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October 18, 2009

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In defence of wine's tradition

FOR the last three decades, I have enjoyed the better part of an interesting bottle of wine with nearly every dinner and many a lunch. I know my vintages and rarely mistake a Burgundy for a Bordeaux. In short, I am a wine enthusiast - though not a wine snob and never, I hope, a wine bore.

So I'd heard about the big controversy that has been roiling the wine world recently. It's about tradition versus modernity.

It's about subtly complex wines versus "fruit bombs." It's (supposedly) about big money versus ethics. Above all, it's about globalized taste versus something called terroir.

What is terroir? That is not easy to say. It is a French word, and everyone agrees that it is untranslatable. The disagreement is over whether it exists.

To its defenders - notably the Old World winemakers of France, Italy and Germany - terroir refers to the ineffable way that soil, light, topography and microclimate conspire, over generations of human stewardship, to endow a wine with its unique soul. It's a sense of place you can taste.

To its detractors - especially the New World winemakers of the Americas and Australia - terroir is a marketing slogan dressed up as a poetic reverie.

In other words, it's a hoax - and they should know, since they've had precious little luck getting any terroir into their own wines.

Nobody has done more to keep this debate on the boil than Jonathan Nossiter - filmmaker, former sommelier at various New York restaurants (including Balthazar) and son of the foreign correspondent Bernard Nossiter. Like his father, Nossiter takes pleasure in goring sacred cows.

A few years ago he made a subversive documentary about the wine world called "Mondovino," which was nominated for a Palme d'Or at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival.

Now, in "Liquid Memory," he extends his brief against the global cabal - made up of power-mad wine critics and consultants, arriviste vintners, pretentious restaurateurs, greedy marketers and rich collectors with Americanized palates - that (he thinks) is destroying the tradition of terroir.

This can be an irritating book but it can also be extremely entertaining, especially when Nossiter's hackles are raised, which is a lot of the time.

And here is why he's angry: since the late 1970s, the wine world has been going through a process of global homogenization that, he claims, is erasing local identity and historical memory.

Nossiter didn't completely win me over. And I had to wince at some of his rhetorical flights, like "Without terroir, we will all lose all freedom and individuality."

But his book did enrich my experience of wine - I now drink it more slowly, for one thing - and Nossiter's racy rudeness left me half drunk with pleasure.

In fact, if this book were a bottle of wine, I'd describe it as having a firm structure, a core of mature but voluptuous fruit, lots of bracing acidity, with just a hint of manure on the nose.


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