Robert Ged­des ex­plores how place and the past have shaped our wines

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THE his­tory of wine de­vel­op­ment starts in the era when sugar was rare and sweet­ness was val­ued highly. We roll back the fab­ric of time to the Mid­dle Ages when an ex­ten­sive mar­itime wine trade ex­isted around the Mediter­ranean and with Europe. Ex­port­ing wine could only be jus­ti­fied if it, first, was worth money and, sec­ond, trav­elled well.

In­tensely sweet wines fit­ted the bill on both counts. So grow­ers around the Mediter­ranean of­ten dried their grapes on the ground to con­cen­trate the sweet­ness. Es­sen­tially, those an­cient wines were very sweet wines.

An­other vi­tal step in this process was the con­quest of Spain by the Moors, who brought with them the science of dis­til­la­tion. This in­volved boil­ing the wine and trap­ping and con­dens­ing the al­co­hol as it evap­o­rated. Much later the Span­ish de­vel­oped for­ti­fied wines by adding spirit to un­fer­mented or partly fer­mented grape juice to pro­duce wines that were strong, sweet and stable; this idea later spread to Hol­land. This meant that it was pos­si­ble for wines to travel safely over long dis­tances, but the gen­eral rule was that lo­cals drank lo­cal wine.

Of course the lo­cal wine de­vel­oped side by side with the lo­cal food and this pro­vided the tra­di­tional rule of match­ing food and wine: if it grows there, it goes there.

As time went on, many of the great wine re­gions of Europe flour­ished on the At­lantic sea­coast be­cause trans­port be­tween ports was easy and cheap.

‘‘ Cheap’’ is rel­a­tive, of course. To a me­dieval wine­maker, the wine had to be very good and very much in de­mand to jus­tify the cost of the road and then sea trans­porta­tion.

The Bur­gun­dian wines made from chardon­nay and pinot noir were prized enough to jus­tify the long road trans­port; they were worth the pre­mium and cus­tomers would pay for it.

One of the big losers in prox­im­ity to ur­ban non-wine­grow­ing mar­kets was Italy. Ital­ian wines had to travel farther and were there­fore more ex­pen­sive. Hence there was not the same op­por­tu­nity to de­velop the sort of wines the mar­ket wanted; so, I would ar­gue that the Ital­ians re­mained more re­gion­ally di­verse and dis­tinct, with more than 2000 va­ri­eties in use.

Their style was to keep the grape flavours in the back­ground and to suit the food. The per­son­al­ity was built on re­fresh­ment, with sub­tle, dry, firm white wines and re­strained tan­nic reds. Ital­ian wine is a great de­light and the edges of dif­fer­ent styles have not been smoothed out by the com­mer­cial de­mands of his­tory. They es­caped the am­pli­fi­ca­tion of in­ter­na­tional trade and kept the mag­ni­fy­ing glass trained on re­gional wines and styles.

By con­trast, the French had time (or they in­tu­itively se­lected) to sep­a­rate out and re­fine those va­ri­eties that con­tained sweet fruit be­cause the ripe fruit sweet­ness was val­ued. Nowa­days, you can see the legacy of th­ese two ap­proaches. So if you blend, say, 5 per cent or 10 per cent of a French va­ri­etal such as caber­net sauvi­gnon, mer­lot or shi­raz into (Ital­ian) san­giovese, the re­sult would be the in­tro­duc­tion of sweet fruit flavours to round, smooth and sweeten the in­tense tan­nins of other lo­cal va­ri­eties.

And, of course, there are other Euro­pean coun­tries that pro­duce wines for the lo­cals. Ro­ma­nia, Bul­garia, Yu­goslavia and Rus­sia pro­duce wines with char­ac­ter and per­son­al­ity but are just mur­murs in the song­book of global viti­cul­tural his­tory. They sang for only a while, ac­cord­ing to pol­i­tics in in­ter­na­tional mar­kets, be­fore the lo­cals went back to drink­ing their wines. Per­haps their day will come if trans­port costs or fash­ion give them mar­ket ad­van­tages.

The key to tra­di­tion was the knowl­edge and mind­set passed from one gen­er­a­tion to an­other, and one of the big­gest of th­ese re­ceived wis­doms is the very French no­tion of ter­roir.

You have only to drink wines from specif­i­cally dif­fer­ent vine­yards to know that the no­tion of ter­roir is true. You can sense this from the term used in Bur­gundy to de­scribe in­di­vid­ual vine­yard sites — cli­mat — which refers to the vine­yard site and its unique cli­mate, and not just to the land.

Their abil­ity to map in­di­vid­ual wine qual­ity in well-es­tab­lished dis­tricts, then rank spe­cific vine­yards’ wine qual­ity, has led to the view that it is the spe­cial chem­i­cal con­sti­tu­tion of the soil and its im­me­di­ate cli­mate — or its ter­roir — that is the es­sen­tial fac­tor.

Taken to heart through years of ex­pe­ri­ence, the French have used as the ba­sis of their wine law the ap­pel­la­tion con­trolee sys­tem of reg­u­la­tions that pro­tects vine­yard names.

The new world use of clever brands for iden­tity ver­sus the old world use of re­gional rules for the same pur­pose, and to reg­u­late wines — es­pe­cially where names have be­come in­ter­na­tional styles — sets the scene for one of the great de­bates in wine.

Clare Val­ley wine­maker Jef­frey Gros­set has come up with an Aus­tralian word for the idea of ter­roir : pangkarra , from the orig­i­nal in­hab­i­tants of the Ade­laide plains.

While it refers to the soil and the lo­cal to­pog­ra­phy, it does also come some way to ex­plain their re­la­tion­ship with the land and high­lights the fact that the English lan­guage does not re­ally have an equiv­a­lent word to the French ter­roir .

English, it seems, is a good lan­guage for en­gi­neer­ing or law but lacks sub­tlety of phras­ing when it comes to food or wine.

Ter­roir is a touchy sub­ject for Aus­tralian wine­mak­ers, who were taught that cli­mate, not soil, is the most im­por­tant de­ter­mi­nant of qual­ity. You can mea­sure tem­per­a­ture, sun­shine and rain­fall and their re­la­tion­ship to ripeness and qual­ity, but how do you mea­sure the soil’s con­tri­bu­tion to flavour? It is also touchy at an­other level be­cause if ter­roir is unique, then you can’t make any more of it, an idea at odds with the cor­po­rate wine­mak­ing ethos that feeds share­holder div­i­dends.

There are many dif­fer­ences in wine, some deeply im­por­tant and oth­ers less so, but they all de­pend on what you are seek­ing.

The com­mer­cially im­por­tant ones, such as la­belling and name, are less im­por­tant as far as taste is con­cerned, com­pared with the affin­ity of a grape variety for a cer­tain soil, cli­mate or re­gion.

There is no doubt that the best wines are in short sup­ply and that our abil­ity to make more of th­ese highly praised tastes is lim­ited. Why? Well, we don’t re­ally know.

The French sys­tem arose when vi­gnerons did not al­ways have a lot of tech­nol­ogy at their dis­posal and were cul­tur­ally close knit. They would pick their grapes on the same day, and use the same wine­mak­ing ap­proaches, and where the ter­roir was favourable they learned to re­spect it.

Later le­gal moves en­sured the sys­tem pro­tected the grow­ers so that other re­gions could not pass off their wines un­der more fa­mous names.

The ex­plo­sion of tech­no­log­i­cal op­por­tu­ni­ties in the 20th cen­tury — such as high­strength nitro­gen fer­tilis­ers, trac­tors, leaf pluck­ing, me­chan­i­cal har­vest­ing and cold mac­er­a­tion (stor­ing picked grapes, some­times in cool rooms, to al­low break­down of the inside of the skins by the juice) — have chal­lenged tra­di­tional prac­tices and in­flu­enced the ex­pres­sion of ter­roir and mar­ket ac­cep­tance. Ter­roir be­liev­ers have cho­sen to re­strict their use of soil-mod­i­fy­ing tech­nol­ogy, but the chal­lenges of ris­ing labour costs are forc­ing them to ac­cept things such as me­chan­i­cal har­vest­ing.

Ter­roir tests the lim­its of science, it is never pre­cise, it is es­sen­tially an un­tellable story be­cause, like chil­dren peek­ing through the door to lis­ten to the dis­cus­sions of their par­ents, we never quite get the whole lan­guage with its con­text and riches. This is an edited ex­tract from AGoodNose &GreatLegs:TheArtofWine­fromthe Vine­totheTable by Robert Ged­des (Mur­doch Books, $39.95). Give­away Cour­tesy of Mur­doch Books, we have six copies of AGoodNose&GreatLegs to give away to read­ers. Write your name and ad­dress on the back of an en­ve­lope and tell us in 25 words or less why you would like to win. Send to: Good Nose Give­away, PO Box 215, East­ern Sub­urbs MC, NSW 2004.

Ground swell: Aus­tralian wine­mak­ers in re­gions such as NSW’s Hunter Val­ley, above, have been taught to re­vere cli­mate be­fore soil

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