Terroir is a French term that describes the relationship between the climate, soil and landscape of any one place. It is a combination of an unlimited number of factors, such as temperature, sunlight, rainfall distribution, slope, aspect and drainage of a particular site, as well as tradition, technique, culture, and agronomy. It is how each of these components interact with each other to form distinct characteristics and unique colours, aromas and flavours of a particular, or certain type of wine.
For this, there is no equivalent word that we can use in English.
In France, the search for terroir was concluded centuries ago, through many years of trial and error, until eventually these vineyard sites were identified, demarcated and ranked according to their ability to produce fine wines of a designated origin.
The appellation d’origine controlee (AOC), translated into English as, “controlled designation of origin”, is the French certification granted to certain geographical locations in France for agricultural products, such as cheese and wine. In relation to wine, the AOC protects and determines, by law, particular grape varieties, which can be grown in the area. For example, chardonnay in Chablis, and syrah (shiraz) in the Northern Rhone. Particular vineyard sites are then ranked according to their cru, or growth, status, which is closely associated with the concept of terroir. Cru is often used to designate levels of presumed quality that are defined within particular wine regions. By implication, a wine that displays the name of its cru on the wine label is supposed to exhibit the typical characteristics, or terroir, of this cru.
So, with centuries of French tradition, culture, heritage, and law behind what defines a wine’s terroir, how does this concept fit into Australia? Does it hold the same importance in our vast and relatively young winemaking landscape?
“Terroir is important, as it is what gives the specific region their reason to exist,” says Bruce Tyrrell, fourth-generation winemaker at Tyrell’s Wines in the Hunter Valley. “Shiraz from the Hunter Valley, Heathcote, Barossa and Margaret River all taste distinctly different and have different structures because of the place they were grown. Shiraz (in the Hunter) is more medium bodied than savoury and the structure is built around fruit and acid.”
Richie Harkham from Harkham wines, also believes terroir is the most important factor.
“Terroir, in my view, is the most important factor,” says Richie, “it is the grapes DNA. Every year, when I make wine from my vineyard, the fruit will always be different due to the weather, however, due to the terroir, there will always be distinguishing factors that will be in the wine every year.”
The importance of terroir, according to UK wine writer Andrew Jefford, depends on the person, because the average wine buyer may just be seeking a good wine.
“If you just want good wine, or cheap wine, terroir does not matter at all,” says Andrew, “Making terroir wine is always moderately or highly expensive because assiduous viticulture cannot be cheap. In my view, though, the profundity of fine wine, whatever its origin, is linked to a sense of terroir, of thrilling uniqueness, within such wines.”
Australian wine writer, Mike Bennie agrees, and stretches out the scope of terroir beyond the single vineyard concept.
“Terroir is not always so important, but it is a point of interest in wine,” says Mike. “It doesn’t have to be conveyed by a single site, though those are often the most interesting. Regional terroir through selective blending of multiple varieties to create ‘an expression of place’, over transparency of a single variety, also plays a part in the elastic definition of terroir.
Ron Laughton at Jasper Hill, in Heathcote Victoria, identifies terroir expressive wines as those that are grown without interference.
“To truly express the terroir of the place, there should be no interference that has the potential to change it,” says Ron. “That is, no irrigation water, spraying with synthetic agrochemicals, or application of chemical fertilisers, all of which can potentially alter the original place.”
Will Berliner, winegrower at Cloudburst wines in the Margaret River WA, whose debut 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon won Best Red at the 2013 Margaret River Wine Show, believes soil is the primary factor that distinguishes one terroir from another.
“If the goal is to achieve the highest expression of terroir, then our best efforts should go towards developing a healthy soil.” says Will. “How and where the grape is nourished is ultimately the biggest influence on wine, so any addition of foreign substances will only serve to blunt that expression.”
To Andrew Jefford and Mike Bennie’s point, not everyone is intrigued – or indeed interested – in the potentially esoteric concepts of terroir-driven fine wines, instead seeking out wine that tastes good, rather than capture any such notions of provenance.
“There are a lot of people who, for them, terroir is not important”, says Sarah Morris, biodynamic winegrower from Si Vintners in Margaret River. “Wineries that are making wine (for those people) are filling a large percentage of the market, and to make wine at such large volumes while maintaining profit margins, may be difficult to achieve without the use of irrigation, synthetic fertilisers and some adjustments in the winery.”
Like the McDonald’s cheeseburger, or 99c white bread, these type of mass produced wines will not likely show any vintage variation from year to year, and fit more into the category of a consistent beverage, like Coke, which happens to be derived from grapes. They certainly have a place within the world of wine, but are more likely to be consumed by those people that don’t feel the need, or want, to discern wine.
The French have a well-established link to terroir through the naming conventions on their wine labels, which can be quite confusing for the uninitiated. For example, the fact that the French region of Chablis is synonymous with chardonnay is not always clear for those who are newer to wine. So, should Australia pursue a similar line of labeling? It would mean putting the wine’s origin front and centre, ahead of the varietal details.
Beechworth winegrower, Julian Castgana believes so.
“I would prefer to identify a wine by its place of birth, rather than by its variety,” says Julian, “We do mostly, but not totally. My opinion is that variety is only one of the factors that determines the taste of wine.”
“The concept of terroir”, continues Julian, “is at the base of the French wine AOC system that has been the model for wine laws in many countries, and I would be enthusiastic about it being a model for our industry”.
Victorian winemaker Bill Downie, of William Downie wines, also believes that place is everything and labels his range of pinot noir wines by vintage and region, rather than variety.
“You can’t have a fine wine story that’s about place and not label the wine as place,” says Bill. “That notion doesn’t belong to Europe, that notion belongs to wine.”
However, Bruce Tyrell believes that returning to the European method of labelling should not be something the wider wine industry does, saying, “the last thing anyone should do is go back to labeling Australian wines using the European method. Australia has led the world in the last 30 years with regional varietal labelling.”
The notion of ‘belonging to country’ is a phrase that’s been used by the original wine idealist, Max Allen, in various writings and presentations he has done on the subject of terroir in an Australian context. It was inspired by a lecture initially from Jeffery Grosset, in 2003, at the inaugural New South Wales Wine Press Club, in Sydney.
“Pangkarra is an Aboriginal word used by the Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains”, Max writes in his piece, ‘Australian Wines: Belonging to Country‘ , “It is a word that, like terroir, represents a concept that has no English translation but encompasses the characteristics of a specific place”.
Max suggests that by using a native Aboriginal word, like pangkarra, to evoke the concept of terroir, this could be a, “new, profound, and unique way of thinking about the concept in Australia.”
He writes, “It seems to me that if vineyard owners and winemakers in each region made an effort to find out whether there is or was a local word that comes close to terroir – and then ask for permission to use it – it could… help to tell their unique wine stories.”
There may still be a long way to go before Australia can properly define its own notions of terroir, but there are winegrowers across the country who are thinking about wine and making it in entirely new and exciting ways. They are trialling vineyard sites and experimenting with new varieties, applying organic and biodynamic management regimes and minimising winemaking inputs and handling, in order to try and authentically express terroir.
This all makes for it to be an exciting time to be a wine idealist in Australia. We probably haven’t even planted some of our greatest vineyards, yet.
So long as we have winegrowers across Australia thinking about their own unique sense of place and attempting to unearth and express that within our glass, we will come to better understand – and taste – what is Australian terroir.
D// – The Wine Idealist
*A version of this article was originally published in James Halliday’s Wine Companion, April/May 2014.
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