A civil war is raging in the vineyards of France, between traditional producers and those who prefer more modern methods. It's a war for the soul of French wine, and perhaps for the soul of France herself

VOSNE-ROMANEE, Burgundy: this is a magical place; one of the most precious spots on earth. Magical but also strangely unimpressive, even banal.

The ground beneath my feet is a jumble of sharp, flat stones and dry sods of clay, the kind of heart-breaking soil which house-builders leave behind and call a garden. In the distance, there is an autoroute, a conveyor belt of lorries, groaning south to Lyons and the Midi.

Nearby, three unfriendly young men tend rows of vines. They are wearing the traditional, but practical, uniform of the late-20th-century Burgundian vineyard-worker: baseball cap, shorts and sunglasses.

All around, stretching in steepening lines up to scrubby woodland and the setting sun, are other vineyards, large and small: some internationally celebrated - Richebourg, La Tache - others in the second rank. None produces wine which tastes exactly like any of the others. None produces wine which is as prized, or as highly priced, as the harvest from this little patch of cocoa-coloured dirt.

Welcome to the Romanee-Conti vineyard, a field the size of a misshapen soccer pitch, which consistently produces the grandest of the Grand Crus, the most celebrated of red Burgundies, the most expensive of all wines, costing pounds 400 a bottle and upwards. This dispiriting soil is the most valuable scrap of agricultural land on the globe, worth an estimated pounds 240,000 an acre (if you could buy it, which you cannot).

THERE ARE 450 legally defined wine-growing areas, or "appellations controlees", in France. More than 80 of them form a jigsaw here in the Cote d'Or in central Burgundy - a gently sloping limestone ridge which straggles south for 40 miles from Dijon.

The ridge is the birthplace of appellation controlee, the characteristically French system of defining wines by the precise locations in which they grow. The minute sub-divisions and classifications of the Cote d'Or vineyards, including Romanee-Conti, were first elaborated by Cistercian monks 800 years ago. Since mass-marketing had not yet been invented, and time was not a problem, the Cistercians made it their business to create as many different kinds of red and white Burgundy as possible.

Create or discover? The Cistercians believed that the differences in taste and quality of wines lay in the differences between soil and soil. It is said that the monks tasted the earth long before they tasted the wine. (In their honour, I stoop and take a discreet little bite from a chunk of Romanee-Conti clay: it tastes remarkably as one would imagine clay would taste.)

Eight centuries later, the concept invented by the Cistercians - fine wine as something discovered, like precious jewels; something that "occurs"; something geological and meteorological; something mysterious, even mystical - has become a subject of increasingly petulant debate in France.

The debate revolves around a single word - "terroir" - which cannot easily be translated into English. It means, literally, "native soil", or "growing conditions"; but it has come to mean much more than that. It means the precise characteristics of soil and sub-soil and climate and micro-climate which combine, fortuitously, with a particular grape variety to produce a wine, which tastes in a certain unique way.

Terroir has become a polemical, even a political, word. It frequently implies a rejection, a contempt for the "New World" (ie. American or Australian) processed approach to wine-making. Even at the top end of the price range, New World wine is founded on the concept of "vin de cepage" - the elaboration of the qualities of a particular kind of grape, through experimentation, blending and use of the most advanced wine-making techniques, to reach a desirable, and marketable, level of taste.

The terroir versus cepage argument is not new: it has been going on since the Eighties, even the Seventies. At its worst, it provides an excuse, or cover, for the variable quality of some French wines (even expensive ones). It provides a snobbish basis - quite independent of objective criteria like taste or longevity - for prizing certain wines because they have always been prized, and denigrating other wines because they are new. The British wine writer Nick Faith says, tongue half-in-cheek: "Terroir is a word invented by the French so that they can win all the arguments about wine. By the nature of terroir, only the French have any terroirs."

What is new in the late Nineties is that the argument has moved from being a battle between France and the Rest of the World to the beginnings of a French oenological civil war. Some French wine writers and producers allege that French wine is subtly being perverted by foreign tastes and foreign methods, ie. by tastes and methods which are not rooted in the French soil.

One symptom is the re-planting of vast acreages of vines in the French far south - mostly in Languedoc-Roussillon - for the mass production of grape-variety wines in the New-World style: Chardonnays and Cabernets, which appeal, very effectively, to the taste of the international market.

Robert Mondavi, the great Californian wine producer, has recently announced the creation of a new enterprise in Languedoc to produce up to 10 million bottles a year of French-American red wine, ie. wine which appeals to the American popular taste but carries the useful label "Made in France".

The continental drift of the French far south to join the oenological New World annoys some French purists (and traditional producers) but not all. Other defenders of the virtue - and special virtues - of French wine shrug their shoulders. "If there is a market for this stuff, and there is, we might as well produce a part of it in France," says Professor Pierre Casamayor, editor-in-chief of the gourmet publication, the Guide Hubert.

According to Casamayor, there is a far more serious, internal threat to France's wine culture and heritage: "Parkerisation". Casamayor is part of an influential group of wine experts and writers in France who fear that some of the country's finest producers are, consciously or unconsciously, perverting their own traditions; altering the most classical expressions of terroir in Bordeaux, Burgundy and elsewhere to suit an "international palate" and boost foreign sales.

The term "Parkerisation" is an hommage to the influence of Robert Parker, the American wine writer whose gradings (out of 100) in the American Wine Advocate decide the commercial fate of wines in the US. "It is not just Parker, and it is not Parker's fault, and I don't think Parker himself is taken in by it," Casamayor declared from his home in Toulouse. "But there is a definite tendency, promoted by some French wine writers as well as foreign ones, reinforced by the results of international wine- tasting competitions, to impose one uniform style, one international standard for great wines. Powerful and intense, rather than elaborate and lingering. Colourful. Alcoholic, rather than subtle. A wine that appeals to the `debut de bouche' [immediate taste] rather than `fin de bouche' [lasting taste].

"There is nothing wrong, necessarily, with such wines. Some are excellent. But it would be a crime if all wines were gradually homogenised, if the hundreds of expressions of terroir were gradually obliterated. I think it is undeniable, and perhaps understandable, that some French producers are tempted to make wines which will score well and therefore sell well. But we are running the risk in the next century, even here in France, of drinking 'a L'Anglo-Saxonne'."

Casamayor's argument should not be lightly dismissed as mere French nationalism or wine snobbery. The variety and quantity of French wines is genuinely a national, and global, treasure. The great Australian and Californian vineyards, which led the New-World wine revolution in the Sixties and Seventies, are increasingly attracted by the concept of terroir: precisely because they want to break away from the homogeneity and predictability of wines bound to grape-types, and develop more interesting - and expensive - products, rooted in differences in the soil.

The terroir debate is fascinating, partly because it meshes with a wider French anxiety about the place of France, and Frenchness, in the modern world. Here is a supposedly over-centralised country, suffocating under an excessive, arrogant bureaucracy, which has created more, gloriously different kinds of wine (and cheese) than any other. Its trade figures are booming, partly because of its perennially successful exports of top- quality produce, with quality wine in the forefront.

And yet, despite its triumphs as a global trading nation, France remains perpetually fearful that globalisation will destroy its Frenchness: that excessive contact with the world will destroy the products for which the world admires France.

This is not a stupid fear: we should all share it a little. And yet the argument for terroir is often undermined, in France itself, by poor enforcement of the rules which are meant to restrict and regulate the quantity and quality of place-labelled wine. A scandal broke earlier this month when a leading Bordeaux chateau - Chateau Giscours - was suspected of spiking its ailing 1995 second vintage with water, milk and a cheaper, local wine. This may well have been an isolated case. But less traceable abuses, such as busting the legal limit on the quantity of wine produced per hectare, are regrettably widespread.

Even the word terroir is being cheapened. Wherever one goes in France these days, one is offered "produits de terroir" of doubtful authenticity; in the French Pyrenees recently, I was served a "menu de terroir" which included tinned peaches.

So are French wines really being dumbed down? Does the terroir argument, anyway, apply only to the expensive bottles that you and I cannot afford? Is there any truly scientific basis for terroir?

I came to Burgundy, the home of terroir, to ask such questions. Like the terroirs themselves, everyone's definition of their importance is different. After three days, my head was swimming, and not just because of the wine.

JACQUES LARDIERE is head winemaker for the Louis Jadot wine house in Beaune, one of the 14 old companies which dominate the Burgundy wine trade. He is renowned as one of the best winemakers in Burgundy: technically brilliant but also a fervent believer in the concept that a great wine occurs, that it can be discovered, but that it cannot be "made".

Lardiere, an intense man of 50, with the look of a French intellectual (or a French soccer coach), takes a sweeping, almost mystical view of terroir. "A wine should not just be a commodity, appealing to someone's conception of commercial taste: a wine must speak to the soul, to the emotions, as well as the brain. The makers of vin de cepage [generic grape- variety wine] can make wine, they can even make quality wine, but they cannot speak to the soul of the wine drinker.

"They fabricate a wine which has three or four, maybe, peaks of taste, supposed to appeal to the common palate. But it cannot compare with the elegance, the mystery of a great vin de terroir, whose quality is something the winemaker can reveal, promote and defend, but not invent ... To me a vin de cepage is a baby-bottle for grown-ups: something which appeals to the child in all of us and not the adult."

But is a bottle of plain Burgundy, at maybe pounds 5 a time, with wine blended from a dozen different vineyards truly a vin de terroir, a wine rooted in a particular soil and climate? Yes, he insists, Bourgogne Ordinaire, is the general expression of terroir; the Grands Crus and Premiers Crus are just "the finest expression".

But take the ordinary, non-expert wine lover who wants to spend pounds 5 or pounds 6 on a bottle. Is not a good grape-variety wine, of consistent quality, a perfectly sensible choice? It is a depressingly frequent experience in France to buy, say, a FF70 (about pounds 7) bottle of some minor appellation which is less satisfying than a FF30 (about pounds 3) French grape-variety wine from a supermarket.

Lardiere appears to wince at the mention of supermarkets. Partly, he says, it is a question of educating the new generation of wine-drinkers (ie. me) to be able to appreciate the nobler, more demanding taste of terroir. Partly, he admits, it is a question of educating a new generation of French winemakers to use the best of new technology to avoid making bad terroir wine (although part of the whole concept of terroir is that wine should not be utterly predictable, like 7-Up).

LOUIS LATOUR is head of one of the best-known Burgundian wine houses, also called Louis Latour and now 201 years old. He is part of the eighth generation of the family to be wine growers and merchants in or near Beaune. Such a pure product of human terroir might be expected to be a fierce defender of terroir in wine; but not a bit of it. Mr Latour, 66, a stout, formal, playful man, is a Burgundian heretic. He goes as far as to say that terroir does not exist; or, in any case, that it is only a part of a complex equation in the creation of great wines, including, most importantly, the traditions and know-how of the winemaker. (Latour red Burgundies, it should be pointed out, score rather well with Robert Parker; but they are regarded as "controversial" by some French wine writers. The Latour company has also invested heavily in the Midi revolution in New World-style cepage wines, successfully producing large quantities of Chardonnay in the Ardeche, a barren departement high above the lower Rhone valley, previously regarded as useless for decent wine.)

Of course, Latour says (in fluent English), the impact of climate, micro- climate, soil and sub-soil is part of the explanation of why a Romanee- Conti is different from a Richebourg, a few feet away. "But I don't like the word terroir ... The idea that one small plot of soil has a predisposition to quality wine, compared to a very similar plot next door, is absurd. No one has ever been able to explain why such-and-such a soil could produce such-and-such a taste." (Actually some have tried, and succeeded to their own satisfaction, as we will see later.)

Latour is partly playing the devil's advocate, he says, because he abhors the "defensive" use of terroir in France. "Since it is our French birthright to produce the best-quality wines, it is unthinkable that anyone else could produce wines of quality. Therefore there must be something in the French soil, which no one else has got. That's very French, isn't it?"

Latour dismisses the argument that the character of great terroir wines is being perverted in an attempt to appease Anglo-Saxon tastes (something he denies that any big Burgundian company would do). "But the truth is that tastes of great wines have always been, in part, shaped by the taste of the market. Bordeaux was created, or re-created, to suit the English taste for claret. There is nothing wrong, in itself, in producing wine that people want to drink."

DOMINIQUE LAFON does not like helicopters. Earlier in the day, we had been photographing a helicopter dusting some of his neighbours' vines in the great (but tiny) vineyard of Le Montrachet, south of Beaune. "If you've been caught in a cloud of dust from a helicopter, and come up all in tiny buttons the next day, you know why I don't like helicopters," he said.

Lafon, who is 40, is the head of the Domaine des Comtes Lafon, in Meursault. The domain has 35 acres of some of the best vineyards in the world: Meursault, Volnay, Puligny, but also a small section of Le Montrachet, the most prized of all white wines. The domain has the reputation as one of the best producers in the Cote d'Or. It sells its "village" wine off the estate at pounds 8 a bottle, Meursault Premier Cru at pounds 20 a bottle, Le Montrachet at pounds 80 a bottle: all prices that would double or more in the shops.

Dominique is a very modern, almost urban figure in jeans and yuppie haircut, his jumper slung over his shoulders. He is both laid-back and passionate. He takes terroir seriously, not as a political argument, but as a way of farming. He has banished all artificial fertilisers, chemical weed- killers, insecticides and huge ground-crushing tractors. He uses organic compost. If terroir means soil, he says, then you have to allow the soil to live.

"For me, terroir exists as something physical, something undeniable, but it is also, if you like, a philosophy, a concept of what the greatest wines are and how they are made. It is a question of allowing the character of the wine to express itself, of not imposing on the wine a direction which is not its true character. Of course, finally, the only test of a good or great wine, is how quickly the level sinks in the bottle once it goes on the table. But to achieve true character in a wine, it is destructive to try, as the new technologies of wine make it quite possible to do, to meet some category of taste which you believe the market demands."

Lafon is worried about the future of French wine. He believes that there is a genuine trend, among wine writers and the producers who court them (he will name no names), to favour wines in which the maximum immediate flavour has been extracted in the "vinification" process. "The result is wines which have powerful and immediate impact, as against wines which are elegant, subtle, which have more finesse, which are perhaps less immediately approachable, but finally deeper, more elaborate and more satisfying. This is, if you like, a characteristic, a fault of the modern world, to favour the immediate over the subtle and the complex."

It is only 9am but Lafon leads us to the cellars to taste his wines - to taste the difference between terroirs. "In this domain we have, fundamentally, only one way of making white wine, or red wine. Like all the vineyards in the Cote d'Or, we use only Chardonnay grapes for white and Pinot Noir for red. But you will see, they all come out differently, even though the vineyards themselves may be only half a mile, or 100 metres apart."

We taste, from oak barrels, several kinds of red and white wine, only one and two years old. The Meursault, a rich, thick white wine - one of the most loved of all white wines - is especially splendid. Les Charmes and Les Genevrieres are Premier Crus, from adjoining vineyards, both recognisably Meursaults, but quite different: Genevrieres is subtle, delicate; Les Charmes, as its name suggests, welcoming, warm and invigorating.

Dominique says that, year after year after year, whatever the variations in the overall quality of wine, the two Meursaults have these clear characteristics. The neighbouring vineyards are slightly different in aspect or slope but they are mainly different in soil: Les Charmes is chalkier, with more, small pebbles; Genevrieres is clayier.

"You learn after a number of years to understand your soil, to respect your soil, and the greatest pleasure, for me, in this profession, has been in understanding how each of our soils, our terroirs, is different."

WHAT MAKES the difference? It has always been possible to point to geological distinctions between sites, but difficult to say why one sort of soil should produce wines which taste differently from the wine next door.

What does make Romanee-Conti so special? Claude Bourgignon, 46, is a soil microbiologist, one of the first people to study soils in Grands Crus and Premiers Crus vineyards as living organisms, not as collections of minerals. His work is not just academic, it has directly influenced the organic approach of many Burgundian vineyards, including the Domaine Lafon at Meursault.

"If terroir is partly or mostly a question of soil, and soil is alive, which it is, the dumping of chemicals on the soil is changing that soil. It is, literally, killing the terroir," says Bourgignon.

This, he says, is a far greater threat to the character and quality of terroir wines than the fashions of wine writers and winemakers. In an interview in his private laboratory north of Dijon, Bourgignon says that his studies show that neighbouring vineyards are different, as different say, as brother and brother. It is partly a question of the internal structure of different kinds of clays; partly a question of the different enzymes and micro-organisms which colonise a particular soil.

Bourgignon believes that such factors directly influence the taste and smell of plants which grow in the soil; and he is in demand all over the world to extend the theory to, among other things, the scent of chrysanthemums and the taste of chocolate beans.

"I HAVE brought this bottle to have with our lunch because it comes from a very bad year."

Robert Drouhin, 60, is the head of Joseph Drouhin, another of the great Beaune wine houses. He is an initially shy, though ultimately eloquent man, with a rather upper-class British air and a rather British sense of humour. I eye the bottle in question suspiciously. It is dusty and has no label.

Mr Drouhin sums up all the contending arguments about terroir as persuasively as anyone. Terroir is mostly applicable to quality wines, he says. For more ordinary wines, the New World, generic, grape-variety approach is not so different from the making of an ordinary Burgundy: you pick the best grapes you can find, from the best vineyards you can afford, and you blend your wine to a pre-defined benchmark of acceptable taste.

But terroir as a philosophy, he says, is an important factor in stopping wine of all kinds - expensive wine, cheap wine, French wine, New World wine - from becoming just a soulless processed beverage, like Coca-Cola. "It is a question, like all artistic endeavour, of which end you begin from," he said. "Do you begin by trying to please the market? Or do you begin by trying to create wine which is the most perfect possible expression of the conditions under which it was grown?" This is the difference, between, say, the writer who writes from his own experience and soul, and the writer who constructs a thriller from the kinds of characters and twists of plot which generally sell thrillers.

Drouhin asks the waiter to uncork his anonymous bottle. It is, he says, a bottle of 15th-century wine, made in 1980. For the centenary of his firm, he arranged for a batch of his Clos des Mouches, a Premier Cru red Beaune, to be crushed on a late-15th-century wine press preserved in his offices. Scrupulous efforts were made to use unhygienic 15th-century methods. All the other bottles of Clos des Mouches made that year, on modern wine presses, to modern standards, were a terrible disappointment. The wine made on the old press was, he says, a "revelation, a delight".

We drink the Renaissance wine. Even a rank amateur like me is startled, enchanted. It is like emerging on to a hilltop to see range upon range of unsuspected mountains, or in this case a rolling vista of flavours: delicate, rich, subtle but also strangely fresh and bucolic. In other words, in one taste, I am converted into a wine bore.

"Another thing," Mr Drouhin said, with a dry smile. "We tried the same trick the next year and the modern wine was fine but the old wine was a disaster."

The lesson, he said, is twofold. "Technology is important. We are making more good wine than ever before; in the old days, large quantities of wine went bad and were wasted; but the wine also, probably, reached peaks which are undreamt of today. Technology is important, but it must be used carefully."

There is a third lesson. The arguments about terroir, "authentic" wine versus "processed" wine, can be as perplexing as a Burgundian wine map; but finally the real issues are simple enough. The high-tech New World approach to wine has undeniably forced French wine producers to increase their standards; it has also persuaded growers like Dominique Lafon creatively to re-explore the importance of terroir, long taken for granted. Many New World producers are going down the same road, abandoning uniformity.

There is something in the modern world's desire for - and capacity to create - a standard, marketable, predictable, global product which is, inevitably, threatening to blunt the peaks of character, in wine, movies, books, trousers, everything. It would be a tragedy if this was not resisted. But there is already another force abroad: a counter-reaction in favour of the authentic, the sincere, the accidental, the surprising; in favour, in one way or another, of terroir. In the broadest sense - even in the narrow wine sense - this is not just a French debate.

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