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Terroir: The Role of Geology, Climate, and Culture in the Making of French Wines  - James Wilson
Mitchell Beazley 1998
Review by David Farmer

Any vineyard owner will tell you that certain areas of their vineyard make better tasting grapes than other areas. Why some areas of vineyards and vineyard districts deliver better grapes and hence better wine is the subject of terroir studies. The Europeans and particularly the French are very interested in this topic. They extend the meaning of the word which we can roughly say is the flavour effects that come from the vineyard location to include cultural ideas which unite man with the soil.

‘Terroir’ tries to draw together all of nature’s contributions that can affect the taste of wine with a strong emphasis on rocks and their weathered product soil. The type site is of course Burgundy and the detail here is excellent. A series of cross sections over the great vineyards produced from shallow surface seismic work gives great insight into the soil profiles. Never have I understood better the relationship of Chevalier Montachet to Montrachet to Batard Montrachet than by seeing the cross section diagram. A strong control on grape quality is of course the climate but these vineyards are so close together that other explanations are needed to explain the differences in taste and it becomes apparent from this detail that the slope angle, soil mix and depth of soil and water retention are key factors.

Chablis also becomes clearer and while it may not be Wilson’s conclusion the Grand Cru vineyards are great because of the perfectly angled slope that captures more of the climate versus nearby vineyards with the same geology which are not as well exposed, particularly to the sun.

Alsace like Burgundy is controlled by major faulting and they create the river valleys of the Rhine and the Soane. Alsace is much more complex in the way this faulting has shaped the land surface and has created a diverse range of soil and mixed soil and rubble surfaces. Numerous rock types are bought to the surface in an intricate and fascinating manner creating an oblong, chess board look. The 50 or so Grand Cru vineyards are spread along 96 kilometres. Some growers maintain that each vineyard is exactly fitted to the correct grape variety. There is no doubt that some vineyards make superior wine and thus no reason to doubt for example that pinot gris or gewürztraminer show enhanced floral aromas and flavours in certain vineyards. Still the wide variety of aspects and soils shows that great wines from the same variety can be made in many different surface locations in this region.

Of interest is that winemakers from Chablis and Alsace who have spoken in Australia over the last few years are the most ardent supporters of being able to taste the flavours of the location in their wines and may even say they can taste the influence of the vineyard rock type.

The descriptions of the geology and soils of Bordeaux are also excellent and these are tied very closely to the best vineyards, especially on the south bank. The explanation of the setting of Chateaux Margaux, finally makes it clear to me why this wine has always tasted differently to the other first growths such as Chateau Latour and Chateau Lafite.

There are many interesting conclusions that can be drawn from this book some of which can be applied to Australia. Though it must be remembered that Australia becomes the old world as the soils, the weathered rock, and the land surface, are so different. Post glacial soil development in France may be under 10,000 years whereas this is very young for Australia. Parts of the Barossa Valley weathered surface, which is under the soil surface, could be 20 to 50 million years old. Our youngest vineyard surfaces are at places like Mount Benson, South of Robe S.A. which are only tens of thousands of years old.

Those who have travelled in France and Germany know how important the vineyard slope is to maximize sunlight exposure; though with our constant sunlight it has less bearing unless the vineyard is in Tasmania or some of the marginal climatic mainland vineyards. Slope is also important for drainage, for exposure to cooling breezes and to catch rainfall and this is maximized with absorbent soils. ‘Terroir’ makes it apparent that weathered rock that has a variety of sources builds up a better soil profile for the vine. The long section describing the soils of Champagne and how the older calcareous weathered rocks are best when mixed with particles from younger lignitic rocks (a low grade of coal) is very convincing. This mixing is also explained in the Alsace region and is an important insight.

Perhaps most of this was known but the detailed manner in which it is set out is authoritative. Sections like that detailing the soil profiles across the best of Burgundy are valuable new information. Also so many of the vineyards in France are related to the weathering of limestone that you must conclude it is the favoured rock of the vine. We have some limestone such as along the Limestone Coast but it is not common elsewhere. Also there are many references to red wines liking limestone soils but its better when it is mixed with silts and clays or to use an imprecise term, reds like heavier soils than whites. Reference is also made to the depth of root penetration and it would seem the more physical and chemical variability of soil layers for roots to grow across the better.

This book received little attention on release and while it is specialised and perhaps not for the general wine enthusiast the comments made by a few of the major wine reviewers came as a surprise. I recall a review in the influential American wine magazine ‘Wine Spectator’ by Harvey Steiman. In a short review he said the following; ‘unfortunately he too often fails to link the geology to the character of specific wines’. At the end of the review mention was made of how he could now picture the soils and slopes of French vineyards but, ‘I just wish he had applied as much diligence to correlating all of that to the individual wines’. I find this a very harsh judgement. James Halliday, said in the Australian Gourmet Traveller, April/May, 2002; in a brief reference to the book; ‘and utterly failed to show a convincing connection between geology and the wines of any of those regions’.

The geology of any area covers the rock types, the weathered rock and soils and the formation of the landscape. That’s it. It cannot relate any facet of these elements back to the taste of a wine. ‘Terroir’ gives many plausible examples of why vineyards close together produce wines of different flavours and it does confirm how that relates to the geology. This type of information is specific to each area because geology is so variable, meaning the information gleaned is also not directly transferable. Geology sets the scene but it cannot suggest that this wine tastes like slate or tastes of specific minerals in a way that can be related back to the rock geology. Naturally these explanations come well after each area was planted and it is doubtful if detailed ‘geological’ surveys would be of much use in a continent that had not seen vines. Better to find where the grape likes to grow by trial and error. The geologist in this case came along well after the event when the different tastes had already been worked out. What is does do is give us a better understanding and confirms why areas are different. In the new world this is still not decided and these sorts of studies may have much more use.

Wilson’s book is interesting in another way as well because it shows how rapidly wine commentary is evolving. On reflection it is now obvious that the Hugh Johnson wine atlas published in 1971 altered the way we imagine wine and this book continues the trend. The third edition of ‘Alsace its Wine Garden, Cellars and Cuisine’ by S.F. Hallgarten published in 1978 has less to say about Alsace than this book, confirming that a map tells a thousand words.

It has though left me with one query. Since aspect is so important for European vineyards why is it that the great vineyards of Burgundy and Alsace must face East but the lonely area in between, Chablis, has its best vineyards facing South West?


Ten Company Histories and Biographies of Our Wine Pioneers  - *(see note for details)

Review by David Farmer

In the wine business 50 years is too short for reflection while one hundred years spans several generations and covers a wide variety of trading conditions. Companies that are still family owned and trading after 100 years are the rare survivors and it was at this point that most of them commissioned a company history. Many great contributors to the Australian wine history, and to single out one, Alexander Kelly's Tintara, did not survive for long and we know little about them. more...


Bouquet  - G. B. Stern
Alfred A Knoff, New York, Second printing, 1928 (First published June, 1927)
Review by David Farmer

I cannot recall how I got to know about Bouquet. I purchased a copy from a dealer on Amazon for $30.00. I read books like this to gain a better idea of how wine was thought about prior to say 1950-1960, before it exploded in popularity in the English speaking countries and turned perhaps a simpler pleasure into the scientifically studied beverage of today. more...


The House of Mondavi  - Julia Flynn Siler
Gotham Books, June 2007
Review by David Farmer

To build two large businesses in a lifetime is quite a feat but to do it in the wine business where it can take generations to become established requires outstanding talent. more...


What Can You Learn from Seven Centuries of Trade.
Sherry
 - Julian Jeffs
Faber and Faber Limited, London. First Edition, 1961. A revised second edition was published in 1970.
Review by David Farmer

Why would you want to read a book on an unfashionable drink like sherry? What would I find coming back to a book I first read in the mid 1970's? At the time of release it was much praised and subsequent editions came out in 1970 and 1978. more...


Notes on a Cellar Book  - George Saintsbury
Published in 1920 with numerous reprints. Reissued 1978 (Macmillan)
Review by David Farmer

This short book had an enormous impact on wine writing after publication in 1920 and was quoted extensively for the next two decades and was still referred to by wine writers in the 1960's. It may be seen as a forerunner of later books that taught you how to enjoy wine by personal reminiscing about wines and in this way guided readers through the maze of wine types and wine lore. more...


The Heartbreak Grape, A Journey in Search of the Perfect Pinot Noir  - Marq de Villiers
Harper Collins, 1993, Toronto, Canada
Review by David Farmer

Pinotphiles is the name given to consumers who are dedicated to the mysteries and flavour of pinot noir. No other grape variety has such a band of promoters and to satisfy their needs a dozen or so ‘pinot celebrations’ are held every few years in the old and newly emerging pinot regions. more...


The Romance of Wine  - H. Warner Allen
Ernest Benn Limited, London, 1931
Review by David Farmer

'When the Portuguese are really enjoying themselves, they sing and dance to a noise resembling that of a heavy bombardment, and in a festival in the mountains at Amarante I was completely deafened by the unceasing roar of about sixty sheepskin drums beaten furiously, broken by violent dynamite explosions.'

This is Warner Allen’s picture of the locals in the Douro region who enjoy letting off rockets with sticks of dynamite attached when celebrating. Any book that discovered a tradition like that has something interesting to say. more...


In Search of Wine, A tour of the Vineyards of France  - Charles Walter Berry
Constable and Company, 1935. Republished in 1987 by Sidgwick and Jackson
Review by David Farmer

In late 1934 Charles Walter Berry undertook an eight week tour through the vineyards of France and In Search of Wine is the record of what is considered a ‘famous’ journey. In the introduction to the 1987 reprint by Jancis Robinson, she notes that, ‘Walter made wine trade history by venturing into the cellars of those who supplied him,…in order to understand better the product he was selling and to survey, in unparalleled depth for the time, the French vignoble.’ more...


Ancient Wine, The Search for the Origins of Viniculture  - Patrick E. McGovern
Princeton University Press, 2003
Review by David Farmer

We do not know when humans first began to enjoy fermented wine beverages. Ancient Wine traces the origin of the deliberate making of alcohol back to the early Neolithic, about 7000 years ago. A seasonal or occasional drinking of alcoholic beverages probably goes back much further as many fruits collected in a container would ferment naturally. The current warm cycle of the ice age commenced about 10,000 years ago and this also marked a change, in a region of the Middle East, when humans turned from nomadic hunter gatherers to the first permanent settlements based around the cultivation of cereal crops. It is suggested that the earliest permanent settlements began in Eastern Turkey in the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. more...


In Praise of Wine  - Alec Waugh
1959, (Cassel)
Review by David Farmer

In Praise of Wine is a book of personal reminiscences about wine and follows the style of the educated amateurs who wrote before and immediately after the Second World War. This book though was published in 1959 and has crossed into an era in which wine books were beginning to contain detailed descriptions of wine regions and technical aspects of wine making, the forerunners of today’s large wine publishing industry. This in turn heralded the end of the amateur commentator. more...


Stay Me with Flagons  - Maurice Healy
Michael Joseph, 1949
Review by David Farmer

The English wine trade has given us many things, such as wine and food societies, a great depth of literature covering the descriptive and technical aspects of wine and wine regions, notably on French wine, a sophisticated wine auction system and more recently teaching schools such as the Masters of Wine. more...


The New France
A Complete Guide to Contemporary French Wine
 - Andrew Jefford
Mitchell Beazley 2002
Review by David Farmer

How strange to divide wine writers into a wine left or right. It will help you to enjoy the early chapters of this book if you have a soft left interpretation of the world wine industry, and enjoy railing against the globalisation of wine, the sameness of taste, the industrialisation of wine and a future driven by world wide brands. This book takes the proposition that the true way to make wine comes from those who bond with the ground, who work the vineyard night and day, break their backs, and by so doing achieve in almost a religious sense a bonding with the earth, the place and the wine produced. more...


You Heard It Through The Grapevine - Shattering the myths about the wine business  - Stuart Walton
Aurum Press, London, 2001
Review by David Farmer

There are a great many wine books written each year. The problem is that it is hard to come up with a new perspective to make a book stand out. The wine industry evolves slowly which means most books are derivative. In this case it would seem that the publishers asked for a book that reveals the hidden secrets of a business that some may see as being full of mystery, hence the sub title of this book. more...


The Classic Book on Cocktails
The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks
 - David Embury
the first edition was in America in 1948 and Faber and Faber published the first British edition in 1953
Review by David Farmer

Some books give you such pleasure that you always want them nearby. And in my adventures into drinks no book has impressed me as much or given me more pleasure than this masterpiece on the art of making cocktails.

There are dozens of books about making cocktails, rather like there are about food, but few are worth the cover price. None approach the quality of this classic book. more...


Terroir: The Role of Geology, Climate, and Culture in the Making of French Wines  - James Wilson
Mitchell Beazley 1998
Review by David Farmer

Any vineyard owner will tell you that certain areas of their vineyard make better tasting grapes than other areas. Why some areas of vineyards and vineyard districts deliver better grapes and hence better wine is the subject of terroir studies. The Europeans and particularly the French are very interested in this topic. They extend the meaning of the word which we can roughly say is the flavour effects that come from the vineyard location to include cultural ideas which unite man with the soil. more...


Penfolds-The Rewards of Patience  - Andrew Caillard M.W.
(Fifth Edition)
Review by David Farmer

In the simplest term this is a consumers guide to all the Penfolds red and white wines. The tasting notes cover wines made by Penfolds in the 1950's right through to the current releases. There are tasting notes for every wine, apart from the Rawsons Retreat wines, the Koonunga Hill whites and one or two others which I detect the winemakers wish they did not have to make under the Penfolds banner. Others wines such as the Penfolds Old Vine Semillon which were part of edition 4 have been dropped off. more...


Classification of Australian Wines  - Dan Murphy
Macmillan 1974
Review by David Farmer

I’m a bit of a collector of wine books and recently purchased a first edition signed by Dan Murphy and by the great Hunter vigneron Max Lake. It cost $20.00 from the Berkelouw bookstore on Oxford Street, Sydney, where I buy a lot of second-hand wine books. I first read this book in 1975. Back then it was seen as a bold attempt to classify Australian vineyards and wines in a hierarchical system similar to the French appellation classification. It was a very useful book. Thirty years on it acts as a timepiece and is worth reviewing to see how the wine industry has evolved. more...


Real Wine - The Rediscovery of Natural Winemaking  - Patrick Matthews
Mitchell Beazley 2000
Review by David Farmer

This is one of a number of wine books published over the last few years, mostly by English authors, which take the view that there is a correct way to make wine and this is only known and followed by a small number of dedicated winemakers. The core of the argument is that big company winemaking produces ‘industrial’ wines and these lack character, while true wine is made by the artisanal wine maker using tools and methods, often ancient, which reflect the unique character of the site. more...


Ten Company Histories and Biographies of Our Wine Pioneers  - *(see note for details)

Review by David Farmer

In the wine business 50 years is too short for reflection while one hundred years spans several generations and covers a wide variety of trading conditions. Companies that are still family owned and trading after 100 years are the rare survivors and it was at this point that most of them commissioned a company history. Many great contributors to the Australian wine history, and to single out one, Alexander Kelly's Tintara, did not survive for long and we know little about them. more...



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