You can buy plenty of wines from the Burgundy region of France for $25 to $100 a bottle. But for the connoisseur with some discretionary income, there’s a pinot noir made from grapes grown in a small field in a Côte de Nuits vineyard that routinely sells for more than $15,000.
The reason for this astounding price, says Assistant Professor of French and Francophone Studies Thomas Parker, can be explained in a single, untranslatable word: terroir.
Parker and five colleagues will explore this phenomenon in a six-week course this spring called “Terroir, Wine, and Multidisciplinary Lessons on How the French ‘Taste’ the Earth.”
He says his first task will be to try to explain a concept that is foreign to most Americans.
“In the United States, we may buy wine from California, or cheese from Vermont or Wisconsin, but we don’t always care in which state it’s made, and we rarely expect it to somehow taste of its origin,” Parker says. “It’s very different for the French. Their wines, their cheeses, their honey—even some of their vegetables—are identified by the particular place they’re from. And, part of their culinary pleasure comes in confirming that a product’s taste corresponds to the region’s flavor profile.”
In part, Parker says, terroir is linked to the composition of the mineral soil where these products are grown, or, with wine, the kinds of indigenous yeast on the grapes during fermentation. But there’s a folklore component, too.
“Maybe it’s a wine that Louis XIV’s doctor raved about in the 17th century, which reportedly fortified the king, that affects its prestige,” Parker says.
Guest lecturers for the six-week course, which will be offered again next fall as part of the Multidisciplinary Learning-Living Community on Food, are: Pauline LeVen, a classics professor at Yale; Vassar professors David Jemiolo and Mark Schlessman, biology; Brian McAdoo, earth science; and Sandy Thompson, professor emeritus of economics.
The students will read scientific and historical journals and other texts assigned by the six faculty members, then sample wines, cheeses, and other foods at the end of each class.
Parker, who worked for a wine importer before he joined the Vassar faculty, says he hopes the course will enable the students to develop their own sense of terroir.
“It’s something I learned to do when I was in the wine business,” he says. “I’ll teach the students how to take notes on what they are tasting, to develop their own vocabulary on the kinds of smells and tastes they are experiencing.”
Parker says he fears that because there is wine-tasting involved, some might think the course will be a somewhat frivolous exercise, an excuse to open a bottle of wine.
“This isn’t about sitting around drinking wine and chit-chatting,” he says, adding that students actually are required to spit out the wine after examining its essence. “It’s a course designed to give students a scholarly perspective on an important aspect of French culture.”