The Terror of Terroir

I have always considered there to be something faintly absurd about the definition of Old World and New World wines; a quaint enough notion, useful in its distinction, yet loaded with presuppositions that do favours to neither side.  In the coming years, I wonder if we will have the gall to refer to Chinese wine as New World, when Chinese civilization arguably predates our own.  The New World might be New to us, but I doubt strongly that the Cherokee or Maori felt that way.

The implications in the terms are many.  The Old World speaks of centuries of experience, of ‘Terroir’, an assumed quality and defined style.  Chiefly, that deep down we should all accept that these wines are better.  Conversely, the New World (upstarts, all) offers the new, the experimental, the exciting – as if no-one in the Old World can – but ultimately, your New World Chardonnay is never going to have the ultimate poise and quality of a fine Chablis or Burgundy; no Cabernet Sauvignon outside of Bordeaux will ever have the elegance, the structure, the precision and complexity of a Pauillac; Riesling will never be as fine as the mouthwateringly racy and lime-tinged beauties from the steep slopes of the Mosel. You don’t have the Terroir!

These are assumptions made with a degree of justification.  Chardonnay grown in the cool Northern kimmeridgean clay and lime soils of Chablis will tend towards green fruit and blossom flavours that even 150km South, in the Cote d’Or will be fuller and more tropical in nature, let alone the warmer Languedoc, or (heaven forbid!) Sicily.  What hope Australia, when two adjacent vineyards in Burgundy can have separate Appellations that dictate, to a greater or lesser degree, the final style we can expect from the wine?  Neighbouring communes in Bordeaux show that the same varieties grown on slightly different soils and elevations tend towards completely different expressions; the structured Pauillacs compared to the silky Margaux, with St Julien providing a neat combination of the two.  These differences extend to the degree that one Chateau, literally adjacent to another, can command astronomical prices where the other looks a positive bargain, such is the reputation of their wine.

In mean terms, what vignerons mean when they speak of Terroir is that unique sense of place that defines the grapes (and resulting wines) from those grown somewhere else – be that a mile away or a hundred, or simply on another elevation of the same plot of land on the same hill.  One may get more rain, or less sunshine, different soil, better drainage, be hotter, colder, subject to greater variance in nighttime and daytime temperatures, or it could simply be that the prevailing wind does something different there.  Ultimately, certain varieties will perform better, the resulting grapes tend towards characteristics that make them distinctive, and lend themselves to a particular style of wine.

We understand the Terroir of the Old World far better, well enough that we can make these distinctions.  It’s not unreasonable to expect that we should either, we have had centuries to determine that there is a difference between Pauillac and St Julien, let alone Blanchot in Chablis and Corton-Charlemagne in the Cote d’Or.  New appellations continue to be defined as we agree that certain sweet spots produce wines of a distinctive nature beyond the efforts of the winemaker.

It’s much easier when you recognise the place names on a map.  We know that Menetou-Salon backs on to Sancerre, across the river from Pouilly-Fume, and that each produces a distinctive style of Sauvignon.  In New Zealand, most people recognise that Marlborough produces distinctive Sauvignon in a style that has proven immensely popular.  So far, so good, but what’s the difference between Wairau River or Waihopi?  What of Nelson, on the South of North Island (where Marlborough lies on the North of the Southern Island)?  How much of it is down to the winemaker, and how much the Terroir?

Thanks to the efforts of critics and industry professionals, we are beginning to get an idea, yet the distinction of qualities in Burgundy didn’t happen overnight.  Nor so will they in Marlborough, Central Otago, Mornington Peninsula, Elgin, Leyda, Paarl, or any other New World region.  The fact that we can idenfity increasingly a difference in styles between sub-regions of New World winemaking countries is encouraging.  Recently, I brought a bottle of Stella Bella Semillon-Sauvignon to some friends for dinner, they didn’t know about the producer, but they coo’d collectively that I had brought something from Margaret River, recognising immediately the reputation for quality wines that this region has made for itself.

Australia, Chile and Argentina are making great headway in identifying subregions within regions.  Mornington Peninsula is all the talk when it comes to quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, only recognised recently by the world at large, yet distinctive Terroir is being identified within the zone as producing particular characteristics that set them apart from the generic appellation – just as you can talk about general Macon or specific Pouilly-Fume.  Producers are crafting a growing number of Single Vineyard expressions, which represent a recognition of Terroir on a wonderfully unique level – not so say that these are better wines by default, but they display a distinctive sense of place – which is after all what Terroir is supposed to be about.

There is, of course, the implication that Old World wines are better.  This isn’t helped by our use of them as a frame of reference; we use comparisons with ‘recognised’ Old World wine styles to describe New World wines, describing wines as being ‘like a Margaux’ or having ‘the minerality of Sancerre’ and ‘the piercing and refreshing acidity of a Mosel Riesling’.  Useful as these are to frame expectations of style, for a start they assume that the reader, or listener, is familiar with these styles (which may be a fair assumption depending on your target audience), but crucially, they imply that these wines should aspire to have all the qualities of these Old World wines.  It says that as good as these wines may be, they’re not Claret, are they?

Ironically, they are right.  Coonawarra Cabernet is not Claret and should not try to be.  Mornington Peninsula is no more Corton-Grancy than it is Central Otago or Tasmania.  Each of these regions produces wines of distinct character, and it is up to the vintage and wine-maker to ensure the final product represents its Terroir well.  It is just as easy to make poor quality Bourgogne as it is poor quality baked Californian Pinot, and requires just as much skill to make top-flight Russian Rivers Pinot as it does to make classic, elegant Aloxe-Corton.  There is nothing in the world that comes close to the character of a fine Mosel Kabinett or Auslese, but we are discovering that Clare Valley Riesling is every bit as distinct, as Central Otago Pinot Gris is from Alsatian.

In Decanter magazine’s August issue, Andrew Jefford wrote of Robert Louis Stevenson’s understanding of the poetry of terroir-driven wines at a time when it seemed the classic wines of the Old World were under threat of extinction, watching “...with dread the shadows falling on the age: how the unconquerable worm invades the sunny terraces of France, and Bordeaux is no more, and the Rhône a mere Arabia Petraea.”  He spoke of phylloxera, and he looked to the New World as his salvation; Stevenson understood, however, that the New World wines might be ‘not unlike’ a Beaujolais, but they were different in their own rights.

In a way, the New World has the Old World at a disadvantage.  Experimentation can, and has, led to exciting wines showing how varietals respond in different climates and Terroirs.  Australian Sangiovese blended with Shiraz? Welcome to Australia’s answer to the SuperTuscan.  Old World producers could plant Torrontes where they once had Viogner if they wished, however appellation rules mean that doing so would require them to drop the appellation from their name, and unless there is significant reason to downgrade to a generic ‘Wine of Country X’, they can usually expect to make more money sticking to what they know best.

The Super-Tuscan ‘revolution’ came about because the reputation and quality of Tuscan wines had taken a nosedive; thankfully, improvements in winemaking technology and demand for quality across the board has led to this becoming (broadly speaking) a thing of the past.  Take Madiran, in the South-West of France, whose reputation for long-lived but rustic wines has seen a revolution at the hands of producers such as Alain Brumont.  At Chateau Montus, Brumont has introduced methods including careful grape selection, de-stalking, and controlled fermentation to craft spectacular wines full of fruit in youth yet retaining the capacity for a long future of fascinating development.  For €30 you can pick up a bottle that would stand up well to a 2eme Cru Classe at twice the price or more.  Similarly, Cahors is beginning to reassert itself as the home of Malbec after years in the wilderness, though whether it can retake the crown from Argentina remains to be seen.

The world of wine is too big, and evolving too fast, for us not to see the potential of the new while appreciating the old.  Just as it would be absurd to say that there is not something very special about Lafite, or Domaine Romanii-Conti, to argue that these wines are as good as it is possible to be is to preclude the possibility that a vintner in Tasmania with the right tools might not find a particular vineyard site that can produce a wine that would blow these out the water.  Considering how recently Pinot Noir came to New Zealand, and how far it has come in that short time, there is every possibility that one day we may talk of Ata Rangi in the same breath as DRC when discussing the best Pinot Noir in the world.  Contentious? I hope so.  All the raw materials are there, and nature does the rest; it is up to the winemakers of the world, Old and New, to find that perfect spot where all the magic elements come together for a truly exceptional wine.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s