes place. A fundamentally relational and reciprocal conception of terroir can provide us with a clear vantage point from which to recognise that when we harm the environment, we are also harming ourselves. This conception would require us to acknowledge that nature doesn’t need to be left alone to express itself, because it is sick and needs to be healed. It would replace the myth of minimal intervention with an ethic of responsibility, which affirms that the only adequate response to the harm that human beings cause to the environment is to actively intervene to regenerate the whole agroecosystem that constitutes terroir. 

Thankfully, this ethic of responsibility already implicitly guides the practices of many natural wine and cider makers, including some of those who espouse a belief in minimal intervention or who purport to merely act as conduits for terroir. All over the world, naturally-inclined producers are intervening to improve the health of their vineyards and orchards. They apply compost and manure to help build organic soil carbon, employ practices such as silvopasture and agroforestry to increase the utilisation of agricultural land and counteract the effects of deforestation, and experiment with dry farming to adapt to drought conditions. For a more detailed discussion of these agricultural practices, please see my interview with Posterity Ciderworks’ Brendan Barnard, who produces natural cider in California and is deeply committed to renewing his land.

When combined, these practices constitute what has come to be known as regenerative agriculture; an approach to land management that encourages us to consider “how all aspects of agriculture are connected through a web” of relations, and how we can improve the health of that web holistically, through the use of interconnected and mutually reinforcing practices. The NGO Regeneration International clearly defines regenerative agriculture in terms of active intervention, stating that “the key to regenerative agriculture is that it not only “does no harm” to the land, but actually improves it, using technologies that regenerate and revitalise the soil and the environment”. While the myth of minimal intervention encourages primitivism, i.e. the more or less wholesale rejection of modern science and technology in wine and cider production, regenerative agriculture therefore evaluates technological interventions on the basis of whether they contribute to the regeneration of our agroecosystems, and enthusiastically adopts those practices that are shown to benefit the environment. And while the idea of wine and cider production as a conduit for nature is conservative in the sense that it requires producers to intervene to the minimum extent necessary to allow terroir to express itself, the ethic of responsibility that animates regenerative agriculture is truly transformative, because it demands that we use every resource at our disposal to revitalise the web of relations that constitute terroir. In my view, only the regenerative approach can fulfil the natural wine movement’s promise of producing wine in harmony with nature. The myth of minimal intervention and the concept of a conduit may have taken us some of the way towards fulfilling that promise, but they have outlived their usefulness and now need to be discarded. While they merely focus on maintaining terroir without further degrading it, the concept of regeneration commits us to actively renewing agricultural production by creating a better integrated and more balanced agroecosystem. Today’s rapidly changing world demands this active renewal. 

I will end this article with an appeal to producers, which really just amounts to a plea for conceptual consistency: If you believe in regenerative agriculture and are committed to continuously improving the health of your vineyards or your orchards, then don’t present your active interventions as a mere conduit for nature to express itself. Don’t disavow your responsibility for restoring the health of the land by suggesting that it needs to be left to its own devices. Don’t minimise the essential role that you play in producing wine and cider, and in shaping and regenerating your agroecosystem. Finally, don’t be seduced by the romantic but ultimately dubious image of nature as an omnipotent deity, when it is currently more damaged and vulnerable than it has ever been before. The original, Cistercian conception of terroir and its present-day variants are now entirely obsolete. The 21st Century calls for a new conception of terroir as a complex web of interconnected relations, in which our actions play an integral and indispensable part. 

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Chris Russell-Smith is an avid wine and cider enthusiast. When he isn’t busy writing his PhD in philosophy or tasting wine and cider, he likes to experiment with home brewing. None of his fermented beverages deserves to be reviewed, but he is nonetheless occasionally proud of them.


  1. A tricky subject … but an important one, given that “natural” and “low intervention” are so ubiquitously used. You already did a great job redefining “authentic”. And this post goes a long way towards doing the same for “natural wine”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Chris Russell-Smith says

      Thank you! I’m really pleased that you enjoyed the article and found it informative. It is certainly tricky to define “naturalness”, not least because the term means different things to different people, so this piece is still very much a work in progress. I hope to expand on this theme in future articles.


  2. Pingback: A sense of place: tasting terroir with Little Pomona | Cider Review

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