Some more thoughts on terroir

Prompted by the discussion that followed my recent post on the taste of terroir, here are a few more thoughts on the subject.

1. Not all sites are created equal
I recently read an article on terroir by Claude and Lydia Bourguignon. They made lots of points, some of them good, some plain patronising and chauvinistic. One good point was that not all sites are equal; terroir is not egalitarian. Some sites are better suited to fine wine production than others, and their personality shines through the wines more clearly.

The Bourgignons, however, did say some daft things. They are obsessed by limestone. ‘All great red wines are produced on limestone soils,’ they state. I disagree. Granite and schist can make some pretty smart wines. Alluvial gravels can, too. They also state that the USA has very few limestone soils, so ‘its winemakers would be well advised to concentrate on producing great white wines.’ That’s utter nonsense.

2. Some terroirs have special talents
I remember something Tim Kirk of Clonakilla once said. He stated that while his vineyard blocks in Canberra can make good Cabernet, good Riesling and good Viognier, they have a special talent for Syrah/Shiraz. I like his honesty. Terroirs are often best interpreted by specific grape varieties. Commercial reality forces many growers to make a range of varietal wines from their vineyards, but perhaps they’d get to understand their sites better if they worked out the special abilities of their locale and stuck to these varieties.

3. There’s a lot of interpretation in expressing a terroir
I strongly believe that authentic expressions of terroir involve a partnership between the grower and the site. Belinda Kemp pointed me towards a very interesting article that reinforces this point. It involves a project by New Zealand Wine Growers in which 12 winemakers were given grapes from the same vineyard (four tons each of Mud House Riesling from the Waipara region) and asked to make wine from them. Unsurprisingly, the result was 12 different interpretations of the terroir. Interestingly, the author of the piece concludes that many of these interpretations of Riesling showed characters typical of the regions the winemakers came from.

‘In looking back at the tasting, it was less about how the terroir of Waipara was expressed in these bottlings. Instead, I walked away realizing that each winemaker had fashioned a wine more reflective of the terroir they called home, almost as if they took their previous creations and experiences and imposed them on the fruit used for this project.’

This doesn’t negate the idea of terroir. Any sensitive winemaker knows that fruit from different plots yields different wines, a point emphasized by Keith Prothero in my blog comments. He points out the significant differences between lots of Mullineux Syrah grown on different soils in the Swartland region. You can’t argue with that. What it shows is that there is a human element to terroir. The sensitive winegrower interprets her or his terroir in legitimate ways, producing their version of an expression of that terroir.

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