Terroir — getting down to earth

The French term terroir, having no equivalent in English, now pops with increasing frequency in Australian wine literature. The word, encapsulating all the factors giving wine a sense of place, pops up in a spectrum of contexts. These range from matter-of-fact observations of flavour differences between neighbouring vineyards to highly romanticised notions that we can actually taste a vineyard’s soil and underlying bedrock in the wines it produces.

This wonderful quote, from Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, captures some of the emotion evoked by terroir:

I am not fond, for everyday at least, of racy, heady wines that diffuse a potent charm and have their own particular flavour. What I like the best is a clean, light, modest country vintage of no special name. One can carry plenty of it and it has the good and homely flavour of the land, and of earth and sky and woods. A pint of Elsasser and a piece of good bread is the best of all meals.

And this too was odd: that somewhere in a green valley vines were tended by good, strong fellows and the wine pressed so that here and there in the world, far away, a few disappointed, quietly drinking townsfolk and dispirited Steppenwolves could sip a little heart and courage from their glasses.”

Hesse’s comforting pint of Elsasser occupies a special place among the world’s wine terroirs. For Alsacian (Elsasser) wines bear a strong regional thumbprint, distinctly, recognisably different from the same varieties grown in Germany, Australia or elsewhere. They therefore evoke a sense of place in a sensory dimension as well as the emotional one Hesse describes. The two, of course, can be linked.

Once the domain of the French and their wine naming system, based on regional and vineyard names, the concept of terroir now permeates the vocabulary and marketing of fine wine around the world.

France’s Burgundy region provides perhaps the greatest historical example of marketing on the basis of terroir – defining vineyards by the quality of wines they’ve produced over hundreds of years.

So deeply entrenched are the prestige and attributes of wines from Burgundy’s many communes and individual vineyards that their names convey real meaning about style and quality to wine lovers around the world.

It’s an example of terroir succeeding as a marketing tool on a regional, sub-regional and individual basis. Importantly, the style and quality of wine produced over great periods of time defined the vineyards.

In Australia we talk of terroir on scales large and small. The larger picture includes regional specialties like Barossa shiraz, Canberra shiraz, Tasmanian pinot noir, Hunter semillon and Margaret River cabernet. Driven largely by climate, these marked style differences form the basis for regional, varietal marketing – terroir on a larger scale.

At the micro levels, wine style variation from vineyard to vineyard, or even within rows of a single vineyard, remain sources of wonder and puzzlement to winemakers. How can similar vines in such close proximity produce such different wines?

More often than not, these varied components end up in the blending vat. But increasingly our winemakers, driven by fascination with subtle style variations, offer separate bottlings from individual vineyards, plots within vineyards or, in one lovely Barossa example (Eperosa LRC Shiraz), from a single row of vines.

This is terroir-based marketing at the micro level, driven by winemaker judgment and enthusiasm, not market research or focus groups. Where wine drinkers share the enthusiasm and buy the wines, then we can say that defining a wine by its origin coveys real meaning.

These minute subdivisions now come from many directions. In the Barossa, for example, a growing number of independent winemakers source fruit from special little plots. Dean Hewitson’s Old Garden Mourvedre, from a few rows of vines planted in 1853, is a fine example.

And on the Chateau Shanahan tasting bench we’re lining up single vineyard chardonnays and pinot noirs from Yarra Valley producer Giant Steps and Mornington Peninsula maker, Ten Minutes by Tractor. These outstanding producers, no doubt inspired by Burgundy, base their appeal to drinkers on the subtle flavour differences driven by neighbouring sites.

The factors creating the differences all roll into the word terroir, defined by Dr John Gladstones, in Wine terroir and climate change (Wakefield Press 2011), as “the vine’s whole natural environment, the combination of climate, topography, geology and soil that bears on its growth and the characteristics of its grapes and wines”.

In this brilliant book, Gladstone explores this complex topic in painstaking detail, component by component, shedding light on the main drivers of wine style. But the vital and elusive piece that escapes even Gladstones is the origin of unique flavours, thought to be terroir driven, of some wines.

But even if full understanding of terroir remains tantalisingly out of reach, we remain fascinated “that somewhere in a green valley vines were tended by good, strong fellows” just for us.

(Thanks to David Farmer’s www.glug.com.au for Herman Hesse’s lovely quote)

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2011
First published 2 November 2011 in The Canberra Times