‘Even musical sound has a terroir dimension’
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.