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Regional Studies
Final Thoughts: A 40 year Adventure in Geology, Soils, Landscapes and Wine.
Part 6A - A Better Way to Understand Wine and Enjoy Drinking

Sunday, 13th December, 2015  - David Farmer

In this section I develop themes which were mentioned in Parts 1 to 5:

Part A discusses how climate and weather create wine flavours while briefly looking at the vast topic of the role of viticulture and wine making. I then illustrate this approach by applying these thoughts to a sample of wine regions.

Part B suggests how consumers can use the ideas of climate - weather interacting with landscapes when selecting wine and offers thoughts to assist in buying and drinking.

Part A

No two vineyard regions can be identical because of the infinite ways landscapes are formed and the variations of how climate and the weather interact with each landscape.

Even so each vineyard region does have geographical or physical features which can be measured and compared with other regions and when these are similar it follows that familiar wine flavours should and do repeat across the Globe.

As well the dominant features which indicate the climate, such as latitude and altitude, smooth out the differences between regions even when the appearance of the landscapes are strikingly different.

In this way the climate can be seen as fixing the majority of the flavour profile which alters with the seasonal weather in endless variations around this average.

These ideas are developed by applying them to four commonly held views:

1. When reference is made to wine showing a sense of place, what can this mean?

Observations over many vintages, in some cases going back many hundreds of years, has recognised vineyards of superior quality.

Terms such as Grand Cru, First Growths, and Pradikatswein, link the wine with its vineyards while in less understood regions phrases like a sense of place highlights this origin.

Australians use a similar term, distinguished sites which implies that special places can be found which make wines with characters which cannot be duplicated elsewhere.

Mention was made that sites such as the slope of the Grand Cru vineyards of Chablis which are associated with clearly defined landscape features are rare. There are other examples of small sites largely cloaking a landscape feature, such as Chateau Grillet, and slopes along the Rhone, the Moselle and Rhine valleys.

We have examined how changes in the types of soils, underlying bedrock and geology can be defined, however when this influence on taste is removed boundaries at the vineyard level or larger become no more than property rights or a social convention.

Even so whether using terroir or another synonym like a sense of place, it is a common and natural view to believe wines will reflect their origin.

However there are several problems in both grading vineyards and these general ideas of special sites.

As the landscape of nearly all wine regions varies over short distances the area being referred to must be tiny yet climate and weather are general and can seldom relate to a tiny site while secondly there is the constantly changing weather.

To view some sites as better you would have to show that over many vintages these sites have more favourable weather for ripening the grapes, or some other agreed quality measure, than others nearby.

This may be so but it cannot be so every season which means the other factors of viticulture and wine making must explain the flavour differences.

i) Thoughts On Special Locations from a Trip to Patagonia

Patagonia, Argentine-El Bolson is at 42°S similar to Marlborough, New Zealand.

In December, 2003 I drove south from Mendoza to Rio Gallegos and noted:
"Going south the furthest I found a vineyard was Patagonian Wines, near El Bolson which is 1360 kilometres south of Mendoza [El Bolson is 130 kilometres south of Bariloche]. This vineyard is real pioneer stuff. It's sited on a terminal moraine, a geological formation left by a retreating glacier, in a good sunny spot.

Even in December the surrounding mountains were snow capped. Raspberries were growing well which is a good sign for pinot noir. The latitude is 42°S and I am uncertain of the altitude but guess it to be about 1200 metres."

For the ultimate cool climate experience you could go to the tip of this land and plant a vineyard. This would mean you were both eccentric and wealthy as keeping the vines alive would be a test. When once every 20 years the weather was warm enough to ripen the grapes would the ultimate wine result or would it be no different to that made at El Bolson in a good year?

Rather than becoming a distinguished site this test teaches us that economics plays a role in how we grade sites.

ii) Since the average flavour we may expect is controlled by the climate this means the weather each vintage will create flavours either side of the norm. It is also likely that some regions will experience weather which leads to a greater divergence from the norm than others.

It follows that the weather will at times favour what are seen as less regarded sites although these vineyards may not be able to take advantage of this from the viticulture or in the winery.

This does suggest however that if an agreed measure to quantify the quality of ripe fruit was used, it would be possible to grade vineyards.

Initially this score would be the percentage likelihood that each vintage would produce grapes that reached ripeness levels considered normal for that area.

However being either side of the average or norm is not the same as saying the vineyard produces grapes with inferior or superior flavours and other reasons are needed to explain the flavour advantage or higher rating of one site over another.

*Correction to a comment in Part 5; "This leads to the thought that the popular notion of a wine showing a sense of place is better replaced by thinking of a locale as a place where climate and weather roughly reaches an optimum for that variety though it will rarely be a small area," needs qualifying.

The idea of each variety reaching on optimum, perhaps within a narrow band of climate-weather, is too restrictive. I am ever mindful of my own tasting experience and recall the following appraisal of a warm climate pinot noir:

"The 1976 Tyrrells Vat 6 Hunter River Pinot Noir however hit the big time in 1980, when alongside Chateau Petrus and Romanee Conti it was named in the top 12 wines of the world by Time magazine." The rise and rise of Pinot Noir, Grapegrower and winemaker, 18th November, 2013.

2. As vineyard regions mature will they follow the French-European experience and sub-divide into smaller lots reflecting higher quality?

From part 5: "Of the great number of boundaries only a handful enclose a cluster of vineyards where the landscape is so clearly defined that it can be said of each vineyard they are of equal importance. The most obvious example is the Grand Cru slope of Chablis."

The distinctive Grand Cru slopes of Chablis, south of 48°N.

Since the 1950's numerous vineyards have been developed in new world countries. In addition to new plantings in long established regions, many previously unplanted regions have appeared.

The development of new regions across many countries has been very successful and it is natural to think that some vineyard areas will be better than others.

If better areas are slowly proven they will be of a general character and not local and I see no reason why the tiny sub-divisions of the European experience which represent social factors will be repeated.

Indeed the whole idea of references to better regions must be approached with caution.

I recall the pioneers of Martinborough, New Zealand believed they had found a unique location but later, not far away, vineyards along the terraces of another stream bordering Te Muna Road turned out to be just as interesting.

3. Will vineyard regions mature the European way by specialising in a few varieties?

The influence of old European regions and French ideas of Appellation Controlee is strong in steering the debates about wine.

Ultimately the market and the constant churning of the ideas of growers and winemakers is the best way to decide what a region should grow. Defining by law the varieties for any region may have begun with good intentions but is now outmoded.

We know that all varieties will ripen across a spectrum of climate. All varieties will ripen in a warm region while in cooler regions a smaller number achieve the ripeness which leads to an agreeable taste.

While there is merit in the practise of a region having a specialty such that the flow of ideas and constant testing pushes to the limit what that variety can achieve at that place, the benefit is as much to do with marketing and sales as with taste.

Alas it can all to readily become restrictive and better the new world way of growing many varieties than being trapped along the Loire Valley growing melon, chenin blanc and cabernet franc.

4. How much does the role of viticulture and wine making play in the final taste and can this be quantified?

As noted in the Introduction: "To make it easier to understand what these articles are about let's just pick a number and say that 50% of the flavour in a bottle is created before the grapes enter the winery and it is that number we are discussing."

The other half, viticulture and wine making, is a large topic and beyond the scope of this work, though I list several variables which I have found to be important in flavour development.

i) Factors in the vineyards.
Cropping levels
Availability of water when need by the vine.
Deciding on the picking time.

ii) Factors in the winery.
How much should the wine making influence the taste during fermentation and post ferment maturation.
The final blending of different components.

There are so many variables that play out in such complex ways that we can be certain that two identical quantities of grapes made into wine at two wineries will quickly show differences.

This means that identical varieties in similar climates from distant regions are as likely to taste as familiar as unfamiliar.

A remarkable example can be found in the wines of Australia and New Zealand which are made with a wine making ethos which tends to produce wines which display a pure fruit quality. In many other regions this aspect is smothered as the equipment means it cannot be captured, or is seen as less important in the taste or other factors are seen as important.

Consumers surely know that the wine making idiosyncrasies of some regions are such that the climatic factors in the taste are pushed well into the background.

I have always found it odd that so much of the teaching of wine is based on being asked to identifying varieties and regions when really what is being asked is to identify local methods of making wine.

This huge topic with its vast number of variables allows each region to promote as accepted practise, methods that lead to wines which are unique. It is also the heart and soul of the wine business as critics and drinkers can divide in minute detail the offerings of each region.

It is natural that growers and the wine makers in a region will tend to follow a distinctive pattern likely agreeing to a common picking time and wine making practises which in turn develop a distinctive regional taste.

Of course nothing remains set and even old regions can be fractured on fundamentals such as introducing new varieties or new oak which challenges tradition.

Concluding Thoughts

I find imagining how the weather shift in complex patterns, respecting no borders or boundaries, does wonders for thinking about wine flavours in a fresh way.

Looking down at the swirling patterns in the Earth’s atmosphere provides a better perspective than that of the farmer ploughing soil between the vines and thinking of what lies below.

Wine books published in Europe prior to 1970 had little to say about countries far away. The occasional enlightened thought or an unbiased judging result highlighting new world regions was swamped by the view that the finest regions had been identified.

The World Atlas of Wine (1971) crammed in a few new world regions though the author, quicker than most, expanded the coverage with each new edition.

Fortunately objective measurements beat habitual beliefs to produce the World of wine, and now we can even anticipate the results from places which have never been planted with vines.

Thoughts on Old Europe and the New World

The ideas expressed here make me ask questions less of the new world and more of the long established European regions. I do not think they show their full potential, being held back by tradition as much as capital and expertise.

The complex physical features of the Mediterranean basin.

Consider the Mediterranean Basin a region straddling a favourable zone for making wines with its maze of coastal locations, archipelagos and islands. This basin extends between 32°N to 44°N and while an astonishing range of wines are made it is perplexing that the quality lags so far behind the potential.

In the Pacific Ocean tiny New Zealand which covers 35°S to 45°S shows what is possible and what we have to look forward too when all of the Mediterranean finally shines.

I like the complex weather of coastal locations and how this is expressed over the expanse of river flats and terraces before a river enters the ocean. Bordeaux shows what is possible so better things can be expected from the Loire, and further south the Duero, and Tagus.

Of the region of Bordeaux I think it unlikely that the great sites are set in stone. Viewing wine regions without boundaries questions the hierarchy of the classified growths as the location of the vineyard is less important suggesting the foundations are subjective and unstable.

While it is possible the small rises which distinguish some First Growths do receive more favourable weather than other sites it is unlikely to be that much.

There are times when the right bank gets better weather than the left bank and times when currently less favoured vineyards will get the best of the season.

While the ratings of 1855 have powered the modern wine culture the quality gap between the classified growths and the surrounding vineyards will surely close as the decades march on. The capital that is currently pouring into Bordeaux will make the future very interesting.

Hence for all regions of which Bordeaux is just an example the issue of quality is better resolved by looking at viticulture and wine making and if I was to highlight one aspect that gives the best wines an advantage it is being able to afford grape pickers to move at the right time.

Great Wine, How Does it Happen?

There is a strong view that only rare, small locations can make the really great wines and I have given my reasons why this is not so.

Again it’s instructive to look at new world regions for clues particularly as seemingly out of nowhere highly rated wines can be produced from regions which have a short history.

Australian examples are the wines of Clonakilla (Canberra District), Giaconda (Beechworth) and Bass Philip (South Gippsland) which reflect not a rare or distinguished site but rather a patch of ground in a favourable climate-weather zone where the wine artist has chosen to practise.

The split between what nature provides and man creates in the flavours of a bottle depends on what you are trying to perfect. You may capture one and subdue the other though all of the great wines I can think of are enhanced by what happens in the winery.

Fashion is ever present in the world of wine and the artist of warm climate wines will approach problems in a different way to that of a colleague in a cooler zone but the expressions of both are of equal validity though acceptance by consumers will swing back and forth.

As well it is apparent that an important factor in making great wine is assisted by being part of a group such that a ready exchange of views solves problems and lift standards and this process is akin to the Silicon Valley effect.

So finally after a long period of looking elsewhere I have returned to the obvious that a strong sense of purpose is what makes great wine.

Viewing Vineyard Sites in a Different way

It is likely that vineyards can be quantified based on an agreed measure of grape ripening. Such percentages would alter for each area, being quite low for marginal cool areas while approaching 100% for warmer areas.

An example might be that in a given area the climate means that 90% of vintages reach an agreed sugar level, or some other defining parameters, thus producing grapes satisfactory to the wine maker.

It may also be shown that of these nine vintages, an average of three, which might rate as an area high, make wines well above the norm, and so on.

These thoughts of course are not dissimilar to the original grading of German vineyards and the ability of the best vineyards to occasionally produce grapes of extra-ordinary sugar levels.

There is also an economic factor as wine has to be sold thus the market reacts in countless ways by balancing the worth of the crop to the possibilities in the market place. For example it values cool climate fruit at a higher price than volume production of warm climate fruit.

How thoughts about vineyard ratings, climate and weather, are balanced against the rating of the wine by experts is difficult to say though this is managed at the moment in a haphazard way.

Finally I still wonder if it is possible to quantify the nature versus human influence in a bottle of wine though it's as likely to be wrong as it is futile.

While this thought takes me back to the start; how do you evaluate a bottle of wine? I will look more closely at this in Part B.

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

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

The Story of Canberra Viticulture and Wine

Tuesday, 21st June, 2016

The Federation debate continued the rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne with the location of the new capital being of great importance. After reviewing many sites the Australia Capital Territory was selected in 1908 at a mid way point between the two cities and declared on 1st January, 1911. Canberra was named as the location in 1913 and Canberra Day is remembered on the 12th March. more...

The Landscape and Vineyards of the Murray Basin

Wednesday, 29th July, 2015

Few wine commentators wish to understand the significance of the Murray Basin taking the view that the basin is no more than a maker of industrial wines. The average wine buyer cannot afford the wines they like to write about and to make price sensitive wines you need regions like the Murray Basin. After all over 60% of the country's wine comes from the Murray Basin while supplying the 30% packaged as casks. more...

The Landscape and Vineyards of the Murray Basin - Appendix 1

Wednesday, 29th July, 2015

To appreciate the wine story of the Murray Basin it helps to understand how the basin formed, or its geological evolution. Please note this long section has no bearing on wine flavours. Also it is a simplification and re-arrangement of the published information. Three issues are of special interest in considering how the Murray Basin evolved; more...

Wine Flavours, Climate, Weather, Soils and Geology

Sunday, 12th January, 2014

The following six articles are based on a talk I gave to the Field Geologists Club of South Australia, on May 2nd 2013.

I took the opportunity to talk to this group to consolidate my thoughts which are captured in the general term 'terroir' which have been maturing since the late 1990s, a time when I wanted to understand the science behind the role of nature, as distinct from wine-making, in the flavours of wine. more...

Terroir Goes Higher and Higher

Friday, 19th October, 2012

Steadily the vine spreads into new regions across the globe and who knows what taste pleasures await us in the years ahead. The vast sweep of country from Turkey to China looks very inviting. more...

The Vines of the NSW South Coast

Wednesday, 28th March, 2012

The birthplace of Australian wines was naturally the Sydney basin. Urban pressure has swamped the vineyards of Sydney though a few lonely outposts survive, such as Camden Estate Wines at Camden where the first plantings date to 1820. Thus it was to be further north in the Hunter Valley that the early vineyards were to survive. more...

Remarks on the Geology and Wines of McLaren Vale

Monday, 6th February, 2012

In August, 2010, a geological map of the McLaren Vale wine region was published. This is the final version of a preliminary map from 2000. I love maps and to me both are works of art though the full blown 2010 version is a thing of beauty. This map shows in great detail the many geological formations from very young to old which underlie this famous vineyard region. more...

The Landscape and Terroir of Eden Valley

Thursday, 29th September, 2011

Quick Facts
The Eden Valley GI region adjoins the Barossa Valley to the east and is of a similar size.
This region is a hilly upland plateau divided in two by the valley of the North Para River which flows north.
This upland region is about 200 metres higher than the Barossa Valley and vineyards are planted at heights of 400 to 550 metres. more...

Altitude, Argentina and the Riverland

Sunday, 11th September, 2011

Should you be interested in creating a wine empire, The Daily Mail, 17th July, 2011, reports that the Estancia Punta del Agua; a one million acre estate, in San Juan province in western Argentine, is for sale. The estate lies about 150 kilometres NNE, of San Juan which has a wine history back to 1569. more...

A Comment on the Red Soils of Heathcote

Sunday, 1st May, 2011

When commenting about wine regions it's not a simple task to write about the geology and the origin of landscapes and soils. Consider this example of the confusion that one region has managed.

Heathcote, the Victorian region noted for fine shiraz makes great use of the districts red soils in selling and marketing. Some say the best vineyards are located on the red soils, and it's suggested, they produce the best wines. Here are nine recent comments. more...

The Excitement of Te Muna Road

Thursday, 7th April, 2011

Looking back over the last 40 years it is amazing the number of new wine regions that have developed across Australia and New Zealand. From farming land to vineyards and still pioneers are finding small sub-regions that are worth a shot. more...

The Soils of the Barossa Valley

Wednesday, 22nd December, 2010

For a dozen or so years now I have spent many happy days digging holes, chipping rocks, and studying the landscapes of a large number of Australian and New Zealand vineyard regions. The object is to try and understand what role things like soils, rocks, and the shape of the landscape, play in the role of creating wine flavours. This is an area French winemakers are very keen on and goes under the general topic of 'terroir'. more...

How Does Soil and Rocks Influence the Taste of Wine?

Wednesday, 19th May, 2010

My studies have lead me to the conclusion that the chemistry of the soils and rocks in which the vine grows add little if anything to the taste of wine. Wine does not show a taste that can be related back to primary or secondary minerals in the soils and weathered rocks. The soils and rocks do though have an important bearing on how necessary nutrients are taken up by the vines and most specifically how the vine gains access to water. This does affect the taste in a major way. more...

Discussions about Soil, Rocks and Wine with Max Marriott

Monday, 27th July, 2009

I have written a lot about the topic of 'terroir' and was recently asked by Max Marriot, landscape photographer and specialist writer, to offer some thoughts about geology, wine and the like. This was to help with an article he was commissioned to do for the New Zealand Grape Grower. more...

In the Footsteps of Colonel Light

Wednesday, 10th June, 2009

I have spent many a happy day wandering the hills and vales pondering how the Barossa landscape formed. An area of great interest is Rocky Gully that runs down from the eastern edge of the Eden Valley into the Barossa Valley. This gully makes no sense to me as it seems to be much bigger than the tiny stream that drains it could possibly have created. more...

An Expression of Unusual New Zealand Terroir

Wednesday, 1st April, 2009

The Chaytor family were early Marlborough settlers (1830-40?) and had grazing properties that spanned country from north of Blenheim at Spring Creek through to Picton. One of these properties, possibly 'Marshlands', near Spring Creek, is now part of the extensive vineyard, Shepherds Ridge, of 73 hectares. Alas I do not have firsthand experience of the Shepherds Ridge vineyard. Wine reviews have been very favourable with many wines scoring 90 plus. more...

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

If you believe what wine writers everywhere are telling us you would come to the conclusion that the very best wines are always site specific. By this they mean you must be able to see the vineyard which produced the grapes and coupled with this they may discuss how the wine expresses the terroir of the site. more...

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

An aspect of marketing is to tell the story about the product and to enhance the story it can be a good idea to weave in a myth, a mystery or some 'undefined' extra element. The idea is to create for the consumer an emotional bond with the product that goes beyond the mere utility of the product. more...

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

Olivier Gergaud from the University of Reims and Victor Ginsburgh (pictured) of the Universit Libre de Bruxelles deserved better than the couple of smart headlines they attracted when they presented a paper at the UK Royal Economic Society annual conference in Nottingham in March this year. The Sunday Observer declared "French bitter over wine study" and Decanter magazine on its website summarised that "Terroir plays no role". But apart from a reference or two on wine web sites that was the extent of the references that I found on Google for the paper Natural endowments, production technologies and the quality of wines in Bordeaux. Does terroir matter? Yet the Gergaud and Ginsburgh paper is one of the more significant contributions yet made to the debate about the comparative impact of terroir and wine making skills on the wine we drink. A look at the Observer's and Decanter's coverage of the story perhaps provides a clue to the overall paucity of the coverage. more...

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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