Andrew Jef­ford

‘Even musical sound has a ter­roir di­men­sion’

Decanter - - LETTERS - D Andrew Jef­ford is a De­can­ter con­tribut­ing ed­i­tor and the Louis Roed­erer In­ter­na­tional Colum­nist of 2016 for this and his ‘Jef­ford on Mon­day’ col­umn at De­can­­ford

Where do the lim­its of ter­roir lie? De­can­ter read­ers will be fa­mil­iar with the wine world’s def­i­ni­tion: that Pauil­lac and Pom­mard smell and taste as they do in part be­cause of in­her­ent sin­gu­lar­i­ties in the phys­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment in which their grapes came into be­ing. ter­roir can, though, play a role in other co­mestibles – such as tea, cheese, or those veg­eta­bles which have an ap­pel­la­tion pro­tégée in France. In­deed I’d sug­gest it goes well beyond that, to­wards finely crafted goods of all sorts. Wher­ever the search for qual­ity is im­per­a­tive and a crafted prod­uct is fash­ioned with nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als, ter­roir plays a role. here’s an in­trigu­ing ex­am­ple.

It in­volves an in­tox­i­cat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence – and with­out wine: you’re lis­ten­ing to a vi­o­lin con­certo played by a vi­o­lin­ist, say Anne-So­phie Mut­ter or Maxim Vengerov, in a renowned con­cert hall. Most of your plea­sure, of course, will be de­rived from the mu­sic and the play­ing – but the qual­ity of the in­stru­ment counts, too. the belly of a fine vi­o­lin is gen­er­ally made from spruce and its back from fig­ured maple, with ebony for the fin­ger­board and pegs. of the three, it is the spruce which has most to do with the qual­ity of the sound (such woods are known as tonewoods) and, for at least six cen­turies, euro­pean luthiers have con­sid­ered spruce grown in cold Alpine con­di­tions the best, thanks to its fine growth rings and even grain. In Italy’s Parco Nat­u­rale Pan­eveg­gio Pale di San Martino in trento, there’s la foresta dei vi­o­lini – the vi­o­lin for­est – so called be­cause its spruce tonewood is of un­equalled den­sity, hence musical qual­ity. It’s cut dur­ing a wan­ing moon be­tween oc­to­ber and Novem­ber, to min­imise the quan­tity of sap it con­tains. even musical sound, thus, has a ter­roir di­men­sion.

Both Mut­ter and Vengerov play Stradi­vari in­stru­ments, and Stradi­var­ius him­self is (leg­en­dar­ily, at least) said to have made the 250km jour­ney from Cre­mona to the vi­o­lin for­est to choose trees and wood. More­over Stradi­var­ius’s life (1644-1737) al­most ex­actly co­in­cides with the Maun­der Min­i­mum (1645-1715), a pe­riod of re­duced sunspot ac­tiv­ity which is thought to have been a cause of the pe­riod of in­tense cold that be­gan at around 1650. this cold gave rise to spruce of even slower growth and greater den­sity than usual, con­firmed by anal­y­sis of the growth rings in Stradi­vari in­stru­ments. In wine­mak­ing terms, it would seem as if Stradi­var­ius was lucky enough to be work­ing dur­ing a pe­riod of great vin­tages.

Be­fore we get car­ried away with all of this, though, here’s a cou­ple more de­tails. Stradi­var­ius treated his wood chem­i­cally. Ac­cord­ing to a sci­en­tific study by bio­chem­istry pro­fes­sor Joseph Nagy­vary (the re­sults were pub­lished in Na­ture in 2006) anal­y­sis of minute wood sam­ples ob­tained from those restor­ing Stradi­vari in­stru­ments re­vealed the pres­ence of bo­rax, flu­o­rides, chromium and iron salts, prob­a­bly used as preser­va­tive against the wood­worm in­fes­ta­tions which were com­mon at the time. Why shouldn’t great wine­mak­ers use a lit­tle sul­phur?

And those of us with less than per­fect blind-tast­ing abil­i­ties might be com­forted to learn that in a 1977 BBC ra­dio 3 pro­gramme, vi­o­lin vir­tu­osi Isaac Stern and Pin­chas Zuk­er­man, to­gether with the vi­o­lin ex­pert Charles Beare, were ‘blind tested’ by hear­ing four in­stru­ments played be­hind a screen: three great his­tor­i­cal vi­o­lins (in­clud­ing one Stradi­vari) and a con­tem­po­rary Bri­tish vi­o­lin. de­spite hav­ing been al­lowed to play all of the in­stru­ments be­fore­hand, the two vi­o­lin­ists only iden­ti­fied two of the four. A more sci­en­tif­i­cally sat­is­fac­tory dou­ble-blind test run at the 2010 In­ter­na­tional Vi­o­lin Com­pe­ti­tion of In­di­anapo­lis sug­gested that both com­peti­tors and judges ac­tu­ally pre­ferred mod­ern in­stru­ments to two Strads and a Guarneri, based on sound qual­ity alone.

So much for ter­roir? Ah no. Con­tem­po­rary luthiers even dis­tin­guish be­tween trees grown at dif­fer­ent pre­cise al­ti­tudes, and be­tween wedges grown on the north or south-fac­ing sides of an in­di­vid­ual tree. they take ter­roir even more se­ri­ously than the great luthiers of the past were able to.

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