“Terroir” is a concept that is talked about a lot in the wine world, and means many different things for many different people. The explanation that makes the most sense to me is that terroir encompasses all the elements that go into winemaking that a winemaker cannot control. In other words, the soil and the microclimate (weather, drainage, elevation, etc.) in which the grapes grow. Therefore, wines that are “terroir-driven” are expressive of the place in which they are made, and a wine that has the distinct mark of its winemaker (this might manifest itself in tons of oakiness or over-extraction) is less so.
I really like this concept, in theory and in practice, and I think the idea of terroir is something that extends beyond wine into other disciplines. David Byrne makes an amazing case for terroir in music in the opening chapter of his new book, “How Music Works.” Of course, he doesn’t actually reference “terroir” but that’s immediately what came to my mind.
I’m a huge David Byrne fan and I finally got around to buying his book now that they have released the paperback edition. So far, the book is incredible—I highly recommend you pick up a copy. The opening chapter is called “Creation in Reverse,” and he begins by debunking the myth of a musician being spontaneously inspired. He writes, “The accepted narrative suggests that a classical composer gets a strange look in his or her eye and begins furiously scribbling a fully realized composition that couldn’t exist in any other form. Or that the rock and roll singer is driven by desire and demons, and out bursts this amazing, perfectly shaped song that had to be three minutes and twelve seconds—nothing more, nothing less. This is the romantic notion of how creative work comes to be, but I think the path to creation is almost 180 degrees from this model. I believe that we unconsciously and instinctively make work to fit pre-existing formats.”
As an example he points out that the physical qualities of the club CBGB (the legendary New York venue where the Talking Heads, along with so many other important New York punk bands, got their start) were ideal for performing and listening to the kind of music that was being played there. He references the lack of reverberation due to the clutter and irregular shape of the room, which was ideal for the Talking Heads’ groove-oriented music. He also talks about the club’s intimacy: the small size of the club allowed audience members to appreciate physical gestures from the performers.
He then goes on to discuss the differences between African music and Western music of the middle ages, and their respective venues. He suggests that the percussive music of Africa is ideally performed outdoors where there is no reverberation and rhythmic complexity won’t be lost. Conversely, he notes that this music would sound terrible in a Cathedral, and points out that music with shifting keys or dissonance would sound like a “sonic pileup” in a highly reverberant gothic cathedral*. This, he suggests, is why the music that was performed in those cathedrals was instead modal and “slowly evolving,” creating an “otherworldy ambience,” that played to the strengths of the highly reverberant space.
He provides a number of other examples, including how singing style shifted with the advent of the microphone, how rock bands’ style became simpler and statelier to accommodate arena and stadium performances, and even how bird song changes based on the bird’s environment.
Another way of describing this would be to say that musicians create music for the context in which their music is performed or heard, not in a vacuum, or not simply from internal inspiration. They create music that, like wine, is an expression of place. Their context, whether it is a rock club or a cathedral, informs the work and is accountable for the work’s success. Similarly, great wine makers create “in reverse,” from the terroir up, simply guiding the grape along in it’s natural process to becoming wine. When a winemaker interjects their own agenda or personality into the wine making process, like a banjo in a gothic cathedral, it can jeopardize the success of the endeavor.
As a final thought, Byrne writes, “Genius—the emergence of a truly remarkable and memorable work—seems to appear when a thing is perfectly suited to its context. When something works, it strikes us as not just being a clever adaptation, but as emotionally resonant as well. When the right thing is in the right place we are moved.”
While on the subject of terroir I’d like to talk about this wine:
2011 Domaine du Closel Anjou Rouge
This wine is 100% Cabernet Franc from Savennieres in the Loire Valley and was $20 at Astor Wines. The color is a nice inky dark purple. Right after opening it was all fruit and one dimensional, and while it was tasty I was a bit disappointed in its lack of complexity. But after some time in the glass, the wine made a complete 180. It definitely still had a berried fruity character to it, but it was overshadowed by all these great earthy components that began to show. There was a forest, pine, mint kind of thing happening, as well as a really interesting herbal vegetal layer, all underlined by this persistent mineral zing (interestingly, not something I’ve found in very many red wines).
What was really amazing was how well all these elements came together. I’ve had other Loire cab francs, the Catherine and Pierre Breton “Trinch” comes to mind, that are very funky and bizarre (in a good way) but this wine, while very complex, was harmonious, pure, and elegant: a definite crowd pleaser.
This wine also gave me one of my first “Aha!” terroir moments. While drinking it I had a sort of déjà vu to another wine but I couldn’t figure out which one. I hadn’t been drinking other Cab Franc based wines recently, or anything even remotely similar for that matter. Finally, I realized it was the 2012 Clos Des Briords I had had a few days earlier. This wine is a white wine from nearby Muscadet, also in the Loire Valley (for the record it’s a phenomenal wine). It’s pretty cool that two wines, one red one white, from two different producers, made of two different grapes with two very distinct flavor profiles can still show something very specific and perceptible in common. I think it had something to do with the mineral component in both wines. It’d be interesting to find out if these two wines are grown in the same type of soils. I don’t know for sure but I’d be willing to bet that they are…
And what better food to celebrate terroir than mushrooms?!
Found these dried morels and chanterelles at Choice Greene in Clinton Hill. They were embarrassingly expensive but having never tried either of these mushrooms I decided to splurge (I own one pair of jeans yet I’ll spend $20 on mushrooms? I may need to reconsider my priorities a bit…).
Reconstituted the mushrooms and made a mushroom stock…
…which I then used to make a mushroom, red wine, Parmesan and sage risotto.
The risotto turned out pretty nicely, if I do say so myself. The mushrooms were spectacular, and I think using mushroom stock for the risotto really made the dish. It was like a savory, meaty, dirt explosion. The dish worked well with the Closel Anjou Rouge as well, but after the fact I realized this dish was just screaming for red Burgundy. Sadly, good Burgundy is hard to find in the $20 range. Any recommendations for good affordable Burgundy?
*I actually saw David Byrne perform at Carnegie Hall (a highly reverberant symphony hall type room) about 5 years ago with his “Here Lies Love” project which was a sort of concept disco opera about the life of Imelda Marcos he wrote in collaboration with Fatboy Slim. The music was heavily disco influenced and was great but I have to admit the space did not do the music justice. I found the room was too boomy and the groove was lost. David Byrne actually writes in the book, “I’ve played at Carnegie Hall a couple of times, and it can work, but it is far from ideal. I wouldn’t play that music there again.” The music was great, and the concert was still very enjoyable, but it was definitely a testament to the importance of considering the ideal venue for a performance. Here’s a song from that project: