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Regional Studies
Part 1 - Understanding the Topic, Terroir and the French Experience
Thursday, 13th February, 2014  - David Farmer

I have wanted to give a talk like this for some time but only recently have my views matured enough to present a complete narrative.

The best way to explain my conclusions is to proceed chronologically and build up the story in the same way I experienced it.

By the mid 1990s I had a long list of topics about the wine trade which both puzzled and interested me. These varied from questions such as what is the meaning of a tasting note or a wine score, what elements of a label help consumers buy wine, to understanding the history of wine in Australia.

Though looming over these was the need to comprehend what made wines taste the way they do; and why some wines taste better than others. While seeking these answers might in turn assist in explaining others such as why the French experience of some varieties being best in some regions and not in others was widely ignored in Australia.

By the 1970s the French were using the term terroir to explain the concept of why wines taste the way they do. While definitions of this term vary they are built around the idea that a wine displays the 'sense of place' of where the grapes are grown.

In the making of wine there are two obvious factors involved in the final taste, the climate and weather which ripens the fruit and the role of the winemaker. To also capture the 'sense of place' it was further argued that the role of the landscape, the soil and even the underlying bedrock was important.

Prior to 1940 there are few references to the role of soil though perhaps this was taken as a given, though the word terroir was occasionally used in reference to taste, as 'gout de terroir', or a taste of the soil. By the 1950s wine books were starting to take a more objective approach to the writing about wine and while they do not mention the term terroir, a few included primitive maps of vineyard regions indicating the concept of place was developing.

Hugh Johnson's masterful work The World Atlas of Wine was published in 1971 and has had far reaching implications. It brought together maps of the old vineyards regions of Europe in an easily understood way that showed in a striking fashion the vineyards patterns in regions such as Burgundy, Bordeaux, Germany and Alsace.

Of these the most famous map is that of the vineyards of Burgundy. Similar maps are found hanging in the homes of wine enthusiasts, on the walls of restaurants, and the offices of wine merchants, and they depict the refined system of the grading of vineyards based on wine quality which have evolved over centuries. Incidentally this book does not refer to terroir.

When I started in the wine business in 1975 no one was in any doubt that France made the best wines. They controlled the sale of fine wine and set the benchmark for comparing wines and they still do today.

I think it was the influence of maps that highlighted in a most dramatic manner the spatial relationships of vineyards and wine regions to each other which assisted in the development of the term 'terroir'.

The French of course loved their own term and took it to mean that only they had the correct terroirs which could produce great classical wines. And they rightly pointed to Burgundy and Bordeaux as proof.

When I used to teach wine courses I would remark that God only made a dozen or so great wine regions and when he threw them to earth they unfortunately clumped together and most landed in France. The French believe this.

A Look at Burgundy

Burgundy - a patchwork of vineyards which extend for a length of about 55 kilometres. Depicted is detail of a small part of the Cote du Nuits.

The importance of this map in how it has shaped thinking cannot be overstated. It is this map that has influenced the debate about wine flavours and is the archetypical showpiece which demonstrates the reality of 'terroir'.

Geologically Burgundy is quite simple with the vineyards being planted on scree slopes which are derived from Jurassic limestone's of the Paris Basin.

For the student of landscapes and wine the Burgundy map tells them a great deal.

A. In a landmass the size of France only Burgundy has been identified as making great wines from pinot noir and few make great chardonnay. The conclusions being that fine wine areas will be rare. This in turn suggests that globally this will also apply. It is from these observations that I think the idea grew that these unique tiny areas will reflect their sense of place in wine flavours in a unique way.

B. While it is accepted that climate and weather are the main factors for flavour development in the vineyard, and are expressed locally at the meso-climate and micro-climate level, this intricate vineyard pattern suggests other factors are at play. The only other possible cause is a combination of soils and the underlying bedrock.

C. This map highlights the pattern of viticulture that has developed from as far back as the 10th Century. It shows that with enough time a region may be sub-divided into vineyards based on wine quality and these sub-divisions can reduce vineyards down to units of an acre or less. Does this then imply that beneath the highest rated Grand and Premier Crus vineyards there is a soil and bedrock quality that is different to the adjoining lower graded vineyards?

D. Burgundy also shows that over time grape varieties will reveal their best characters in some locations over others and thus small to larger areas will specialise in growing one variety over another. This is expressed of course in pinot noir plantings north of Beaune and chardonnay south of Beaune.

F. It is the map of Burgundy and what it implies which has controlled thoughts about how other wine regions across the globe will evolve and this has had a profound impact on how new world winemakers both searched for vineyard land and approached the management of vineyards.

The Bordeaux Influence

The best part of Bordeaux with its famous communes extends NW-SE for about 110 kilometres.

Bordeaux is the great hub of the world wine trade though in my view this region is less convincing than Burgundy in connecting the importance of soils and geology with wine flavours.

Partly this is because the landscape and geology is far more variable with distinct differences between the famous regions.

The left bank is the term used for vineyards south-west of the Gironde River and the vineyards are planted on poorly sorted, glacial derived river terraces which have been studied in great detail, with the better vineyards planted on terraces (Gunz Terraces) of 700,000 to 1,000,000 years age.

The best vineyards north and north east of the Gironde River are those of St Emilion, which are on Tertiary limestones, while the better vineyards of Pomerol are on Gunz Terraces, though some vineyards such as Chateau Petrus are on underlying Tertiary rocks.

The pattern of vineyards reinforces the example of Burgundy and while they have been cultivated for a shorter time a similar quality grading has evolved, and this confirms that in any large region a few select sites will be identified as superior.

Also reinforced is the idea that vineyards regions end up growing only a small number of varieties best suited to that region and for Bordeaux this is Cabernet and several related red varieties and for whites, sauvignon blanc and semillon, though the range in Bordeaux does encompass more varieties than Burgundy

And again it is implied that beneath the best vineyards, for example the 1st Growths there is a soil-bedrock difference which leads to higher wine quality.

As suggested the variability of geology means that it is harder to understand the soil-bedrock link though there is a reasonable connection on the left bank where the best growths coincide with a rise in the Gunz Terraces. An oddity is Chateau Petrus in Pomerol where the vineyards are on Tertiary bedrock which is exposed through the surrounding river terraces.

The vineyards of Burgundy are so tightly packed and the quality grading so defined that the case for a below ground influence seems much stronger than for Bordeaux. The sizes of vineyards in Bordeaux are also much larger and that some highly rated Chateau take grapes from vineyards that are not co-joined weakens the terroir argument.

Summarizing the Lessons from France

Over many centuries small regions have been identified where the wine flavours are such that they command a premium price because the wine flavours are considered to be better.

These small regions may be further sub-divided based on wine quality and these higher graded areas are quite small.

As well each of these regions becomes associated with a suite of favourable varieties often numbering two or three.

The intricate sub-divisions and quality grading may be influenced by soils types, bedrock and underlying geology.

[September 2013 note: Refer to Johnsons Wine Atlas for other areas which illustrate these concepts such as Alsace and Moselle. As well the thoughts about how the term terroir evolved are based on extensive reading of English texts and I have no knowledge of how for example the term was used in French or German wine texts.]

Final Thoughts: A 40 year Adventure in Geology, Soils, Landscapes and Wine.
Part 5 - The New Wine Regions of Australia

Final Thoughts: A 40 year Adventure in Geology, Soils, Landscapes and Wine.
Part 4 - Terroir Makes Little Sense and is a Term Best Left to the French

Final Thoughts: A 40 year Adventure in Geology, Soils, Landscapes and Wine.
Part 3 - Clues from Other Regions, New Zealand, Argentine and Australia

Final Thoughts: A 40 year Adventure in Geology, Soils, Landscapes and Wine.
Part 2 - Detailed Mapping in Australia Offers Clues on Soils, Rocks and Taste

Introduction: Wine Flavours, Climate, Weather, Soils and Geology

Coming Soon - Part 5 - The New Wine Regions of Australia.

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