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Thursday, 17 May 2012

On Terroir

I need your clothes, your boots and your motorcycle
Opening line from Terminator 2: Judgement Day

Terroir is a little like national character stereotypes - we all know it exists, even if it's considered a bit old-fashioned, if not downright inappropriate, to talk about it openly.

Like character, it's also very difficult to pin down and analyse in detail, however much we find it makes sense as a general, abstract concept.

As a result, it has become somewhat controversial with some people loudly, iconoclastically attacking it as the last vestige of vacuous old-fashioned wine snobbery, pretty much no-one prepared to champion it overtly but a more considered minority (including especially wine-makers and MWs) who find it quietly useful and uncontroversial.

At its most basic, terroir is an expression of the place where a wine was made.

The New World did much to downplay the notion of terroir with their championing of the concept of varietalism - that is, basically, putting the name of the grape on the label rather than the place.

In general, the Old World (Europe) classifies wine by place of origin (Bordeaux, Chianti and Champagne are places) whilst the New World (everywhere else) uses grape varieties (Carménère, Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc).

Over time, the New World has learnt there is a cachet in place names such as Gimblett Gravels or Barossa and has added location-specific indicators, whilst the Old World has learnt that consumers recognise grape varieties more easily and have started adding these details to front labels.

The reason for this is that not all grape varieties ripen at the same time, so all other things being equal, different varieties will flourish to a greater or lesser extent under different conditions.

At a basic level, white-wine grapes generally ripen more easily than red (we are able to produce fizz in the UK but not deep reds); of these, Riesling and Grüner Veltliner are particularly late-ripeners, so need a warmer, dryer climate.

Merlot is perhaps the least fussy of the classic red-wine grapes, Pinot likes a cool-climate and Shiraz needs lots of warmth.

So, each grape has different conditions under which it will thrive - this is, in essence, terroir; finding the most suitable grape variety for your intended vineyard. Or, looked at the other way, finding the most suitable vineyard site for your vines.

And just as warm-climate Pinot would be soupy, so cool-climate Shiraz would be underripe.

The whole varietalism argument came about not scientifically, but as a marketing exercise to re-brand the New World; Australian wine could never be called Bordeaux, but teach people the name of the main grapes - Cab and Merlot - then tell them they are the same in your bottle of (cheaper) Aussie wine and hey presto, it's no longer antipodean plonk, but bargain Bordeaux-style with an edgy attitude to boot.

However wine is not (generally) a mass-produced product from standardised raw materials - vines, just like people, are complex things with their own sets of rules about what they do and do not like. With hindsight these can be obvious, but they are not always fully predictable.

Moreover, like people, they also change with age, developing and maturing; a Viognier vine does not start to produce really good fruit until it is around 30 years old, whereas Sauvignon Blanc is less age-sensitive.

So it's no wonder then that it takes time plus an element of trial and error to find the best vineyard sites.
The key, but by no means only, factors for siting a vineyard are (in no particular order):

- exposure to the sun
- temperature
- rainfall
- soil composition

My favourite wines tend to come from places with lots of sun, low-ish temperatures and rainfall and poor-quality soils.

All these factors result in concentrated wines, whilst a related factor, altitude combined with lots of sunlight, gives a longer ripening season and more intensity in the wines - for fresh but mouthfilling whites from high altitude vineyards, look to Greece, Styria, Adelaide Hills and parts of Chile.

Wink Lorch, who first explained the effects of altitude to me, has written a fascinating post on this called Mountain Wines.

More specifically, different soil types can have very noticeable effects on the resulting wines even when grown within the same region.

Case study #1

At last year's LIWF, Kurt Angerer took me through all his wines and the GVs, all grown on slightly different soils, showed significant variations in style; in short, those grown on granite soils were minerally and steely, whilst those from more mixed, loamy soils, were fleshier and more rounded.

Case Study #2

Nearby Domaene Wachau produces a range of wines including occasional dessert wines.

Most Austrian dessert wines are made in Burgenland, around 100km from the Wachau where the weather conditions are very different.

The Wachau is a narrow river valley with steep terraces and cool air-flows, whereas Burgenland on the Pannonian plane is warmed by southerly air currents, has low-lying hills and a shallow lake which produces morning mists.

The end result of all this is that a Domaene Wachau Beerenauslese is much lighter and fresher than a Burgenland example which is rich, full and marmeladey.

The difference between these has almost nothing to do with grape variety - as these are often broadly the same - and everything to do with the different climatic conditions that form part of terroir.

So, used as a nebulous and evasive term to pretend that certain wines, however badly made, are somehow innately superior, terroir is indeed a nonsense.

But used properly, to refer to the unique set of conditions of a particular place, including soil type, aspect and so on, terroir is an expression of the subtle differences between wines made just a short distance apart from each other.

That distance may be a 100km or so, it could be a few kilometres. In some cases it can be just a few metres - vertically, as wines from higher up a hillside slope produce more concentrated wines.

Finding Terroir

You won't get much sense of place in a branded, special-offer supermarket mass-produced wine, but spend a few pounds more with a good wine merchants and you can reasonably expect to get something unique from the wine.

Try a couple of different ones side-by-side from the same grape variety and vintage but different locations and if there is a difference - that's terroir.

As to whether terroir, grape variety or wine-making skill is key, to me the analogy is whether a great line from a film is intrinsically great, is delivered well by the actor or is great in the context of the film as envisioned by the director.

I'll be back.

This article was inspired by a section in The New Rules of Wine claiming that "Terroir Means Nothing".

Image credits: Main image: http://wine.appellationamerica.com/images/appellations/features/Berger-terroir-evaluation.jpg
Terroir wheel from Wine Business: http://www.winebusiness.com/
Terroir: http://www.art-du-terroir.com/terroir.htm

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