THE AGE OF TERROIR
Robert Geddes explores how place and the past have shaped our wines
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