Friday, November 20, 2009

Introducing terroir: a vital concept in wine

It's time to take a look at one of the most important concepts in wine. Rather unfortunately, it has a French name that doesn't translate well into English. That tends to make what is a controversial subject even more contentious.

The name in question is 'terroir', We could spend a week defining it, and still end up upsetting some people, so here's my own definition. Terroir is the possesion, by the wine, of a sense of place. It is also used to describe the environmental factors that shape the growth of the grape vine and its fruit. These include the meso and micro climate, the soil, water availablity and aspect. Bringing these together: terroir is the sense of place in a wine contributed by the vineyard environment. Or defined more practically: grapes grown in different places produce wines that taste different.

Do we also include the human element: the way the vines are tended? This is contentious. It's probably easiest if we leave people out of it and just focus on the vine and its surroundings.

Grape vines are exquisitely sensitive to the environment. There are thousands of different varieties, and they're fussy about where they are grown to the point of absurdity. This is why terroir is such an important concept.

Take one variety – Pinot Noir. There aren't that many places where it can be grown successfully, because the climate and soils need to be just spot on for it to make decent wine. Originally from Burgundy, it has taken wine producers in the new world decades to find sites where they can get it to perform properly.

As well as each variety having its own enviromental requirements, even grapes of the same variety will perform differently depending on the physical characteristics of the soil and the microclimate. This is illustrated by the fact that even within Pinot Noir in Burgundy, for example, some vineyards do brilliantly with it while others, just a few metres away, make mediocre wine.

Burgundy is seen as the test case of terroir. It is a region divided into a patchwork of vineyards based on long experience. Over hundreds of years, people observed that certain vineyards did consistently better than others year after year. This resulted in a classification and structuring of vineyards based on differences in wine characteristics, and these characteristics have since been found to have their origin in the vineyard's physical properties. When the boundaries for the Burgundy vineyards were put in place, no one knew much about geology. But now geologists can show that the hierarchy of Burgundy vineyards reflects changes in the subsoil properties that influence grape and thus wine quality.

On one level, it's a bit of a truism. Different soils and climates produce wines that taste different. That's not at all contentious. So what's the problem with terroir? It is twofold. First, winemakers from new world countries are a bit upset that the old world countries claim exclusive possesion of terroir. The labelling of wines doesn't help. In Europe, wines are commonly labelled by the region, whereas in the new world, grape varieties are more likely to appear on the label. Old world guys are accused of totally overplaying the terroir hand, claiming that wine is produced by the soil and that winemakers merely have a minor custodial role in letting this site expression show.

Secondly, it's the issue of mechanism, and the lack of a correlation between soil type and flavour. It's not hard to describe the geology of a particular vineyard. It's much harder to actually correlate this with flavours in the wine. Many scientists question the notion that characters from the soil can find their way into, and shape, the wine.

Perhaps a more useful term would be 'typicity'. This brings into the equation the human factor. We shouldn't ignore this: if it wasn't for human intervention, there would be no wine, and if the nature of the human intervention were not critical, then all the wines made from a particular vineyard would be the same. But look at Burgundy's famous vineyards: most are worked by dozens of growers. Some of the wines will be excellent, some poor, and most of middling quality – even from famous sites. Clearly, the ability of the winemaker is really important here, even if its in knowing when to leave things alone.

'Typicity' recognizes this. It's a really useful term, but unfortunately it's not as sexy as terroir, so it will probably never catch on.

A few closing thoughts. First, some varieties tend to express a sense of place better than others. Pinot Noir, Riesling and Syrah are good in this respect, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are not. Second, heavy handed winemaking, for example by picking very late and using lots of new oak, blasts away the subtle influence of terroir. And third, I think it is totally cool that grapevines are so sensitive to their environment because this is what has brought us the vast diversity of wine styles that we are lucky enough to have today.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Don't rush the journey

It takes a while to learn about wine. After first being bitten by the wine bug, in 1993, I have drunk a lot of bottles, read lots of words, and visited many of the world's significant wine regions.

But I'm still very much in the learning phase.

Often, insights come from drinking wine. Not just tasting it, but actually drinking it. I drink, and read about what I'm tasting. I discuss with others. I formulate theories and put them to the test. I try the unfamiliar, and then hear what people have to say about what I've just experienced.

The journey is the goal, in a strange way. There's so much to learn, and the learning process is so enjoyable, that it would be sad to reach the destination.

I also suspect that if you think you have reached the destination, you have simply deluded yourself. We need to be at peace with the notion that wine is such a complex, dynamic subject, no one can know it all.

But let's try to learn as much as we can. The journey is fun.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Grape varieties (3) Pinot Noir, part 1

It has been said that while Cabernet Sauvignon is the intellectual grape variety, while Pinot Noir is the more sensual one. Actually, I think it was Jancis Robinson who stated that while Bordeaux (and by extension Cabernet) appeals to the head, the appeal of Burgundy (and by extension Pinot Noir) is to somewhere lower down on the body. [I don’t think she was referring to the stomach.]

I’m not sure I agree entirely, but I sympathise with the general sentiment that’s being made. Pinot Noir at its best is the world’s most ethereal, elegant and hauntingly beautiful red grape variety.

Beware. If you get bitten by the Pinot Noir bug, you’ll have started on a lifelong quest that will involve lots of disappointment, many lows, and the blowing of a great deal of cash. But the high points will make it worthwhile.

Pinot Noir’s home is the Burgundy region of central-east France. It has been grown here for absolutely ages, and the fascinating thing about Burgundy is how a hierarchy of vineyard sites has evolved, based on the suitability of the underlying geology – in combination with the climate in Burgundy – to make great Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (the other main grape in the region). You can travel thirty metres in one direction and move from a vineyard that makes sublime Pinot Noir to one that makes very ordinary expressions of the same grape. We’ll return to this when we cover Burgundy in depth. For now, it’s enough to know that the quality of red Burgundy is in large part due to the character of the vineyard that it comes from.

Pinot Noir is a very sensitive variety. It doesn’t travel well; it’s hard to grow—and even if you produce perfect grapes, it’s easy to mess things up in the winery. For this reason, as a consumer you need to choose your Pinot Noir with care, and particularly so if you are looking at Burgundy.

It’s a thin skinned grape variety, and this makes it susceptible to fungal diseases. And because the pigments that colour red wines are found in the skins of the grapes, this means that Pinot doesn’t make very dark wines. Indeed, the best Pinot Noirs are often lighter in colour, and if you are faced with a dark, opaque Pinot Noir, it’s not an altogether positive sign. It could mean that the climate is too warm for good Pinot, or it could mean that the winemaking has been heavy handed, aiming for making big wines rather than elegant ones.

Time for a digression. What is ‘elegance’ in a wine, and why is it so prized? Good question. We’ll cover this in the next post, before we return to Pinot Noir for part 2.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Grape varieties (2) Cabernet Sauvignon

So we have looked at the first grape variety, Sauvignon Blanc, currently the most popular white variety. Let’s move on to our first red variety. But which one should I choose?

The most popular, widely encountered red varieties are probably the following four: Cabernet Sauvignon; Shiraz/Syrah (two names used interchangeably for the same variety); Pinot Noir; and Merlot

I think I’ll begin with what I consider the easiest of these to understand: Cabernet Sauvignon. This is grown just about everywhere. It travels well, and makes dense red wines with a distinct blackcurranty character.

Its home is France; specifically the Bordeaux region, where it is the main constituent of many ‘left bank’ Clarets (refer back to our section on Bordeaux for an explanation of the left and right banks, and why they are different). As such, it is the driving force behind many of the world’s greatest red wines.

However, Cabernet Sauvignon is almost always blended in Bordeaux. This is because Bordeaux is at the climatic extreme of where it is possible to get Cabernet properly ripe, and other varieties, principally Merlot and Cabernet Franc, are also blended in to make a complete wine – Merlot is particularly popular because it is a little easier to ripen here.

A digression is needed here to make an important conceptual point about grape varieties. The grape vine has been described as the canary in the coal mine equivalent for global warming, because of all agricultural crops widely grown across the world, the vine is perhaps the most sensitive to small shifts in temperature.

Specific grape varieties only really perform well across rather narrow temperature ranges. A site that ripens Pinot Noir perfectly is often too cool for Cabernet Sauvignon. Varieties such as Mourvèdre need more warmth even than varieties such as Grenache that are already well adapted for Mediterranean climates. Champagne can grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but only for sparkling wine production: the region is too cool for making good still wines from these grapes. I could go on.

Finding the right place to grow the right grape variety matters. But there’s another complexity here: grape varieties often excel in regions that are only just warm enough to get them properly ripe in good vintages. It’s a brinksmanship thing. You want to make fantastic wine? Then you need to take some risks, growing varieties on the margins of their comfort zone.

What this usually results in is vintage variation. For many commercial wines, made with grapes that are grown well within their comfort zone, vintages can be pretty consistent; for fine wines they tend to vary more, and so they matter more.

In Bordeaux, it means that every decade there might be two great vintages, two very good ones, three good ones, two average ones and a real stinker. Actually, there are fewer really bad vintages than there used to be, because global warming has kicked in a bit, and because top châteaux are now getting more for their wines so they can afford to be more selective with their harvests and blending. But the point still stands: grape varieties perform best near their climatic margins. This is why matching variety to region, and more specifically to vineyard site, is so important.

Back to Cabernet Sauvignon. It reaches arguably its highest expression in the top left bank wines of Bordeaux – the leading Pauillacs, St Juliens and St Estèphes. But these are very expensive, so you might want to start your journey of exploration elsewhere. Inexpensive Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon might be a good place to start. These wines are consistently tasty and approachable, and offer a big hit of sweet, pure blackcurrant fruit, which is Cabernet’s calling card. Then there’s Australian Cabernet Sauvignon, which can be a bit dodgy (sweet mint and green herbal aromas can get in the way with less expensive examples) but can also be sublime: try a good Margaret River or Coonawarra Cabernet to experience some of the best expressions of this variety full stop.

I should also mention California, and the well known appellation of the Napa Valley, where Cabernet is king. The problem here is that the prices for top Napa Cabs - which can be really exciting wines - tend to be eye-watering because of the strong local demand.

What flavours to look for? I’ve already mentioned blackcurrant fruit. I also like the structure that Cabernet has, with nice firm tannins, and often the gravelly, earthy, sometimes chalky complexity that helps add extra interest to the sweet fruit characters. It’s a bold, powerful sort of grape variety, and often makes wines that age quite well. It’s probably the polar opposite of the next red variety we’re going to look at, which will be Pinot Noir.


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Video: Tasting Sauvignon Blanc

Continuning from the last post on Sauvignon Blanc, here's a short video on tasting this variety.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Grape varieties (1) Sauvignon Blanc

As we discussed before, there are two ways of understanding wine: the grapes and the geography/ So let's start our tour of the grape varieties with Sauvignon Blanc. It's not the most interesting of varieties, but it is one of the most popular, and it's probably the easiest to get to grips with.

Sauvignon hails from the Loire Valley in France, but its most successful locale has been New Zealand's Marlborough region. In 20 years, this region has grown from virtually nothing to the position it is in today as probably the most important place on the planet for Sauvignon Blanc, eclipsing even the Loire.

So I recommend starting with a Marlborough Sauvignon. These are fresh white wines, fermented in stainless steel (so no influence from oak flavours), with high acidity. The sorts of aromas and flavours you might encounter include green pepper/grassy/herbal notes, perhaps a bit of gooseberry, maybe some grapefruit, and also a touch of passion fruit/tropical fruit richness.

There's some interesting science to Sauvignon. Good Sauvignon typically has a balance between the herbal/green pepper/grassy character (which comes from a chemical known as methoxypyrazine) and the riper passion fruit character (which comes from a group of chemicals known as thiols or mercaptans - these can also have a 'sweaty' character to them).

Marlborough's success with Sauvignon is because it manages to combine both these characteristics in ways that other regions have found tricky. If you have too much methoxypyrazine, Sauvignon can taste herbal and unripe. Too much passionfruit character, and it can taste a bit sickly. In very warm climates, Sauvignon tends to taste fruity and simple, without the zing that brings it to life.

Loire Sauvignon (Pouilly-Fume, Sancerre, Touraine Sauvignon) is usually more mineral and less overtly fruity than New Zealand Sauvignon. Bordeaux grows a lot of Sauvigon, where it frequently blended with a bit of Semillon: this can be good value, but often it's unexciting. High-end Bordeaux whites are usually oaked, so taste quite different. Chile makes some attractive, affordable Sauvignon, particularly from cooler regions such as Leyda and Elqui. These tend to be in the New Zealand style, but with more pronounced green pepper (methoxypyrazine) character. South Africa does quite a bit of Sauvignon, of varying quality, and with more of an emphasis on the green herbal flavours. The best are very good. Austrian Sauvignon Blanc, from the southern Styrian region, is really lively and bright with real personality, but it's rare to find it.

To get the hang of Sauvignon's two sides, I recommend buying a green pepper and a passionfruit, and chopping them open. Smell them and taste them next to an open glass of Sauvignon.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Why wine tastes the way it does

I thought it would be quite fun to ask a fundamental question about wine. Why does a particular wine taste the way it does? This question addresses the factors that are most important in influencing the flavour of wine, and here are my brief off-the-cuff answers.

1. Grape variety. Each of the thousands of grape varieties used to make wine has its own distinct character. Fortunately for newbies, just a dozen or so varieties are really widely used, and so getting to grips with how these taste isn't such a daunting task. Bear in mind that other factors will influence how distinctive the varietal character is, and that some varieties are more distinctive than others.

2. Climate. The typical weather enjoyed by a particular vineyard site will influence which varieties can be grown successfully, so we could say that climate influences wine taste more than grape variety, because it influences the choice of variety and how that variety performs! Beyond that, warm sites will produce wines with sweeter, riper fruit than cool sites. Often, grapes perform best on sites that are only just warm enough to get them properly ripe.

3. Soil type. The interaction between the soil and the climate in influencing wine flavour is really important, and together these factors are known by the French term terroir. Discussions about terroir can get a bit heated, because it's a semi-religious subject for many. Suffice to say that the soil's physical properties (drainage, water availability, heat retention) are important in influencing the quality of the grapes, and the soil's chemical properties (chalk versus schist versus granite, for example) may also play a role in influencing the way the grapes grow. It's an inexact science. [Pictured above are the soils in a vineyard in Chianti Classico.]

4. Winemaking decisions. Choices made by winegrowers matter. If you pick grapes early you get brighter, fresher wines with more acidity; pick later and you get fuller wines with sweeter fruit (I'm assuming that you aren't picking so early as to get unripeness or so late as to get flabby, jammy, dead fruit). Then, in the winery, factors such as managing the fermentation (choice of yeast, fermentation temperature, addition of acidity or not, addition of nitrogen or not) or choice of fermentation vessel (stainless steel or oak barrel), or decisions about how to mature the wines, or whether to filter them, and even the choice of closure can all make quite a difference to how the final wine turns out. As you've probably gathered, this is a complex topic!

5. The label. You probably think I'm nuts, but the label may well influence how the wine tastes. As I've said before, we bring something to the wine tasting experience. Our expectations will help shape our perceptions. If we know something about the wine, that knowledge will impact on our tasting experience.