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Review: Burgundy

In "Burgundy: A Global Anthropology of Place and Taste," Marion Demossier tackles the various socio-cultural, political, and professional practices surrounding the oenological region of Burgundy.

Published onJun 16, 2019
Review: Burgundy
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Marion Demossier. Burgundy: A Global Anthropology of Place and Taste. Berghahn Books, 2018, ix, 280 pp.

In Burgundy: A Global Anthropology of Place and Taste, University of Southampton Professor of French and European Studies, Marion Demossier tackles the various socio-cultural, political, and professional practices surrounding the oenological region of Burgundy. This book is the culmination of ethnographic efforts spanning over 20 years of fieldwork in Burgundy and beyond. Throughout her career, Demossier has focused on topics including anthropology of wine, as well as the long-term effects of globalization on communities on a local and global scale. In Burgundy, Demossier effectively argues the importance of place in the changing narrative of global wine and taste by using the Burgundy region as a case-study. The author explores the ways in which the concept of place, as manifested through terroir, is constructed not only at the local level, but is also shaped by the forces of globalization and modernization.

Demossier begins by demystifying the pseudo-scientific notion of terroir, which links taste and place, while emphasizing the geography and history of a rather complex patchwork of vineyards. Demossier extends her argument one step further to include the social role played mainly by the wine producers themselves in narrating the Burgundy story. By emphasizing the human element, Demossier is successful in rendering terroir ethnographically meaningful as the Burgundy narrative is rewritten and shaped by winemakers within the context of an increasingly globalized wine world.

Demossier contributes to the current quality debate at the global level between Old and New World wines by positioning the Burgundy model as the benchmark for quality wine production, centered on traditional wine laws such as the Appellation d’Origine Controlee that were originally established to enforce quality standards. Demossier links modernization to the elite producers that are moving away from traditional winemaking practice, opting for new definitions of quality, often defined by hedonistic and sensorial properties of the wine itself, rather than conforming to socially constructed regulations based on geographical limitations. In this sense, her argument is convincing through the use of a historical analysis on how taste has been defined and distinguished in the region and transformed over time, as seen by the emergence of the new generation of Burgundian winemakers, holding different wine making epistemologies from those of their predecessors.

Widening her ethnographic scope by drawing examples from other countries such as New Zealand and China, Demossier strengthens her original claims: she emphasizes the role worldwide actors in the wine industry play in the transnational processes of defining quality and authenticity, while trying to balance both traditional and modern values. Throughout the process of globalization, Demossier argues that Burgundy has been able to maintain its position at the center of the wine world. This is seen in the ways wine producers have been able to distinguish their products by reverting back to claims about the intricacies of terroir in Old World wines set against the backdrop of the “mass-produced” wines from the New World.

Throughout the book, Demossier draws heavily from her experiences with UNESCO as a scientific committee member on defining the Climats de Bourgogne. From these experiences, Demossier critically analyzes the political and economic impact that Burgundian elites have had in their quest for global recognition and ultimately the heritage building of the wine region. She argues that several producers use terroir as a means to counteract globalization processes in efforts to protect the taste and style that Burgundy’s wine makers have worked so long to achieve, and how some communities are using terroir to suit their own purposes. In an elite wine region such as Burgundy, the author argues that there is a recurrent need to stand out amongst Burgundian producers, evidenced through several attempts at counterfeiting some of the more expensive and reputable brands, coupled with the emergence of international wine producers imitating the taste and style that Burgundy’s has been historically known for.

Perhaps one of Demossier’s greatest strengths in this book is her synthesis of many years of ethnography “in place” at a single location. However, in this strength hides a potential weakness; by focusing on Burgundy as the epicenter of the wine world, the reader misses out on the reality that terroir is being adopted and adapted throughout the world, and oftentimes beyond the world of wine. Demossier includes a nod to her experience with additional fieldwork in New Zealand, but the reader is ultimately left hungry for more as the global perspectives included in this book would benefit from being developed further. However, the reader might complement Demossier’s work with others such as Amy Trubek’s The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey Into Terroir. In this book Trubek offers an American perspective on terroir.[1] Additionally, of particular interest might also be Heather Paxson’s adaptation of terroir into the realm of cheese in her book The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America.[2] These authors share similar viewpoints on terroir’s role in the globalization of wine and food, focusing on a region of the world that was mostly left out of Demossier’s argument.

Due to its rich content, Demossier has the ability to attract a wide audience varying from novice wine enthusiasts to anthropologists interested in related disciplines. Topics as diverse as capitalism, science, heritage building, nature, and culture are all highlighted throughout this book giving insight into themes pertinent to many areas of study. Apart from those interested in the academic aspects of food and wine, this book would be beneficial to non-academics looking to learn more about the complexities of the wine world. Overall, through her rich account and transnational approach including over two decades of fieldwork, Demossier’s landmark work Burgundy further legitimizes wine as a topic of academic interest and is sure to captivate oenophiles and food scholars alike.

Last updated: 15 July 2019
An earlier version of this article incorrectly named Marion Demossier as the Chair of Culture of Wine in Dijon since 2006. The chair is Jocelyne Perard. Marion Demossier is a member of their wine culture network.


Biography

Matthew Lorman is a Master of Philosophy candidate in the joint Food Studies program hosted by the University of Toulouse and Taylor’s University. Matthew holds a BPS in Hospitality Management and an AOS in Culinary Arts from the Culinary Institute of America. He is currently working on a dissertation project examining various food-related emotions in response to “disgusting” foods. More broadly, his research interests lie in the development and transmission of taste.

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