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Terroir

by Geoff Hart

"And the varietal?"

The famous wine critic pursed his lips in disapproval at such an easy challenge. "A Merlot, of course. One might even say a common Merlot, if one were being charitable. Not bad for its type, if somewhat... popular... A good example of its type, certainly, but nothing that would merit particular notice."

The would-be famous vintner smiled knowingly. "And yet?"

"And yet..." The critic hesitated a moment, concentrating. "It does have something unexpected to its bouquet and taste."

"Precisely. Care to speculate what that might be?"

The critic frowned. "Something unusual about the terroir. Yes, clearly that."

The vintner waved expansively towards the panorama outside the picture window. "Would you believe me if I were to tell you the grapes were grown right here? An undistinguished middle-of-North America climate, no slope to speak of, acceptable drainage, no unusual pests or diseases."

The critic's frown deepened. "The soil?"

"Limestone somewhere in its ancestry, so high pH and lots of calcium. A moderately mature Holocene sandy loam, so nothing unusual there. Can you guess what's different?"

The critic sat back in the hard oak chair, and swirled the wine around the crystal glass before burying his nose in the opening and inhaling delicately. Then he took another contemplative sip. "Forgive me... I clearly did this an injustice in calling it a common Merlot. I find an unusual complexity of bouquet and taste... something more than the usual fruity or herbal. Are you certain you've used no other grapes? Added no adulterants during the aging process?"

"Nothing but Merlot, and nothing added during aging. This I swear."

"I note your emphasis on during aging. So there must be something unusual about the terroir. This wine has the richness of a fine European vintage, something from a soil that has been cherished for centuries solely for the production of wine grapes.

And yet..."

"And yet it's a North American soil. A new one, for that matter. I've only used it for grapes for the past five years."

"Have you a theory?"

"Indeed I do. When I decided to graduate from suburban basement vintner to someone capable of producing a truly fine wine, I spent many months pondering how it could be accomplished. I even went back to school for a post-grad diploma in soil science to complement my biochemistry degree and aid my pondering. Tell me, Gustave, do you know the difference between a European wine soil and a wine soil anywhere else in the world?"

"The difference has been debated for as long as there have been vintners."

"Of course. One of the leading theories is that it's the age of the soil, but that's clearly nonsense. Northern Europe's soils emerged from the same glaciation that produced North America's soils, and were shaped by a comparable climate."

"But the soils of Europe have been farmed for centuries longer. I've always believed that to be responsible for the difference." The critic took another contemplative sip.

"Perhaps. And yet, my research revealed that an agricultural soil stabilizes after no more than a generation or two of farming if the cultural practices remain unchanged. Have some of that cheese—it's quite delightful."

"Indeed it is. A perfect choice for this wine. Won't you have some?"

"No, I'm afraid not. Cholesterol problems that not even red wine can help. So anyway, I asked myself: What is the difference between a European and a North American soil? And it turns out the answer is indeed the age, but not the way you'd expect. The connection is far more indirect and subtle."

"If not age, what then?"

"The people, and not necessarily what they do with the soil. You'll think me a fool perhaps, but there's good science behind this. It turns out the people who live in an area are responsible for the character of a soil. If you compare a European soil with a North American soil, the difference is in the population density—and in the nature of the population. You see, Europe's been much more densely inhabited, for many more centuries and by distinct peoples. That's why a French wine differs from an Italian wine, and why neither could be mistaken for a German or Spanish wine."

The critic sat expectantly, one eyebrow raised.

The vintner continued. "Yes, I know... there have been Native Americans dwelling here for every bit as long as Europeans have dwelt in France and Italy and Germany and Spain. Certainly, there's no significant difference over geological periods. You're done with that?" The vintner solicitously took the half-empty glass from the critic's hand.

"It's about the number and quality of the lives. You see, there were never enough Native Americans living here, and they moved on too frequently. That means not nearly enough bodies going into the ground fast enough in this part of the world to enrich the soil. At least, not until Europeans arrived and began slaughtering the land's original inhabitants in such great numbers, as they'd been doing to themselves for so many millennia in Europe. I first understood this when I considered why Australian wines suddenly became a credible option within the past few decades: enough Aboriginal deaths. Similarly for Chilean wines. Nothing like a good dictator to rack up a serious body count."

The vintner leaned across with a crisp cotton napkin and wiped a string of drool from the critic's chin. "Oh, I know what you're thinking. 'They don't bury people in vineyards.' Of course they don't. That's why it takes so long to develop a truly fine terroir: you have to wait for the lich dust to settle, or to migrate through the soil. But I'm a man of science. Once the scientific principle is understood, the rest is a mere engineering problem. And what is winemaking but chemical engineering?"

The vintner leaned forward and placed a hand on the critic's wrist, feeling for a pulse. "Yes, chemical engineering, even if that soul-less profession isn't one you'd associate with the romance and poetry of winemaking. But we too have a proud history dating back to Biblical times, though I confess we were always more alchemists than scientists until fairly recently.

"Be that as it may, art can always be improved by a judicious application of science. And I fully intend to prove that to the skeptics. Starting with you, my dear Gustave." The vintner put down his own glass, and knelt before the critic. With a shrug of one powerful arm, he pulled the critic across his broad shoulders and rose, staggering slightly.

"Too much fine living, my friend. But fortunately, that extra weight is an asset in the present context." Cautiously, the vintner descended the steep cellar stairs and laid the critic on a broad wooden Ikea table, then glanced over his shoulder at the thermometer next to the furnace. "Ah. Just right." With the efficiency of long practice, he stripped the critic and set the expensive clothing atop a tall pile of garments. A wash of heat filled the room as he swung open the furnace door and gently tipped the body into the flames.

"Yes, Gustave, it's all in the terroir, but that's nothing a little science can't resolve."

The furnace door swung shut with the quiet authority of a still-young, but promising tradition.

Author's notes

This is a small piece of horror fiction spliced with an SFnal explanation for the mystery of the terroir and its effects on wine quality. I’m not sure whence it came, other than that the bouquet is reminiscent of Poe (The Cask of Amontillado) and the finish has echoes of Gaiman. Specifically, were I to dig into my subconscious to propose an origin, I suspect this one originated in echoes at the back of my mind left by Neil Gaiman’s diabolical The Doll’s House (a “Sandman” story), which centers on a convention for serial killers that offers a deliciously nasty take on science fiction conventions, right down to the panel discussions. That’s almost all that need be said, since it would be silly to enlarge the notes beyond the scale of the story. Only the pun in the title remains, and I think that needs no further explication.

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