Do we overstate the importance of terroir?

terroir

Do we make too much of terroir?

Once in a while, it’s good for us to question ourselves. Far too often we assume that our perspective is the only one, and we fail to acknowledge that others can see the world quite differently, without necessarily being wrong. So I’d like to begin to question some of my views in public. One of these is my belief that terroir is central to fine wine.

What do I mean by ‘terroir’ here? It’s the notion that the vineyard site – the combination of soils and climates – is critical to wine quality. That is, not all vineyards are created equal. Some are especially privileged sites that are capable of making great wines. Also, my concept of terroir encompasses the idea that interesting, authentic wines somehow manage to capture place: they taste the way they do because of where they come from.

So, according to my view, the first duty of interesting wine is to express its vineyard origins. For cheap wine, it’s great if this can be achieved, but I recognize the commercial reality that inexpensive wines are usually blended across a number of sites, and will only really express terroir in a broader sense.

But what about wines that make no attempt to express place? Wines that are blends of different sites, where the terroir is used in order to provide blending components, but is then lost in the creation of the whole wine? Or wines that are crafted by the hand of the winemaker to produce a wine in a style that has little connection with place?

Can these wines be serious? If so, have I overstated the importance of terroir?

Let’s make a comparison with beer. I love interesting beer, but it is not the same as wine in that it is manufactured from ingredients by a brewer, with help from microbes. With wine, most of us shy away from the idea that it is manufactured by the winemaker. The grapes are more than mere ingredients because they carry in themselves so much of the character of the final wine.

Given a batch of grapes, there’s only so much a winemaker can do with them, compared with wheat, barley or rye in the hands of a brewer. It’s as if harvesting the grapes is an act much further along the drink creation process than harvesting the grains that make beer.

It follows from this that with beer, you can’t have the same notion of terroir, or sense of place. Interestingly, the quality of local water has given many beer styles a sense of place in that some waters are better for some styles of beer, so the local beer styles reflected the talents of the local water. But now we know this, it’s possible to for us to modify water to suit the style of beer we want to brew. So my acceptance of ‘manufacturing’style by a brewer doesn’t imply that I should also be equally accepting of manufacturing of style by the winemaker.

There are two wine styles I can think of that don’t rely on terroir in the conventional sense. They are Champagne and Vintage Port, and I like both very much. Both have traditionally been made by cellarmasters skilled in the art of blending, where wines from different sites bring their own characteristic contributions to the blend. Vintage Port is interesting because in a declared year, the top wines from each producer are blends from a number of quintas, whereas in lesser years the wines are released as single quinta wines for about half the price. This is in reverse to the way things usually work with table wines, where single site bottlings are usually sold at a premium.

|It is interesting to note that at the high end, Champagne seems to be moving more in the direction of terroir wines, with top grower/domaine wines gaining a lot of interest.

For still table wines, I’m struggling to think of compelling examples that suggest the role of terroir is being overplayed. At last, it seems the big, extracted, over-ripe, over-oaked wines that got so much attention from top critics are now beginning to fall out of fashion. These wines have had any sense of place obliterated from them. While there are still many who enjoy them, and are prepared to pay lots of money from them, there are very few serious commentators who are still defending this style.

Look at Bordeaux. In the 2010 vintage, some wines were being made at 15 or even 16% alcohol. This isn’t necessarily a crime on its own, although there aren’t many high alcohol reds that are at all interesting, but in Bordeaux, which has terroirs capable of finesse, balance, complexity and ageability, to make this sort of over-ripe big wine is morally questionable. There aren’t that many great terroirs in the world, and if you are lucky enough to be a custodian of one, then you are deranged if you lose that terroir, either through picking too late and using too much oak, or by allowing wine faults to drown out the quiet voice of the vineyard.

One famous example of a non-terroir wine is Penfolds Grange, Australia’s celebrity red, which enjoys legendary status. This wine has changed its style over the years (I remember drinking 1970s bottles with 12.5% alcohol – its around 14.5% now), and is a blend from a number of vineyards, aged in American oak and with added acid and tannin. It’s not a terroir wine. But does this present a plausible case for non-terroir wines being serious? If Grange were released today, without the back story, it would be recognized as a deliciously ripe, polished, modern wine, but I reckon it would really struggle to achieve anything close to the celebrity status it enjoys today.

Can we taste terroir? This is one objection to the emphasis on terroir, and I think it’s a legitimate one. Certain sites are capable of greatness, for sure. But when two winegrowers make wines from the same vineyard, can we recognize that vineyard blind, even when both wines are made very well in a manner sympathetic to terroir expression? This is tricky. I’d say, sometimes yes, sometimes no. Terroir is important, but the link between soils and wine flavour is a complex one.

When I think about it deeply, I have to admit that terroir is a vague and often imprecise notion. It’s like catching a glimpse of something in your peripheral vision, but then when you turn to look at it, it has gone. Nonetheless, I can’t get away from it. In it’s wonderfully fleeting, complex way, I reckon terroir deserves to remain at the heart of fine wine. It’s the soul of wine, and like the soul, it’s very hard to define, but that doesn’t stop it being of utmost importance.

Champagne Deutz Cuvee William Deutz 2002

william deutz champagne

This is remarkable stuff. The prestige cuvee from Deutz, from the brilliant 2002 vintage. Deutz is based in Aÿ, which is Pinot country, and the blend reflects this. It is 60% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay, 10% Pinot Meunier, and it’s aged for 60 months on lees. Dosage is a relatively high 11.5 g/litre. The key here is restraint and balance, and this just-released wine – one of the last 2002s to reach the market – should age brilliantly.

Champagne Deutz Cuvee William Deutz 2002 France
12% alcohol. Very stylish. Restrained with savoury, toasty, nutty mature notes. It tastes very grown up with lovely citrus and pear fruit, as well as notes of ripe apples. Dense and taut with lovely savoury sophistication. Powerful and lively with a spicy, lemony finish. 93/100

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Cascina Degli Ulivi A Demua - a lovely natural white from Piedmont

cascina degli ulivi

This natural Piedmont white is really interesting. It’s a blend of several local varieties, fermented on skins for a month using native yeasts in barrel. Then the wine is pressed and returned to barrel for a year. No sulfur dioxide is added at any stage, and total SO2 is 13 mg (which means the bottle still has to be labelled ‘contains sulfites’; this level is the naturally occurring one).

Varieties used are traditional local ones:  Riesling, Verdea, Bosco,  Timorassa and Moscatella.

Cascina degli Ulivi A Demûa Duemiladiecci Bianco 2010 Monferrato, Piedmont, Italy
Bronze/orange colour. Fine expressive nose of herbs, tea, melon and peaches. The palate is rich but dry with grainy structure and lovely pear and apricot fruit. Lovely balance and grip here. Some warm spicy notes, too. This wine has amazing depth and intensity, showing richness and concentration of flavour. 94/100 (£20.99 Ottolenghi)

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Cervejaria Ramiro, Lisbon - a must visit

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Earlier in the year, when I was in Lisbon with the fabulous Young Winemakers of Portugal (who, incidentally, have just been written up on the BBC news site), I was taken to the Cervejaria Ramiro (Av. Almirante Reis, nº1 – H1150-007 Lisboa, Phone: +351 21 885 10 24). This is a remarkable place, a must visit, and I can’t believe I didn’t write it up at the time.

It was founded back in 1956 as a beer bar. It has developed a bit since then, and now it’s a beer bar that serves the most amazing seafood and also steak sandwiches, at very good prices. It’s not smart or fancy, but the food is amazing and the atmosphere great. You can’t book: you just join the end of the queue and wait for your table. It is worth the wait.

percebes goose barnacles

We ate well, including some fabulous goose barnacles (percebes) and crab. And to drink: you can have wine, but you should really have beer. After all, this place is a cervejaria.

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Here’s a link to the restaurant location on google maps.

How sherry is transferred from cask to cask

A short film showing the way that sherries are transferred from cask to cask in the solera/criadera system. This is biologically aged sherry (fino), so a special device is used so that the flor isn’t damaged when fresh wine is added. The fresh wine adds nutrients that helps maintain the flor layer in a healthy condition. [This was shot in very low light, with a very wide aperture, so the camera is hunting around for focus a bit, apologies. It's just such an interesting process I wanted to share it.]

A truly remarkable 6 Puttonyos Tokaji from Dobogó

dogobo tokaji

I made a great discovery tonight. I always love finding new wines that are amazing, like this 6 Puttonyos Tokaji. Dobogó is a small producer in Tokaji, Hungary, with 5 hectares of biodynamically tended vines, and they export 60% of their production. This wine was just thrilling.

Dobogó Tokaji Aszu 6 Puttonyos 2006 Hungary
Amazingly complex nose with notes of marmalade, apricot and fresh lemons. Super-concentrated palate with amazing intensity. Lovely marmalade and apricot flavours with some nice spiciness. It’s very sweet but brilliantly balanced. Sensational. 96/100

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Writing up my sherry adventure, and a special plug for Bar Arturo

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I have just written up the first two parts of a five part series on my sherry adventure in October, when I got to visit Jerez and helped blend the spectacular Las Palmas sherries for Gonzalez Byass. The remaining three parts will be up tomorrow.

I wanted to highlight a remarkable meal I had on this trip. It was at Bar Arturo (Calle Guita 9, 11408 Jerez De La Frontera, Andalucia +34 956 33 00 12), which is an amazing tapas place, specializing in fish, and in particular fish that has been fried.

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We tried a number of different dishes. Normally frying is seen as a sort of a crude way of cooking, but for the small fish we ate it works brilliantly. With a very fine batter (just a coating of flour), the fish are beautifully cooked in olive oil. You eat around the main bones, but this isn’t hard.

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We also had whelks, which were delicious. And sea anenomes, too. They are marinated in vinegar, put in a tempura-like batter, and then fried in olive oil. They are known as Ortiguillas. Highly recommended.

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All this was washed down with Tio Pepe, which tasted fabulous in this setting. Tio Pepe is just such a pure, expressive, delicious wine, and at around £10 a bottle, sometimes less, it’s quite a bargain. It works really well with food like this.

Arturo’s is rightly a Jerez legend!

Sandeman Vau Vintage Port 2003

sandeman vau port 2003

I remember the excitement of discovering that Oddbins were selling the 1997 version of this wine for just £5 for a half bottle back in 2001. This was in the early days of wineanorak, and I recall drinking quite a few of these. Now the 2003 vintage (a very good one for Port) is being sold at a special offer price of £17 for a full bottle at Tescos (from an already competitive £22, valid until Christmas). It’s a lovely Port, quite sweet in fruit profile, and worth a punt if you like the sweeter style.

Sandeman Vau Vintage Port 2003 Portugal
20.5% alcohol. Intensely sweet and ripe with raspberry and blackberry fruit. Nice intensity here to the exotic, liqueur-like fruit. Very sweet with real appeal, and giving a lot of pleasure for current drinking. 90/100 (£17 Tesco)

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Springfield Life From Stone Sauvignon Blanc 2014

springfield life from stone

Now this is a wine I have struggled with in the past. I have found it to be excessively dominated by those green methoxypyrazine characters, to the point of unbalance, while everyone else has raved about it. But I’m an open-minded sort of guy, and trying this 2014 – well, I actually liked it. It’s from rocky, calcareous soils in the underrated Roberston region of South Africa.

Springfield Life From Stone Sauvignon Blanc 2014 Robertson, South Africa
Assertive, aromatic nose is pure, fresh and grassy. The palate has powerful, vivid green pepper notes but also some pure, rounded citrus and pear fruit, with some elderflower prettiness. A distinctive, powerful style of wine, that shows intensity and concentration. I like this more than previous vintages. 90/100 (UK agent: Bibendum Wine)

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Vichy Catalan mineral water

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In Spain last week I was introduced to Vichy Catalan mineral water. This is the most remarkable and tasty water I have ever experienced. It tastes a bit salty, but more than that – really mineral, with a very distinctive texture. This is really interesting to me, as I’m quite obsessed by the concept of minerality in wine. Look at the analysis in the picture below, if you can read it. The data are in milligrams per litre, so you can see that there’s over 1 g of salt per litre and over 2 g of bicarbonate. Fabulous stuff.

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