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General Wine
An Update on the Unfathomable Idea - Terroir
Wednesday, 3rd October, 2007  - David Farmer

The idea that the site, the location and aspect, of the vineyard and its exposure to the elements of climate will affect the taste of the grapes and hence the wine seems so obvious as to be hardly worth debating. Any owner of a vineyard whether it is flat as a tack in the Australian Riverland or clinging to a slope in a cool climate region will tell you that part of the vineyard always produces superior fruit to the rest. The famous region of Burgundy has known for five hundred years that parts of its golden slope produce better wines than the rest.

From these observations many wine commentators, over the last 25 years, have embraced the idea that a wine should express its site, in a manner that now approaches a religious fervour. It makes sense that a vineyard farmed well will produce better grapes and this should lead to better wine. But is there any more to it than this?

Terroir is the word the French use when discussing this vineyard sense of place and they are very interested in understanding how the site contributes to the taste. You will find many references and some articles about this topic on Glug for example Geology Cannot be Found In Wine. Australian winemakers are very aware of this concept but a great deal of our industry, particularly the wines made by big companies is built around the art of multi-district blending.

Currently many wine writers refer to terroir and some proclaim that they can tell when a wine is expressing terroir. Another French term typicité is also used, meaning the wine is true to the style expected from the area. Both are interesting terms though are the concepts so vague that conclusions reached about the origin of flavours in one region mean little when explaining what controls flavours in another region.

Or can conclusions from closely studied regions be built into a science the results of which can be transferred to other areas and deliver predictable tastes. An example is the search in the new world for limestone’s and associated soils an idea taken from France where some believe this combination is favourable for high quality wine.

Perhaps a future test of whether terroir has much meaning is-can conclusions about the taste of an established region be transferred to a location where no vines are grown with predictable results.

Here is a roundup of where the debate seems to be at the moment.

Global or Local

Most grapes are grown in a global climatic band between the isotherms (an isotherm is created by joining points of equal temperature) of 20º centigrade and 10º centigrade. There are numerous maps that divide the globe into more detailed climatic zones and refer to an atlas for further detail.

As a rough rule the wine trade divides wines into warm or cool climate but a moment’s reflection is enough to realise there are an infinite number of gradations from warmest to coolest.

From an isotherm map an obvious generalisation can be made. Terroir exists on a continental scale, thus Australian wines on average fall into the warm climate zone while Northern Europe is a cool climate zone. It follows that a very large influence on the final taste of a wine will be from the broad climatic patterns and the longitude.

Looking at the two hemispheres and the unequal distribution of landmass to oceans you might also argue this will affect weather patterns in a way that would show up in wine tastes. That it does not seems to suggest that the infinite variety of micro climates masks these broad hemisphere differences, assuming they exist.

The vineyards of the high plains of Argentine to the coastal areas of Chile to the warmth of the Barossa are so diverse that the study of terroir tends to be thought about at a local or regional level. And perhaps terroir is only meaningful in a discussion of tastes at a local level.

Where Are the Taste Markers

If you try to list a set of criterion that can be applied to see if wines are refecting terroir the emphasis has to be on a local level. This test might ask questions such as:

1. Do the wines come from a local area with the same hill facing and climate and soil type?

2. Are the wines made from the same variety?

3. Are the wines made in a similar manner with the same yeast and aged in similar wood?

4. Were the grapes picked to the same degree of ripeness?

5. Do the wines show taste markers that are identifiable and consistent year after year?

6. To say that a wine expresses its terroir does it mean that some taste markers can be identified year after year from the same vineyard?

The problem is there is little evidence that anyone in a masked tasting can pick markers that identify the district of origin let alone the vineyard. Indeed it is very difficult to pick the country of origin and in many cases the grape variety let alone fine tuning this down to the local and vineyard level and it may be beyond the power of the human palate to do so.

Help may be at hand as the August, 2007 Australian Wine Research Institute ‘Technical Review’ suggests that a variety of spectroscopic methods may be able to tell the country of origin of wines. Its early days but as scientists home in on the chemical make up of wine they may well throw light on specific differences that are unique to small areas. Then the hunt would be to find what the local difference is that causes or enhances this uniqueness.

Is It All About Local Knowledge

Professionals do quite well in deciding which wines are the best in masked tastings but this of course is not the same thing as identifying a terroir component. They make educated guesses, for example because a cabernet is of very high quality they may infer it comes from Bordeaux as many great cabernets are known to come from this region. This tasting difficulty cannot invalidate the notion of terroir though it does suggest that looking for the influence of terroir is only practical when all the wines are similar and from the one region. This in turn makes the concept less significant to the consumer.

A grower-winemaker who has spent decades knowing his land notes the differences between the parcels of grapes arriving at the winery and the distinctive aromas of the individual ferments and can follow this through into the bottle. The rest of us though will never have this intimacy though in masked tastings with comparable wines the owners in most cases are not able to pick their own wines. Perhaps grower-winemakers who devote their lives to a classic region will on average identify the district more often than generalists but this also might suggest that the skill is of little practical use to the rest of us and says more about tasting skill than identifying the taste markers of terroir.

The ‘type’ region to study terroir is of course Burgundy and it is plain that some small areas make better wines. It may be hard to spot the taste markers but a general evaluation over many generations says that the wines from this ‘commune’ are on average better than wines from that ‘commune’ or at least display a difference.

The evidence from Burgundy and of course much other knowledge tells us that all vineyard regions will show differences on a local scale, some more than others but differences none the less. Even so, Burgundy despite its long period of study does not help us much in saying what may be terroir and what is just normal fruit tastes in younger regions.

Globalisation Leads to Similar Tastes

One of the unusual aspects of the globilisation of wine, and one that was probably unexpected is that the same variety treated in a similar manner anywhere across the globe develops similar tastes. Difference such as some wines tasting marginally better probably does not reflect terroir but better winemaking. The strong regional taste markers that perhaps were hoped for are not apparent. Some say that new world regions have not learnt to express the terroir though this thought looks quite hollow.

This brings us back to earlier comments that the major taste is built from major weather influences. To express beyond this broad taste profile to the individual vineyard ‘flavour’ is seen by many wine writers as the main job of the grower and winemaker. Jointly they must enhance the individual expression of the site.

Big Terroir, Split Terroir or Small Terroir

Consider again the question how small or big the vineyard area can be to express terroir? Returning to the type site of Burgundy there are many small vineyards that are classified on wine quality and as such reflect grades of site and thus terroir. In bigger sites like Clos de Vougeot there is great variability in the resulting wines and it is not easy to see what part of the taste can be said to be due to the terroir.

Further problems come when you examine areas like Bordeaux where the wine that can go into the First Growths can be from vineyards that are not contiguous and this also applies to many other Growths. Another example is the recent decision of the owners of Ch. Haut Brion to discontinue a vineyard wine that dates back to the Middle Ages, La Tour Haut Brion, with the possibility that when the vines are older the fruit may be used in La Mission Haut Brion. This may be good business but is not about preserving a unique site and thus terroir.

Think about Champagne which is a blended product from vineyards spread across the region and while restricted in size this intra-district blending is hardly true to the ideals of terroir.

So the size an area can be to say it expresses terroir is a major uncertainty and adds to the vagueness of the concept.

Geology and Soil

As for the role of geology in terroir, this was discussed with The simple conclusion is you cannot taste geology in wines.

The influence of soil is not understood except for one aspect which is how water is delivered to the vine in which case all manner of variables such as the soil texture, soil depth and water holding capacity will be important. Hard compacted soils for example are not liked by vines indeed they make plant growth difficult. As a prelude to planting many vineyard sites are ripped and while this is done to promote vine health it also takes away from the concept another slice of its meaning. A good example of this is the ripping of the unique soils of Coonawarra to bust up the hard calcrete layer which lies just below the surface. This layer restricts vine vigour and thus yield and it is hard not to believe that this disruption alters the ‘terroir’, or even that the ‘terroir’ is being ‘dug-up’.

As well you have to wonder about the meaning of terroir in the many old world vineyards where terracing of vines is an important feature. This is a substantial remodelling of the original terroir.

The landscape and the gradient are important to the vine and it’s likely the slope influences how the vine takes up water. This does not mean a terroir with a slope is better than a flat vineyard it just means the latter will need good drainage. This area highlights that it is a mistake to take an old world vineyard model for quality to new areas. Indeed it would seem only trial and error will determine the best result in new areas.

Many commentators closely associate soil with terroir yet there are very few examples where there is a strong enough correlation, above other influences, to relate wine flavours and soil types. Two are worth mentioning. The better sherries of Jerez have long been associated with one type of soil, the albariza. The base wines made from palomino are bland but subtle soil changes display themselves in the final mature sherry. In Australia the distinctive terra rossa soil that makes up a small part of Coonawarra is associated with higher quality wines and there is some evidence that this is associated with a smaller berry size. Please note that while this passage emphasises soils is does not infer that flavour comes from the soil type and it may be that the soil simply acts as a proxy for water uptake.

Soils are generally young in age being constantly eroded and renewed and interesting comparisons can be made between the soils of New Zealand and Australia. New Zealand has recently emerged from a period of extensive glaciation and as such the most recent landscapes that are planted with vines, the lowest, flat river terraces are less than 10,000 years old. The vines are planted in recent river alluvium which was produced by glaciers and is little more than rock flour mixed with gravel, pebbles and cobbles. Hardly soil at all, if that is taken to mean some chemical degradation of the rocks from which it is derived, and one step removed from hydroponic farming. The difference with Australian soils could hardly be greater with many of these being the end result of millions of years of chemical alteration of rocks.

If the soil imparted a taste to wine here is as good a test as you could devise. Yet allowing for obvious climatic differences there is no noticeable character that one country has and the other doesn’t.

Concluding Thoughts

Terroir and typicite are recent terms, the current usage being perhaps 20-25 years old, and have the strength that they focus on the site or location as the defining feature of the wine. This has its uses but the most ardent supporter would not suggest that all great wines have this sense of place while the others are ‘brands of emptiness’ to quote a wine writer. Many great wines, such as those made in Australia can be blended from many areas and where the sense of place stops and blending begins leaves champagne in a very awkward spot.

If terroir can finally be measured and rapid advances in analysing the minute amounts of chemicals that make up wine may well throw up surprises it would seem the results are not transferable from one continent to another leading to the pleasurable idea that all terroirs are indeed unique. Those who have spent a lifetime working in a small region may well see features denied to the rest of us but at least we have the whole sweep of the world’s wines in front of us and that seems infinitely more fun.

As for being able to recognise when a wine is expressing terroir this seems more hope than reality and it seems more and more that terroir simply means making the best wine possible from that site. After all that is what humans have been learning to do for centuries.

Perhaps the last word should be this from the Beaune négociant, Louis Latour as reported in the August 2000 edition of Bourgogne Aujourd'hui.

"What definition do you give for terroir?

"None! It’s an idea that doesn’t move me much. A great wine is born from a set of conditions amongst which is the soil. We must simplify! The essential thing is to say to the client that this wine comes from this place. Full stop! This is already the case when we speak of ‘wine from Beaune.’ And then when you try to analyse in detail the diverse elements of terroir you find yourself with such uncertainties that it's better not to stick your nose in too far. That said, terroir is an excellent marketing tool, that’s why everyone uses it." *

* This translation is by Warren Moran, Professor of Geography, University of New Zealand and is from Terroir-The Human Factor.

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