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Regional Studies
Part 4 - Terroir Makes Little Sense and is a Term Best Left to the French
Tuesday, 3rd June, 2014  - David Farmer

I began by stating that three components build the flavours of a wine. The first component, climate and weather, as well as the second, vineyard and winery practices, are proven to do so. The exact role of the third; soils, bedrock and geology has been the topic of these articles.

The term terroir, as it is commonly used, connects the location of the vineyard with the taste of the wine and as noted in part 1 the name implies an association of taste with the soils and bedrock.

The long survey seeking a connection of wine tastes with soils, bedrock and geology was covered in parts 2 and 3 and further detail of the regions mentioned can be found in the numerous articles on Glug.

When I began this study I was not sure what I would find. At the simplest level I imagined some physical change in the soils or bedrock that was linked to a change in taste. I thought this unlikely as many studies preceded this one and they had not reported such a connection. I thus continued on the basis of studying as many regions as possible and seeing if a more subtle link would appear.

What this link might be I did not know but I had faith that detailed observations of many regions would reveal a pattern and if this could not be found then I had to change my opinion of the role of soils, bedrock and geology.

By the mid 2000s my doubts had grown about discovering such a link and the type of observations which puzzled me were discussed in the summary to part 3.

Each of the regions studied threw up a separate challenge.

1. Coonawarra and its great red wines seem to correlate closely with the red soils. Some of the best vineyards are associated with the higher part of the Coonawarra rise and the brightest red soils. A feature of these soils is their remarkably uniformity while more recent research suggests these soils may include a high percentage of wind-blown particles.

Winemakers note differences in the wines made along the Coonawarra rise and often relate these to changes in the soil when I found there are no significant changes along the north-south axis while a simple colour gradation occurs across the east-west axis. Wind-blown particles would of course add to a uniform mixing. It is also apparent that very good wines are made from vineyards to the east and west of the Coonawarra rise.

I returned numerous times to the Coonawarra as there are many unanswered questions but the main objective of connecting a Coonawarra taste to the unusual soils eluded me.

It is worth recording that previous research has indicted that the grape berry size is smaller on the red soils

2. The south-east corner of South Australia is called the Limestone Coast though identical rocks and the same landscape extend into western Victoria.

The Limestone Coast covers a very large area and includes two important wine regions in Padthaway and Mount Benson-Robe. There are numerous other vineyard locations such as Bordertown, a linear strip south of Padthaway to south of Naracoorte, north of Coonawarra, far south around Mount Gambier, as well as westwards at Lucindale and elsewhere.

There are also extensive vineyards at Wrattonbully, which are planted on a limestone plateau though this has a different age and origin to the Limestone Coast.

Over many years this entire region was studied in detail.

I found the geological setting of Coonawarra had not been duplicated and the other Limestone Coast vineyards are situated on a different geological setting often being on limestone dunes. The vineyard soils west of Coonawarra vary from pale, limey colours, to pale, creamy browns and are thinner than those at Coonawarra and of course overlie younger rocks to the west of Coonawarra.

There are patches of red soils of a similar hue to those of Coonawarra though these are uncommon. No doubt all the Limestone Coast soils have a wind-blown component.

Deep red soils of the Coonawarra type are found on the limestone plateau of Wrattonbully and at Padthaway and are particularly extensive just west of Dartmoor though at the latter location no vineyards have been planted.

From these locations is not possible to say whether the wines are as good as or lesser than those of Coonawarra though there is no reason from this study to expect them to be anything but the equal of Coonawarra.

In summary the Limestone Coast study built on the Coonawarra study and was an attempt to understand how simple soils, progressively getting younger towards the coast, and which had formed on underlying, un-compacted sediments of similar composition, could relate to wine flavours.

3. The Barossa Valley was a different challenge as the source rocks are variable and old while the landscape has been evolving for tens of millions of years leading to variable and complex soils of different ages.

While the beginnings of the Barossa Valley are roughly dated at 35 million years the weathering of the surrounding rocks had been going on for much longer. In many locations in the western hills surrounding the Barossa Valley a very deep weathering zone, tens of metres thick, exists between the fresh rock and the surface soils.

In this weathered zone a breakdown of the original rock minerals, means some elements are concentrated and some removed, and this has led to the creation of new secondary minerals such as clays. As well the elements of iron, silica and calcium have formed new rock layers of ferricrete-laterite, silicrete and calcrete, a common occurrence across the old denuded surfaces of Australia.

The Barossa Valley is a flat, shallow basin within the Mount Lofty ranges and has filled with fine soil particles washed in from the surrounding ranges. Thus all of the sediments within the valley can be seen as soil.

I was interested to see whether the recombination of elements into secondary minerals, which make up a fair percentage of the soil particles would show up in wine flavours; the soils having a stage of maturity far more advanced than the immature soils of the Limestone Coast.

I thought it unlikely that I would find such a link as if such an obvious connection could be made it would long since have been reported. This though was my goal in the study of the Barossa Valley.

4. While mapping the Barossa Valley I extended my observations to most of the vineyards areas on the Mount Lofty Ranges such as the Clare Valley, Adelaide Hills, and McLaren Vale; while conducting more detailed studies at Langhorne Creek and the Eden Valley.

The Mount Lofty Ranges show successive periods of uplift which means the deep, weathered zone underlying the soils has been regularly eroded. These weathered particles and of course the soils have been washed into gullies, and then across wide areas like the Adelaide Plains, McLaren Vale, Langhorne Creek and the Barossa Valley.

Because of the regular removal of the weathered zone many vineyards in the Mount Lofty Ranges are planted in very thin soil. This can be observed in the Eden Valley along the slopes of Flaxmans Valley and at key sites such as Steingarten, Heggies Vineyard and Pewsey Vale. At these locations soils are often only a few centimetres deep. How much these thin and impoverished soils affect wine quality I will discuss in a future article.

A notable feature of the Mount Lofty Ranges are the numerous patches of recent windblown sand. Indeed I suspect that a high percentage of the soils on the steeper slopes are windblown in origin.

This regional study did not alter my thinking but was part of the process of gathering information. It did though bring into focus that soils in a warm to hot land while having the same role as soils in a wet land, were not much use at all when the water dried up. Admittedly this is an obvious point but one that is overlooked if your studies have been restricted to European vineyards.

By this time the thought began to mature that it was not the myriad of soils types that influenced flavour but an all together far simpler idea involving access to water.

5. Wherever I travelled I would examine soils and rocks and observations were also made in the Hunter Valley, Margaret River, and along the Great Southern of Western Australia.

I made many visits to the Hunter Valley and spent long periods examining the soils along the slopes of the Brokenback Ranges while comparing these with what I believe are red volcanic derived soils at Lakes Folly and further up the hill on the McWilliams vineyards of Rosehill.

I was particularly fascinated with the soils associated with the laterite plains of Western Australia and particularly the favourable situation created when the plains are broken and eroded and valleys are filled with deep transported soils. This situation occurs all along the plain between Frankland River and Mount Barker.

Quite complex soils are found in Margret River and I spent a fruitful day mapping the soils at Woodlands Willyabrup (October 2011), a vineyard which contrasts nicely with the nearby setting of Vasse Felix. I chose Woodlands as it produces great wines and I wanted to relate the vineyard setting back to those vineyards growing in the more common pebbly iron lateritic soils.

Of particular note are the large sheets of recent windblown sands which have spread across the Margaret River landscape confirming the strong influence this method of soil growth and dispersal has had across the vineyard regions which are close to the southern coastline.

It was common for winemakers in all of these regions to explain to me that differences in wines were due to different soils. Where they saw soil diversity I often saw uniformity.

6. The study of numerous regions in Australia had left me at a stalemate. It was apparent that vines would grow anywhere with an assured water supply. The soils could be skeletal or deep but as long as the vine could fruit, reasonable wine could be made. What the degrees of difference between soils meant to wine quality and flavours I still did not know. A clue seemed to be missing.

For a long time I had been enthralled by the wines of New Zealand and knowing a small amount about the recent landscape history I thought this countries strikingly difference to Australia might offer a clue.

I was also very interested in the global setting of New Zealand as it is a small piece of land surrounded by a vast ocean. Because of this, I believe that of all the world's wine regions New Zealand is the most unique. Also the land mass is just big enough to add some continental impact to wine flavours while conveniently straddling a favourable latitude for premium wines.

I spent two weeks in selected wine regions examining the soils and bedrock. This study with the vast background of knowledge I had accumulated provided the clues I needed.

The multiple glaciations of the recent period of geological history and the huge stress the country is under; leading to faulting, uplift, and rapid erosion has created a landscape that is a total contrast to Australia. Because of this the soils of New Zealand are very young, being actively removed and replaced.

I quickly came to the conclusion that the vineyards were a vast experiment close to hydroponic farming, with the role of the soil or in some cases pebble beds, being little more than providing support to keep the vine up-right. In some instances the composition of the soils was not dissimilar to that used as a substrate in hydroponic farming.

A greater contrast with the soils of Australia would be hard to imagine. On the one hand I was studying soils made from fine particles of fresh rock while on the other hand the soils were composed of secondary minerals formed from the denaturing of fresh rock.

The Gimbletts Gravels and the coastal dune vineyards of Marlborough are planted in substrate of such youthful age and variable texture that whether this should be referred to as soil is debatable.

Yet the wines of New Zealand are a revelation and the only explanation is that any flavour that could be traced back to the soil was minimal. As long as the basic suite of elements was made available for the vine to grow and water was available at times as required any other impact of the soil would be zero.

7. Thoughts of New Zealand were in my mind as I contemplated the significance of the Murray Basin. It finally dawned upon me that the Murray Basin was a different but related experiment. The vines were planted in soils of uniform grade and great depth in a semi-desert and their role was simply to provide support while water was dripped from above.

Across the Murray Basin and many other regions the vine grows in an artificial environment and it comes as no surprise that it is the retention of water which is the key role of soils. The Murray Basin produces abundant crops in a short growing season and the resulting wine is of surprisingly high quality. The soils show minor differences across this vast area but this is of little consequence though no doubt some soils retain water for longer.

With that said the wines of the Murray Basin are of high quality and produce a standard grade which those who profess to make better wines dare not slip below.


There are striking differences between the soils of the Barossa, Coonawarra, the great south-east of South Australia and other parts of Australia. I have learnt to read the many vineyard landscapes and understand how they are crafted from old rocks and how the soils are related to these rocks.

From this I concluded that vines can grow anywhere as long as water is available and the view grew that there was no connection of rocks and soils with wine flavours.

It was the New Zealand study which exposed the fragile nature of expecting any such relationship. To explain vineyards on recent coastal dunes or river terraces which in geological terms had formed a few moments ago seemed to me to stretch the idea to far.

The only way I could resolve all of the contradictions was to change my thoughts about any role that soil might have. With the exception set out below the only logical conclusion is that soil, bedrock and geology are neutral in the development of wine flavours.

This means that soils are no more than a blotting paper for holding water. Soils of course must provide the basic range of elements needed by the vine though these can also be added when they are deficient.

In turn this conclusion has implications for use of the term terroir which implies, or did in its initial usage, a connection with the ground and thus the importance of the soil. When this connection is altered or disproven, the use of terroir as an explanation to do with wine becomes meaningless.

The widespread use of terroir has allowed it become whatever each author want it to be but currently it is perhaps used to mean quality. It has always seemed to me that if the term ever had any use it could only mean that any vine growing anywhere expressed terroir, suggesting it has no definable boundary.

The recent use of terroir by the French has morphed into something far more significant than the narrow confine as debated here. Terroir is cultural term which connects the food or wine found in a market or served in a restaurant with the people who work the land.

It is a deeply passionate term to express a way of life that must be protected at all costs and currently has a powerful influence in for example some Parisian restaurants which wish to link their cooking back to a more wholesome and pure way of farming.

A recent article in the New York Times, Vive le Terroir, Steven Erlanger, August 31st, 2013, sums up the current usage;

"The preservation of terroir is finally a kind of unwritten conspiracy between the farmers and the wealthy, as well as the bourgeois bohemians of the big cities, who will pay more for quality, for freshness, for artisanal craft and for that undefinable authenticity that is the essence of terroir".

Thus terroir term is best left to the French as only they really understand how it should be used.

I now look back on the many years of study of landscapes and soils and wonder why I ever thought soils might have a more complex role. I still find soils fascinating and strange and I think about the complex ways they have been created and accumulated; a particle held in-place by plant matter, stopped for only a moment, before continuing on the journey to again become a rock as the geological cycle repeats and repeats.

The study of terroir and the role of soils, bedrock and geology set off a profound change in my thinking about wine and flavours and this is discussed in part 5.

[Note October 2013. I will discuss soils in another article though a few comments at this point may help as I do not argue that soils have no impact on wine quality.

In the warmer regions of Australia I have noted that the best vineyards are often on small pockets of deeper soils. If the vine struggles through the hot Australian summer the fruit will be affected. Supplementing the water supply is necessary but the timing is critical and if too late fruit quality will have altered.

Conversely in many of the worlds vineyard regions the climate and soils are such that sufficient water and nutrients are available even through the hottest period. In these regions other reasons will be responsible for variable wine quality.]

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 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

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

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The Landscape and Vineyards of the Murray Basin - Appendix 1

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Wine Flavours, Climate, Weather, Soils and Geology

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Terroir Goes Higher and Higher

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The Vines of the NSW South Coast

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Remarks on the Geology and Wines of McLaren Vale

Monday, 6th February, 2012

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The Landscape and Terroir of Eden Valley

Thursday, 29th September, 2011

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A Comment on the Red Soils of Heathcote

Sunday, 1st May, 2011

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The Soils of the Barossa Valley

Wednesday, 22nd December, 2010

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How Does Soil and Rocks Influence the Taste of Wine?

Wednesday, 19th May, 2010

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Discussions about Soil, Rocks and Wine with Max Marriott

Monday, 27th July, 2009

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In the Footsteps of Colonel Light

Wednesday, 10th June, 2009

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An Expression of Unusual New Zealand Terroir

Wednesday, 1st April, 2009

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On One Hand Terroir Gets Bigger - On the Other it's Taken Away

Saturday, 6th September, 2008

The concept of 'terroir' or a sense of place that it is said may be reflected in the taste of a wine is now embedded in the psyche of French wine makers and many disciples world-wide. It was not always so as there is little mention of this concept until the 1970's though it can be argued that it encapsulates the idea of single vineyards as represented for example by the 1855 Bordeaux left bank grading. more...

Specific Site or Blending?

Sunday, 22nd June, 2008

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Buying Wines That Have a Sense of Place

Friday, 11th April, 2008

Currently a number of wine writers are emphasising that wines with a sense of place taste better, or those that express terroir have the true taste of wine. Indeed I gather they are saying that they can detect a wine with a sense of place from drinking it. more...

An Update on the Unfathomable Idea - Terroir

Wednesday, 3rd October, 2007

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. more...

Geology Cannot be Found In Wine

Thursday, 18th September, 2006

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Terroir - Can It Possible Shine Through the Background Noise

Tuesday, 4th July, 2006

It seems to make sense that the taste of a wine reflects where it is grown. After all Barossa wines do have different aromas and flavours to Tasmanian wines. The French use the term 'terroir' to describe the differences that refect the sense of place where the grapes are grown. more...

Wine Quality: Does Terroir Matter?

Friday, 14th October, 2005

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Terroir: The Role of Geology, Climate, and Culture in the Making of French Wines

Friday, 14th October, 2005

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...

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