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Regional Studies
Part 3 - Clues from Other Regions, New Zealand, Argentine and Australia
Friday, 30th May, 2014  - David Farmer

New Zealand provides contrast to the Australian Landscape.

The modern era of New Zealand wine commenced in the 1970s and I identify the start with the first Marlborough plantings in 1973. A large number of new regions have been developed since and remarkably a large number, if not all, make wines which are world class and include: Marlborough and Awatere Valley, Martinborough and Te Muna Road, Central Otago, Gimblett Gravels, Nelson, Wairarapa, Canterbury (Waipara) and likely Waiheke Island. There are others and there will be more.

For a study seeking the origin of wine flavours New Zealand is one of the keys. For such a small land surface to contain so many sites with proven and likely potential to produce wines the equal of or better than any being made across the globe indicates its importance. It also needs an explanation.

If the wines being made from New Zealand had turned out to be only interesting, such as those from the Murray Basin, my conclusions might have been different

Of all the worlds wine regions New Zealand's is the most isolated, a geological outlier in a deep blue ocean. This isolation though has set up the conditions for a unique wine experiment. Most vineyard regions are associated with a continental land mass with vineyard locations varying from the interior to the coastal fringes.

New Zealand allows us to see what happens to wine flavours if a small piece of land, isolated from the surrounding continental climate and weather influences, is moved to the middle of a vast ocean.

The Chard Farm vineyard lies adjacent to the Kawarau River in Central Otago. The soils of Chard Farm are very fine loess, a shiny, green micaceous colour and is unweathered. The rocks of the valley walls which are behind the vineyard are made of a similar or identical rock. At the Queenstown end of the vineyard are a series of loess dunes. This type of soil is far removed from that found for example in Australian vineyards being fresh and very young. In many ways it is not dissimilar to the mineral packing used for soil in hydroponic farming.

Marlborough is the quintessential New Zealand wine landscape; a wide flat valley, with the braided Wairau River, cutting through a series of stepped, stranded, older river terraces.

It is on these terraces which have two distinct ages; 14,000 years and younger and 14,000 years to 24,000 years that most of the vineyards are planted. I call them the younger and older terraces.

The Wairau River valley extends south west from Cloudy Bay for well over 75 kilometres narrowing steadily and follows an important fault line, the Alpine fault which cuts through much of the South Island. This is a very active fault that slides from left and right (termed a strike slip fault) and on average moves about 3-4 mm/year in sudden jolts.

The width of the Wairau Valley at Cloudy Bay is about 12 kilometres. From the ocean the vineyards extend up the valley for about 25 kilometres and for most of this distance are some 10 kilometres in width. Currently the Wairau River hugs the northern edge of the valley though the younger terrace north of the Wairau River is in places wide enough for vineyards.

This is a cutting through the older river terrace (24,000 years) near the Seresin winery on Bedford Road, Marlborough

This terrace is about four metres higher than the younger terrace. Pale sediment from half to one metre deep overlies cobble and pebble river wash which is poorly sorted with little if any bedding. The fine grained sediment may be river washed clays and silts and in places it shows a modest 'A' soil horizon. It may also be windblown sediment (loess) or some combination with river silts though my brief examination favoured fine river sediments.

For me this cutting sums up New Zealand and its viticulture. This exposure is in the upper reaches of the Wairau Valley, I had left the vines behind and was driving along the Waihopai River which drains into the Wairau River. The rock base is exposed as brittle, metamorphosed, sediments and these are unconformable overlain by older terrace sediments and fine pale river wash or possible wind-blown loess soils. This simple combination is repeated throughout the vineyard regions of New Zealand.

At Shepherds Ridge the vineyards are planted not on river terraces of various ages but on recent beach sands and marine gravels. This type of sedimentation likely underlies all of the vineyards on the Wairau River delta, which are east of the Wairau River loop near its outlet. These pebbly beds are a reworking of the sands and pebbles that flow into Cloudy Bay. Tides, storms and wave action sort the sediments as the beach deposits slowly advance into Cloudy Bay. Shepherds Ridge describes the vineyard as: "Free draining 'pea gravels' laid down 2000 years ago by the tidal action of the Pacific Ocean, form a strata 30 metres deep. The top soil gravels are bound together by a 300 mm layer of organic material."

This map shows the location of the Martinborough Terrace (14,000-24,000 year)

Martinborough sits on an elevated terrace that stands about five metres above the flood plain of two rivers, the Ruamahanga River and the much smaller Huangarua River that joins in just to the north of the town. Martinborough and surrounds are part of a much larger region known as the Wairarapa. As well as being relatively dry Martinborough is warmer than other parts of the Wairarapa.

The Martinborough vineyards are planted on an elevated, flat, alluvial river terrace which is about five kilometres by five kilometres in area. The Marinborough Terrace drops down four or five metres to a younger terrace which borders the Ruamahanga and the Huangarua rivers. From east of the town and circling anti clockwise to the north west this terrace drops away as a prominent but shallow escarpment a few metres in height to five or more metres before flattening to a lower and younger river terrace.

Some distance from the Martinborough Terrace are the Te Muna vineyards along Te Muna Road which are next to the Huangarau River. Most vineyards are planted on a terrace 14,000 to 24,000 years old; though this is a part of the Craggy Range vineyards on the younger terrace which is planted to white varieties.

The Hawkes Bay, Gimblett Gravels are near Hastings. In 1867 the Ngaruroro River flooded and as may happen during a large flood changed course. The stranded river arm is known as the Omahu Chanel. This is a pile of river cobbles about 30 metres deep. Coarser and finer sands fill gaps between the cobbles and there are occasional sandy lenses. The cobbles are overlain by up to 30cm of fine sands. This pile of cobbles does not retain water and in a country known for its greenness this area of land was considered barren and worthless.

A portion of this land was bought in 1997 by Terry Peabody of Craggy Range who upon seeing it is reported as saying\; "Holy crap, I've bought a desert." As the Association of Gimblett Growers say on their site\; "Without the water there would be no terroir expression as there would be no living vines!" With soils having an age of 150 years we almost need a new definition of what a soil can be.

[Note September 2013. The graphic of the old river channel is simply a guess for the sake of illustration. I have not mapped this region.]

Other Regions Provide Clues Murray Basin and Argentine

For the student of terroir the Murray Basin has a number of very important features:

1. This vast region is extra-ordinarily flat without physical barriers between the vineyard districts;

2. The soils have similar origins and are basically the same;

3. The vineyards are approximately at the same altitude, varying from 100 to 140 metres;

4. The region is removed from the influence of daily coastal, weather patterns,

5. The growing season is short, stable and normally uninterrupted by weather events;

6. The growing conditions between regions are very similar.

7. The diurnal variation across the region is similar;

8. The water for the vines is by drip irrigation.

The Murray Basin is a large experiment in answering what wine flavours can be expected from a large, flat inland basin of low altitude, removed from ocean weather influences with a warm to hot, short growing season. Since water is provided from drip down irrigation no soil or bedrock influences can be inferred.

As it turns out the wine flavours are surprisingly good and I rate them far higher than most other commentators. Indeed at one level the Murray Basin proves the astonishingly high quality which can be expected at one extreme of the flavour ripening profile. They provide a minimum grade point which all other wine regions can use as a reference. If the flavours of Murray Basin wines are the least consumers can expect we are indeed blessed.

[Note September 2013. I have almost finished an article on the Murray Basin which will expand in detail these points.]

The Andes gives the Argentinean wine regions a striking presence; yet this region has great similarities to the Murray Basin being a warm desert dry zone requiring irrigation. The obvious difference is the height of the vineyards, for example Mendoza the largest region is at 700 metres.

Indeed the many vineyards which sit in the shadow of the Andes are simply an elevated version of the Murray Basin and as such provide us with an experiment of what happens to wine flavours in a warm to hot climate at high elevation. And of course gives us further answers to how these flavours change as you move north or south from the central point of Mendoza.

This is the east facing wall of a trench in the A grade soils of Coonawarra at the De Gorgio Winery (formerly Rouge Homme)

This shows the un-layered uniformity of the terra-rosa soils which along the entire rise of Coonawarra show little variance. This uniformity is due to activity from worms and other soil dwellers constantly turning over the soils. If as well you consider that this soil did not entirely form in-situ but a high percentage, perhaps well over 50% is windblown then the uniformity of the soil is only to be expected.

A question left unanswered in the Coonawarra section was the significance of the 'drop-off' of the Coonawarra rise on the western edge as shown through the Drain C cutting. The slope down to the black soil plains is about half a metre and this is likely due to wind removal of sediments on the plain. If a significant part of the Coonawarra soils have been wind transported they obviously will be well mixed and any differences in flavour found in wines along the Coonawarra rise is likely due to other influences.

Summary

In parts two and three a summary has been made of vineyard regions in a wide variety of landscape settings. Since the interest is on the ground and below ground influence, comparisons were made of soils of complexity and age with soils of youth.

The soils of Coonawarra are striking in their appearance and because this region is noted for great wine it seems possible there is a link between the two. What though are we to make of the uniform character of the red soil and new research suggesting that much of it might windblown?

The complex and variable soils of the Barossa fit readily into the narrative of terroir yet I found no obvious linkage but such is the rapid change of soil character perhaps it will always be elusive.

New Zealand poses a different problem with the soils at Chard Farm being un-weathered, fresh, rock flour; while at Shepherds Ridge we see an expression of river debris being re-washed by the ocean, before being re-deposited. These and other New Zealand vineyards should make us pause and re-think the meaning of soils and their role in terroir

Another striking example is the Gimblett Gravels which again highlight the dilemma posed by New Zealand. Here the youth of the soil or really 'non soils' has not stopped the wines displaying immense complexity and diversity. That the wines from such a region are world class defies conventional understanding of the role of soils and bedrock.

While all the soils studied provide the same function, which is to anchor the vine, we must ask, can soils of youth be seen as no different to those of great age? At least considering this should make us pause, as if a deep, rich, old complex soil seems to have no more influence on taste than a freshly deposited sandy, rubble layer, then possibly our thinking about terroir needs to shift.

The idea was also promoted that each wine region is best seen as an experiment in how grape flavours develop, with these differences, however large or small providing the clues as to what is important.

A striking example is to compare the Murray Basin with large parts of Argentine. Both regions are an experiment about irrigation and because of this have more similarities than is commonly seen. As well both regions suggest the role of soil may be more limited than realised and soil may act as little more than a container for water.

The important difference between the two is not then in the soils, but in the height above mean sea level which is over 500-600 metres.

This leads to perplexing thoughts as to what role soils, bedrock and geology might play in wine flavours and this is examined in section four.



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 2 - Detailed Mapping in Australia Offers Clues on Soils, Rocks and Taste

Final Thoughts: A 40 year Adventure in Geology, Soils, Landscapes and Wine.
Part 1. Understanding the Topic, Terroir and the French Experience.

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

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

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