Snobby wine folk masturbating over single sites

Define terroir time

Forget snobby wine folk masturbating over single sites, or Wine Australia’s meaningless and misleading statement that defining terroir will lift the price for all Australian wine around the world. It’s time to define terroir.

That is, define terroir for the consumer, not the vinous masturbators. Is it fact or bullshit? Is the wine industry/trade conning the person who exchanges hard cash for a glass jar containing an alcoholic liquid?

Of course it is a con, and has been for a century. The deception has increased in the past 35 years. TKR knows this from experience.

All who read TKR have a view on terroir, and those views will differ. The myth of terroir has enabled some (mainly French) vineyards to capitalise and obtain stratospheric prices for a few, very few, of their wines. Good luck to them, but it is the myth, not the reality of terroir, that delivers the extra euros.

Do travellers nowadays have Louis Vuitton luggage because of its robust construction or because it makes a statement about the wealth of the traveller?

It wasn’t the intention of TKR to go down this track but the correspondence that this subject has inspired has forced the direction.

If terroir is real, is it only genuine if naturally occurring? Or can it be artificially tweaked and still be considered natural terroir?

Taking a step back, is it natural to drag a vine out of its preferred woodland dwelling, plant it in rows and prune it back to stop its natural growth and force larger berries?

At one time TK believed terroir was an accident of nature: for reasons not quite clear this parcel of land produced better grapes, hence better wine, than the parcel adjacent. That was in the days of innocence, the days when TK enjoyed the romance of wine.

Terroir was as much of a con then as it is now. Only then, the con was gentle deception. Now terroir is under a microscope, the ifs, what’s and whys are being brought to the fore. As with any magic trick, we know we are being conned, but enjoy the trick and skill of the magician. Knowing how the trick is done takes the magic away.

It’s disappointing that the collective intelligence of Wine Australia lacks the imagination and wit to know when to leave alone.

To the correspondence. First the scientist:

“Thanks for now bringing science into the discussion. In your piece today [TKR 23 February], you ask: ‘in this hypothetical case, would managing zinc nutrition not be buggering around with the terroir?’ 

“Rather than buggering it around, I would say it would be managing it and therein lies a key issue (no pun intended) in this whole debate (or at least the biophysical elements of it): there are some (many in Europe, but clearly some in Australia) who think terroir is something mystical that is controlled by geology or perhaps some other factor/factors. But actually, it is pretty clear that many of the elements of terroir are almost certainly manageable; if we understood which ones really are, then a lot of the mystique (and the associated bullshit which marketers feed off) would be dispelled, and as indicated last week, we could then produce what we want to produce, albeit in the places which are most appropriate for producing it. There would still be regional differences due to climate and other factors, but we might learn how to manage these to our advantage.”

Anonymously, from a winemaker with an active interest in research:

“On the question of when, or if, vineyard interventions modify terroir, and why it makes this such a difficult subject to research.  

“There are so many variables to consider, be they natural or from human intervention, and Wine Australia (WA) has to start somewhere; and something which surely many of us would like to know, are objective reasons as to why wines from one place are different to wines from another. The value of that understanding, especially as it is built on in the future, could be immense, and that includes understanding the relative influence of human interventions, such as adding zinc. Vineyards are not natural systems, they exist because of human intervention. Sure, a group of winemakers might tell you that one piece of dirt is better, but why is it better? And could it be even better? Or could an understanding of why it’s better be applied to other places to make them better? Only this type of research will tell us that.  

“The complexity of designing a project in this area is also increased, because the myriad variables mean that different individuals have their own definitions of terroir. I could recount many conversations with French and Italian viticulturists and winemakers on the subject, where their positions were patently inconsistent, illogical, or poorly thought through; but I’ve also had as many very positive conversations. I won’t bore you with them all – but recount just this one, because it was with a very senior viticulturist in Champagne, and seems to encapsulate several of the problems faced by researchers.  

“I asked several people why they had such low, and tightly clipped canopies, and a seemingly unnecessarily low fruiting zones, which seemed to be consequently very humid and thus prone to disease. Most responses were not much more than ‘that’s what we do’. I then asked this senior guy the same questions, and to paraphrase, he said ‘Our whole thinking is to get the fruiting zone close to the ground, and as open to light as possible. The wavelengths of light reflected from the chalk soils [and he quoted some technical literature here] is what gives our wines their distinctive flavours; it’s an important part of our terroir’. 

“In the next vineyard we visited, they had planted a permanent grass mid-row cover which extended about half the way up the slope. He told me it was protect against the heavy rainfall and erosion which some vineyards had suffered in recent years. I said that surely the wavelengths of light reflected off the grass were very different than from the chalky soil. He paused for a while and then agreed that they would be. I then asked if it therefore changed the terroir, and pointed out that based on what he’d said earlier, the terroir at the bottom of the slope would be different to that at the top. He didn’t have a clear-cut response to this, but from other things he said, I took it that he thought the whole vineyard still had the same terroir, regardless of the mid-row management. I also noted that different parts of the contiguous vineyard on the same slope, presumably owned by other people, were managed very differently; did that slope all have the same terroir? 

“In that case there were obvious variables which could be examined, but there are inevitably also myriad unknown variables, again emphasising the difficulties of research in this area. As an example, a while back I remember seeing a satellite photo of Clos Vougeot and surrounding vineyards during the winter, and differences in soil colour were obvious; presumably due to different soil management applied by different owners of their small potions; a few rows, or even part rows in some places. I guess that if one were to try to design a research project on the terroir of the Clos Vougeot, this might be a highly relevant factor, however, without such imaging, one wouldn’t have realised the differences were there.

What about organic and biodynamic producers? What do they think about altering the soil in a vineyard, hence tinkering with the terroir? Peter Fraser, manager/winemaker of McLaren Vale-based Yangarra Estate:

“Our philosophy is quite simple in that we are making wine from the same place, year in year out, a vineyard that hopefully shows a sense of place in its wines. I want our wines to be known for their quality first and foremost, and biodynamics is a label for a style of farming that is one tool that helps us.  

“Our ‘biodynamic’ journey started when I attended a conference where Manfred Klett spoke about biodynamics for three days, but the main thing that resonated with me is that soil that is not contaminated with synthetic chemicals has a much more natural symbiotic relationship between plant, soil and microbes. A soil with high levels of organic matter and microbes is able to offer up minerals to the plant. That got me thinking that without nurturing the microbial state of the soil, it made it very difficult for the vine to take up the mineral from the ground, and in turn the wine could not fully demonstrate its unique place. So ultimately our goal is to be a facilitator for the vine and ultimately the wine to show its sense of place.  

“Having said all that, I would agree that anything you add to the soil, any changes you make to the surroundings will potentially cause different expressions. I think we affect things constantly, whether that be how we manage our canopy, when we decide to pick, what yield we aim for (pruning, thinning etc), how we manage the soil (even if it’s without chemicals), whether it’s bare, mechanically tilled, composted, what cover crops are planted, how much we irrigate. And then there is the winemaking, even if we are being sensitive winemakers, time on skins, gentleness of maceration, berry sorting, natural yeast, types of storage vessels, whether large or small format, the list goes on and on, and yes they are all terroir.  

“We have a very practical approach to our methods that take on certain elements of biodynamic farming, but ultimately we are just trying to facilitate naturally heathy and ‘alive’ soil, so that it has the best possible chance to express itself in our wines.”

Leave terroir alone or tamper with it, tear it apart and take the magic away for the consumer. Science the hell out of it and risk the consumer becoming angry and upset, and accusing Australia of producing more artificial wine.

Are you so confident you know what you are doing, Wine Australia?

Maybe not with terroir, but the recent Aged Wines masterclasses held in Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai this past week, organised by Wine Australia, look to have been a great success. It’s a simple but worthwhile format: a current wine is shown alongside one at least 10 years old.

The mammoths’ curse 

Woolworths and Coles are the mammoths of Australian retailing, but carry the curse of size. The accusation that they are bullying suppliers, whether of milk, eggs, vegies or wine, appears at regular intervals in the media.

The arrival of Aldi, and other impending competition, has been good for the consumer, not so good for the mammoths and their suppliers, and not so good for investors and those whose pension schemes rely on good returns from the companies they invest in.

The glory days of fat returns for Woolworths may be past, but they are keeping pace. The figures for the first half: 

  • Sales (continuing operations): $29,059 million, up 2.6 per cent
  • Group earnings before interest and tax: $1.26 billion, up on the $1.79 billion loss posted in 2016, but down on the $1.98 billion profit posted in 2015 

The Endeavour Drinks Group (EDG) division:

  • Sales: $4.32 billion, up 4 per cent
  • Earnings before interest and tax: $302.3 million, up 3.1 per cent

Brad Banducci, Woolworths CEO: “EDG delivered sales growth of 4.0 per cent for the half in a very competitive market. All retail formats delivered positive comparable sales growth with strong double digit growth from Dan Murphy’s online. Good cost control, despite the price investment, resulted in a 3.1 per cent increase in EBIT for the half.”

The share price closed at $26.19 at close of play on 27 February, following a steady increase on the 30 December 2016 close of $24.10.

Vintage stumbling

Australian Vintage (AV) has stumbled during the first half, reporting:

  • Sales: $119.33 million, down 8 per cent
  • Net profit: $1.6 million, down 54 per cent

The most surprising aspect for TKR, and no doubt for the company, has been the reversal of fortune for two of its three leading brands, which had been on a roll for the past five years:

  • McGuigan down 12 per cent
  • Nepenthe down 22 per cent
  • Tempus Two up 16 per cent

The company has been slow (or unlucky in its attempts) to embrace the Chinese market and seems to be suffering accordingly. AV doesn’t say much regarding Asia; just that results were down to poor timing but orders for January are looking good. Six months of poor timing is not a good sign. No doubt the full story will emerge in the year-end results, in which AV expects the net profit to be down $2.5 million to $3 million. Net debt increased $2.8 million to $98.6 million.

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