life in a wine
(Nature vs Nurture)
The terroir controversy
Is the concept of terroir a convenient contrivance from French marketeers or is it a valuable concept in wine culture? I like the comments arising from Larousse's Wines and Vineyards of France which start from the subjective view of terroir as the link visualized by a consumer between his or her wine and the winegrower who produced it. This, I think, pinpoints the underlying source of any controversy about terroir, whether you are arguing from a phenomenological or scientific standpoint. Think of the Renaissance artists, Titian, who was famous for his use of colour. Should we try to evaluate his success from the chemistry of the colours he used?
Similarly, with wine, the taster's perception has to be more valid than numbers or words can ever be - just as my perception of colour will always be different from the simple record of wavelength, and my love of Beethoven's compositions involves more than a response to loud thumpy music. If a taster is confirmed as being able to reliably identify terroir in an array of wines, he or she can take it as read and move on - the case is proven for that person and needs no scientific explanation. If others cannot identify terroir and it bothers them, maybe they should hone their tasting skills. For me, the issue is simple. The wines from each of my blocks show differences which are consistent from one year to the next. For example, one 1.5ha block of our Pinot noir is always separated into thirds because of the differences between the parts. The harvest times can be up to 2-3 weeks apart and there are clear differences in flavour between each batch of wine. In this case, the differences appear to correlate with, among other things, soils, the gentle changes in slope and natural shelter. Just as so many of our clients comment on the underlying commonality among Martinborough wines as opposed to those of other regions, it is impossible for me to deny the influence of terroir on the wines from our own vineyards.
I would like to provide a “scientific” or objective approach to this subject, so please remember that the following discussion is an attempt at objective or scientific description, not a proof or definition.
The importance of soil and climate to the notion of terroir
That soil is the starting point for discussions on terroir is something we can all agree on. If you want to be blinded by the science, pH influences the effects of various minerals on the plant and on the structure of the soil and the various synergies between them (read, for example Saxton's ”Calcium in Viticulture: Unravelling the mystique of French Terroir”, www.winebusiness.com) - it is impossible to deny the profound effect the elements/minerals in the different soils must have on the vines. This is also described by Pommerol (in The Wines and Winelands of France: Geological Journeys 1989) as being responsible for the wine's personality. He distinguishes this from the quality of the wine, which he attributes to the climatic environment of the particular vintage. It is the former that I refer to as terroir, and I shall return to this later.
In her Oxford Companion to Wine, Jancis Robinson describes terroir as a quintessentially French concept underlining the French Appellation Controllée system. She agrees that the starting point is soil (not geology), followed by topography, and their interactions with each other and with macroclimate to determine mesoclimate and microclimate: “The holistic combination of all these is held to give each site its own unique terroir, which is reflected in its wines more or less consistently from year to year regardless of variations to methods of viticulture and winemaking.” She then finishes with the unsettling comment: “The extent to which terroir effects are unique and important is, however debatable, and of course commercially important which makes the subject controversial.”
The controversy at least is something we can easily agree upon to start with.
The importance of culture to the perception of terroir
In his book called Terroir: the role of geology, climate and culture in the making of French wines, James Wilson would add to Robinson's concept: “Beyond the measurable ecosystem, there is an additional dimension - the spiritual aspect that recognizes the joys, the heartbreaks, the pride, the sweat, and the frustrations of its history.” Hugh Johnson falls into this camp when he describes a sense of place and awareness of terroir as the key to understanding the wines of France. He suggests that knowing the side-streets, lanes and history intensifies the sense of place. If we are wearing our scientific lab coats, these comments are of little help and they could not find a home in any scientific description. On the other hand, we are familiar with this type of notion when it is applied to the importance of setting for a formal wine-tasting. I refer also to an excellent technical article by Wendy Parr in Australian & New Zealand Grapegrower and Winemaker, Annual Technical Issue 2003 which enables us to link the two very different ways of trying to talk about the same issue.
Parr lists the complex sources of our sensory recognitions and includes with this the way they are entrenched in our personal history, our physiology and the culture we are exposed to. I quote: “The major component of our ability to smell is assumed learned. The learned component, reflecting a person's culture and experience, can be highly resistant to forgetting and relearning” And later on: “Studies have shown that smell is more likely to evoke emotional memories than our other memories (e.g. hearing music)” What we are talking about here are the early memories of complex smells as an important base reference to present tasting experiences. Those of you still wearing your white lab coats can apply your multi-variable analysis to the complex smells of wine and compare them with a second multi-variable analysis of the smells from your memories by all means, but you and I will be long dead before we have categorical scientific answers relating to what is perceived as terroir. So let us take the apparently questionable statements by Wilson and Johnson about the involvement of a sense of place and culture as having a respectable scientific foundation and not be surprised that individuals from different places and cultures may also have different perceptions of the aspects of terroir in wines. By way of corollary, legitimate scientific comment cannot be concerned with proof but it can help identify the variables likely to have an effect on terroir and offer more certainty to our knowledge of what does not.
The domain of the winemaker and choices for quality in the vineyard
I am of the opinion that a reasonable definition of the role of winemaker is in the scope in his or her “discretionary influence on the final wine whether it be via the vineyard or the winery”. This in effect is how any winemaker with a passion operates: he or she proceeds with the - we hope - the aim of making the “best wine that he/she can”. Referring back to the Oxford Companion to Wine, the article on terroir notes that “a common feature of vineyards producing the best wines is having a degree of leaf and bunch exposure in direct sunlight with little complete shading of internal and lower leaves”. This might suggest that the effect of terroir is mediated by the canopy, and therefore that these “best” wines must also be the optimum showcase for terroir. Such a conclusion contradicts the earlier comments in the same article that terroir is manifested regardless of variations to methods of viticulture - after all, different training methods result in different degrees of internal shading. Similarly, the comments by Pommerol draw the distinction between the personality and the quality of the wine where the latter is mediated by the climatic environment and its effect on canopy.
It is worth noting that most quality European growing regions have evolved their own training regimes and planting grids to optimize canopy density, thereby increasing the access of light directly onto the fruit as well as improving the efficiency of leaf photosynthesis. Even the great traditionalists such as DRC (great proponents of their terroir) now leaf-pluck, albeit to different degrees and in ways that defer to the requirements of their climate. Most New World winemakers will also agree that decisions about canopy disposition and fruit exposure to sunlight are critical to the pursuit of quality. Getting it wrong can impact on the longevity and apparent ripeness of the wines, making them taste awkward, acidic or even green and bitter.
In Martinborough, there have been years such as 2001 when very good phenolic ripeness has been achievable solely through good natural exposure almost regardless of training method and practices, just as there have been other years such as 2002 when extremes of management were required to achieve a similar result. What I am confirming is that rather than achieving “artificial” results, management techniques such as specialized canopies and leaf-plucking have helped optimize a poor year, bringing it closer to what we would hope to achieve in the ideal year, and that such wines can be considered atypical only in the sense that they are better than we might otherwise expect in that vintage. This is in accord with the views of Pommerol, who draws a distinction between the wine's personality and its quality, and possibly that of Robinson who defines the notion of terroir to be independent of methods of viticulture. The corollary to this is that wine characteristics which are normally attributed to or associated with unripe phenolics arising from shading of the fruit should not be considered as terroir. I wonder how much of this applies to the Riesling grown in warmer areas such as in parts of Australia where shaded fruit is more common from protection against sunburn or to some of the New Zealand styles of Sauvignon.
Conclusions about which practices limit or interfere with the expression of terroir
Oddly enough, it is my view that frequently it is the viticulturalist, not the winemaker who limits the expression of terroir. In the vineyard, I suggest that:
* Fertilisation involving the addition of trace elements to improve the nutrition of vines rather than simply to replace what is taken out is a clear example of altering the soil structure and the way in which the vine would otherwise grow. Where does this modern notion come from , that vines have to be well fed and happy to produce the best possible wine? Saxton's article clearly indicates the radical changes to soil structure and vine production that are possible from this sort of manipulation.
* Irrigation, such as by drip, radically changes the volume and disposition of vine roots - this is an issue well worth debate.
* Over-cropping or irrigation to the extent that flavours are weak or dilute may not represent change, but they do indicate major flavour sacrifice!
On the other hand, I define good winemakers as those who promote optimum flavours in the vineyard (and we have concluded that these practices do not interfere with the expression of terroir) and who are then custodians to these flavours once harvest has been completed. An exception is that of the oak barrels, if the wood flavours are allowed to dominate the wine (and therefore the interpretation of the terroir) it will be judged as poorly made. If flavours are lost through inappropriate processing or in an effort to correct problems, the expression of terroir is at risk simply by the loss of key flavour elements or aspects of the wine.
Early New Zealand winemaking tended to adopt the practices of the country from which the varietal was sourced, but there has been a natural evolution in approach which, fortunately, has had the effect of better realizing the local terroir in our wines. However, I am of the opinion that from the time the fruit enters the winery, terroir expression is always at risk of being compromised. The winemaker's success is measured by how well he or she has managed to evolve their winery techniques to minimize flavour loss for their own fruit. How they are assessed will still vary according to the culture and individual sensitivities of their public.
Overall, it is clear that the goals of preservation of terroir in the winemaking process align closely with the goals of overall quality. In my view the passionate winemaker is the most likely to clarify expressions of terroir in the pursuit of great wine.