What the Wellington Ukulele Orchestra tells us about terroir

On Friday night I went to a strange but enjoyable concert.

Neudorf Vineyards in Nelson were hosting a gig by the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra.

There were quite a few members of this odd ensemble. I counted 9, of which 8 were armed with ukuleles and one with a double bass. Pretty much all of them all sang.

Covers were the order of the day, including a remarkable rendition of The Smiths’ This Charming Man.

The immortal lines, ‘why pamper life’s complexities when the leather runs smooth on the passenger seat,’ were sung in close harmony, accompanied by some smooth plunking (I don’t think the term for ukes is strumming) of ukuleles.

Bizarre. But fun.

It spoke to me of terroir. Let me explain.

The song itself – the lyrics and music, or the musical score – is the patch of ground. It is the vineyard site, with its own physical characteristics. It isn’t the terroir exactly, because without the wine you don’t have terroir.

I see the terroir as being the interpretation of a vineyard site by the winegrower, evident in the wine. It involves decisions about what to plant, how to plant it, and then how to make the resulting wine. Skill is needed if the terroir is to be captured well.

Terroir, which can only be manifest in the glass, is the result of a partnership between winegrower and site. It is up to the winegrower to make a skilful and authentic interpretation of the patch of land.

Let’s return to the musical metaphor. The land is the same to all; it is the song, the score. The music that results is the result of choices. Which instruments? Which voices? Which tempo? Which arrangements?

The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra’s rendition of This Charming Man is unusual, but it sort of worked. It’s recognizably the same song as The Smiths’ original, but it is a way-out, extreme interpretation of the song.

Thinking in terms of a musical interpretation of a score helps us approach the complex issue of terroir in a different way. I think it brings out the aspect of terroir existing only in context of a partnership between grower and site, and takes us away from thinking of terroir solely as a property of a physical vineyard site.

Here’s a short film made at the concert:

3 comments to What the Wellington Ukulele Orchestra tells us about terroir

  • Very nicely put. And very true. Terroir doesn’t exist without man, it is only a potential.
    This is why we can find several interpretations of it. Another matter is the delimitation of the terroir zones. When the areas are too big, they don’t correspond to real terroirs; when they are too small, they can’t be heard in the global wine concert.
    BTW, Jamie, if you were at the head of the NZ wine board or however it is called, which terroir zones would you defend – is Central Otego a terroir or just an approximation, for instance?

  • Mike Wright

    Hey Jamie, we also stumbled on Neudorf on that same evening. It was bonkers but so heart warming too to see a community like they have there in Nelson enjoying the weather, food, music and of course the excellent wine. Kids left alone to run free, dance, climb trees and all the local winemakers and farmers catching up with the gossip. Although we weren’t exhaulted guests – like yourself ;0) – we got chatting to a couple of Kiwis next to us and by the end of the evening felt at home too. Pretty special place, people and community and perhaps it’s that that comes through with the wine. Keep up your great work, envious yet very appreciative. Mike and Jules, Windsor U.K.

  • Nice post and theme, which reminds me of Jonathan Nossiter’s Liquid Memory. Worth a read if you haven’t already.

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