of terroir and tradition, burgundy and pinot noir
TERROIR AND TRADITION
Ask any Parisian what sort of wine he likes and he will usually talk about the place where it is grown and not the variety. He may nominate red Burgundy and if he wants to get particular he might refer to Vosne Romaneé to Chambolle-Musigny. The underlying assumption is that the terroir is the most important factor for this wine style. Included in this very French notion of terroir is not only the climate and soil as determinants of the final wine, but also the human factor - that odd collection of human practices involved in converting the grapes into wine: encompassing the constraints of law, tradition, technology and limits of understanding of the people doing the hard toil to achieve this. The New World also adopted the concept of terroir but for a while lapsed into the more convenient technical view - that wines are determined by the soil and climate alone. Recent work from academics such as Professor Moran in Auckland and published texts such as 'Terroir' by James E. Wilson (Mitchell Beazley, 1998) have reverted to the original French notion.
Is it possible to taste the 'terroir' in a wine? I have read sceptics who say, “no! - this is just a ploy to give credibility to the claim that one wine has to 'better' than others”. If such claims of inevitable excellence were made I would tend to agree because they ignore the human factor and its ability to do things wrong - rendering sows ears from silk purses. On the other hand, the ability of a given terroir to produce particular characters and quality in wine is undeniable, in my view. Plant a quality vine in a swamp near Martinborough, and it will produce huge grapes with green herbal or herbaceous characters and dilute, underripe flavours. Plant the same vine in soil which has only just enough moisture holding capacity to provide an adequate canopy during the year, as well as leaving the vine under drought stress during the ripening period, and the crop is a step along the way towards being able to produce concentrated, even great wine. Compare Mosel Riesling with Clare Valley Riesling and you have two regions with widely different heat inputs which will both give 'ripe fruit' but with clearly different flavours and style because of how ripening patterns respond to the available heat. The effect of heat is not the only important difference between area…soils differ in how they respond to the heat: clay warms more slowly than gravel, so that in a given area, vines on clay will bud and flower later in the season. Late flowering tends to be more effective (because of the extra warmth) resulting in heavier cropping (and less intense wines) or if pruned to take this into account, result in a different leaf to crop ratio with other consequential effects on the flavours. The later ripening pattern also favours a firmer tannin structure in reds, presumably because of the increased heat during the phenolic biosynthesis. An excess of minerals such as magnesium and calcium also have well defined effects on the growth of vines mediated by their rootstock. One of these effects can be to devigorate the vine, affecting the canopy and leaves - which can be helpful or otherwise for the winemaker (depending on the rest of the terroir). Cooling and devigoration by the wind in some areas is another variable, the list of important variables goes on and on.
My suggestion is; the physical part of the terroir does affect the potential character and quality of the final wine in different ways by influencing how the vine grows. However the positive influences and differences can be easily lost depending on the success of the winemaker in exploiting and preserving the positive qualities of the grapes and minimizing the negative influences. In other words, the totality of terroir sets the ceiling for quality and style definition and this will tend to be more closely attained and demonstrated by good winemaking.
The winemaker - that other part of terroir - provides further constraints on the achievable quality and style of wine. New Zealand is fortunate that it has a technically competent breed of winemakers at a time when there have been important and useful technical advances in understanding the process. These advances are by no means complete, and in my view the science of fine wine in particular is still in its infancy. Nevertheless, we understand the principles of how to make good wine and the overall average from New Zealand as seen by the rest of the world is very pleasing. We are now left with the more subtle problem of how to fully exploit the fruit from individual sites. In other words we have yet to bridge the gap between what is frequently good wine and what could be great wine. Winemakers in Burgundy have been fortunate that their forebears have spent many years working out the best ways of making wine to suit their various regional grapes and this has been an important factor in the exploitation of the totality of terroir. The information has been passed down in the form of tradition, and many aspects have even been codified into law. In my view this represents a real advantage for the new generations of winemakers - nobody has to try and reinvent the wheel and make the same old mistakes in the process. On the other hand there remains the disadvantage that these very traditions and laws are slow to evolve and can stand in the way of the new technical understandings that New Zealanders and the New World are quick to exploit.
IS RED BURGUNDY THE PINNACLE OF EXPRESSION FOR PINOT NOIR?
This is a critical question for the evolution of New Zealand Pinot noir. The easiest answer would be a simple “no!” because, after all, there are many individual styles epitomised within Burgundy. Nevertheless there are trends in their styles and winemaking and the question is: how closely should we try to emulate these? It is instructive to look at the prescriptive conditions from which their winemaking styles arise…
Actually, Burgundy is not an ideal viticultural region for a number of reasons. Winemakers struggle to get their grapes ripe because of a relatively short season and the fact that as Autumn progresses, the risk of rain rises sharply making the gamble of waiting for riper fruit risky - frequently the only reward being rot and flavour dilution. The effect is that these winemakers most frequently have no choice as to whether they pick early or late - this is dictated by the climate. The net result is likely to be wine flavours in the floral/red berry part of the flavour ripening profile and for physiological reasons they will also tend to be lighter and less concentrated even before taking into account the wetter Autumns. The best sites experience less of these limitations, and it is noticeable that the hallmarks of the most benevolent vintages such as 1990 and 1999 are darker, riper and more concentrated wines than is the norm. On top of the viticultural restrictions, the Burgundian vigneron has to contend with winemaking practices restricted by law and tradition. For example oxidative winemaking is an appropriate response when the site or season produces hard 'green' tannins. If the use of reflective mulch had not been banned for aesthetic reasons, softer and riper tannins might be achieved in this way and the flavours could then be better preserved by more protective handling. It is interesting to note that leaf-plucking to achieve similar results is employed by Domaine de la Romanée Conti but few of the lesser Estates. Unfortunately the possibility of other more protective and gentler practices is largely absent in much of France because tradition seems to have slowed the adoption of some aspects of technology. Examples can be seen in traditional practices such as sulphur dioxide regimes which are damaging the colour, flavour and texture of the wine for the sake of the very popular goals of hygiene and microbiological safety of the product. Nowadays there are other ways of achieving these safety goals and one wonders what the results might be if the traditions in question had not been so slow to change. The list could go on but the generalisation is clear: traditional Burgundian winemaking does not optimise the flavour and colour possibilities presented to the winemaker in the grapes, although it is sufficiently formalized to help provide a terroir statement.
Overall, it is therefore reasonable to claim that the Burgundian terroir presents a very narrow vision of what Pinot noir is capable of, for climatic, viticultural and winemaking reasons. New Zealand and other parts of the New World have very different terroir arising in particular from maritime climates, reliable Autumns, more technical input and less traditional restraints allowing much wider choices. My suspicion is that New Zealand and other maritime climates could have a large impact on the world perception of what Pinot noir is capable of, although it will take some time before the new styles are completely accepted because Burgundy has been centre stage for so long. Our own terroir can yield a predominance of plump, exuberant fruit flavours - to a fault in some instances, but they can also be rich and complex varietal statements. Add concentration and longevity to this, and great wines are possible.
In the past, the choice has been either, to continue to try to copy Burgundy paradigms or, to be a little more humble in accepting and exploiting what nature can give us as well as being more eclectic in our tastes and understanding. It may be that history will finally decide that the Burgundy paradigm is foremost, but since the exploration is only just beginning, judgement is not yet possible. It is rare for a copy to ever transcend the original in any art form, so my view is: 'vive la difference!