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January 7, 2013 Wine , , , , ,

Terroirbly Confusing – Part 1

Terroir. A word I’m sure we’ve all heard thrown around willy nilly. A mystical French word with no direct English translation. The one that roughly means ‘the sum total of all the climactic, geological and geographical influences on a particular piece of land that make it unique from every other piece of land’.

Righty-oh, so you're saying that terroir is just dirt.

Righty-ho, round these parts we call this ‘terroir’ stuff dirt

As you can imagine, this is a complicated issue so it’s something that I’m going to make a series out of.

It’s very fashionable for Australian wine types to talk about how their wines reflect the ‘terroir’ of their vineyards – but do they? And are the differences between wines of the same maker really just due to the differing terroir? Well… Sort of.

Regular readers will be familiar with my oft-stated position that a great wine provides a pure expression of not only its variety, but the place from which it is grown. Almost every variety is able to express regionality, and to a lesser extent sub-regionality – and this is where it gets complicated as the ‘hand of man’ (read: winemaking) also starts to intervene.

When I talk about regionality I am referring to the broad area where the wine is grown: ‘Barossa’ Shiraz, ‘Mornington Peninsula’ Chardonnay etc. These (large) geographic areas impart a familiar character on the grapes grown in that area, which means that (to a degree) you know what to expect when you drink a bottle of these wines. The Barossa valley has a regionality that is so strong that it can eclipse all other facets of the wine – including the grape that is grown! This is an amazing quality but if not handled carefully, wines that come from this region can often (but not always) taste firstly like the Barossa, and secondly like their grape variety. All too often, Barossa Shiraz tastes eerily like Barossa Cabernet which tastes like eerily like Barossa Zinfandel which…. you get the point. Is this a representation of macro-terroir? Or is it that all the wines that taste similar have been made in a style that erases the nuances and lets the regionality dominate? Probably a bit of both.

Sub-regionality takes things down to the next level – Looking at the differences in areas within the region. On the Mornington Peninsula this would be looking at the differences in wines that are grown in Main Ridge vs those from Red Hill vs those from Tuerong etc. The winemakers in these regions (as they are in many Australian regions) are working hard to try and understand, define and express these sub-regional styles and whilst it is still ‘early days’ for the exercise it is an admirable pursuit. And here is where it gets really interesting/confusing. All of these ‘sub-regions’ have a number of significantly different aspects, elevations, slopes etc – which is typical of Australian wine regions and acts to make things significantly more difficult as even small changes in these variables can significantly impact on the ability of the site to grow grapes. Furthermore, a relatively small percentage of the available land is under vine hence there are ‘discontinuities’ in the information even within subregions. Are there truly meaningful differences between sites? Or do significant factors like 180 degree changes in aspect account for the differences that we see. My feeling is that there is a true difference, but we don’t really have the data yet to make a judgement.

I’m not saying it can’t be done, because it will be – and it will be done very accurately eventually. What I’m highlighting is that we are only partway of the way to understanding and defining our terroir(s); that right now we have a group of data points that show relatively macro trends but will require significantly more time and effort to truly understand. It’s all so terroirbly confusing…

So now, after confusing you all to no end, I’ll continue this discussion in coming weeks with the next stage being a contrast with the purists’ example of well-understood Terroir – The Bourgogne (Burgundy) region in central France.

Until then, Happy Drinking!

Peter